the Dark Days

Let’s play a game.  How many of your experiences would fall under “the Dark Days”?

Studying late into the night for months on end, simply trying to pass Calculus.  Trying on swimsuits under fluorescent lighting.  Marking time at a soulless corporation to pay the bills.

All valid suggestions, but this particular post will deal with jaw surgery.  Specifically, the wholly optional jaw surgery that I voluntarily subjected myself to a few years ago.

Yeah.  Good times.

Please note: Depending on your level of squeamishness, you may find some of these details a bit graphic. Nothing has been exaggerated for theatric effect.  Nothing needed it.

A few days ago I posted about middle-aged orthodontia and my foray into the world of metal braces. I have to admit that when I started the process I knew we were looking at an extended period of treatment, but I figured I’d be celebrating my 40th birthday braces-free.  I was wrong.

This self-improvement project stretched out for-e-ver.  I hadn’t experienced something so painfully slow since the whole “gee, let’s start a family” process took over our lives with glacier-like speed.  But in for a penny, in for a pound.  Plus it wasn’t like I hadn’t gone into this thing with full disclosure about the steps involved, so I didn’t have much room for complaining.

Once I’d completed my prep time in braces I was ready for the next step: jaw surgery.  Anyone out there done this?  I cracked my jaw once in a moped accident (now there’s an interesting story) so I thought I had some sense of the impending pain, but it turned out I was in no way prepared for the actual event.

The braces had been doing their job by straightening my teeth, but to complete the process we needed to correct my jaw placement.  My oral surgeon would do this by making cuts behind my molars and lengthwise down the jawbone, releasing the front of the jaw to be repositioned.  This would enable him to slide my lower jaw forward and secure it with screws while it healed.

It all sounds very cut and dried, right?  That’s how it came across in the pre-surgical consultation appointments, anyway, a very straightforward and logical solution to my problem. It was even an outpatient procedure.  I’d be home the same day.

So we set the date.

One sunny morning BrightSide drove me to the surgeon’s office to help me get settled in for pre-op, then he set off to pass the morning while I was put under anesthesia and had the surgery.  The last pleasant (well, at least not UN-pleasant) memory I have from that day is transferring to the operating table.

They tell me that I was incredibly difficult to bring out of anesthesia afterward.  Gee, I can’t imagine why that would be.  Why on earth would my body protect itself from the unimaginable pain about to descend upon me?  When I finally came around and was stable enough to get dressed, the nurse helped BrightSide load me into the car for the ride home.

It was right about then that I began to realize exactly how horrifying things were going to get. I’d taken pain medication, yes, but with the anesthesia gone there really wasn’t anything that could touch the sensations crushing my head.  All I could do was lay the seat back, make sure my seatbelt was secure, and pray I’d lose consciousness.

Funny side note here.  The oral surgeon’s office was right up the street from a Krispy Kreme bakery.  (For those of you who’ve never experienced the Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut, they’re basically crack for sugar fiends.  And if you get them fresh from the oven?  Well, you’ve pretty much died and gone to heaven.)

So we were heading home from the surgery when BrightSide noticed that they’d lit the “Hot Now!” sign in the window.  (In the interest of making drivers everywhere giddy, Krispy Kreme is helpful enough to alert you to a fresh batch of doughnuts while you’re driving by.)  Which is why I was cringing in my seat, most likely moaning pitifully, when I heard BrightSide ask would I’d mind terribly if he drove through and got a doughnut.

This causes me no end of amusement (at his expense, which probably isn’t fair).  And it’s testament to exactly how much pain I was in that I didn’t care one damn bit if he picked up a dozen doughnuts as long as I didn’t have to eat any.

Once home I set myself up in a recliner for the rest of the day and night – not that I thought I’d actually be able to sleep but I figured I’d at least try to keep the swelling to a minimum, and not lying down was critical to that plan.  I was wearing a pressure bandage that, once unwrapped, I begged BrightSide not to put back on.  Geez, that thing hurt.  But seeing as I didn’t want my face to balloon to the size of a watermelon…

It’s extremely unsettling as a writer not to find the words, but I’m having a terribly difficult time describing my post-surgery condition.  My skin was stretched across a swollen jaw, throbbing relentlessly and sensitive to the slightest touch.  Dark purple bruises paid testimony to the procedure’s trauma – even though I’d been given a topical cream for them, using it involved actually touching my face so that was a no go.  I figured I’d just live with the bruises.

Putting all the cosmetic stuff aside (although I did freak the kids out a little when they came by to visit a couple of days later), the unspeakable pain was my greatest obstacle.  Sure, the doctor gave me pain medication that I was more than willing to take.  No pride issues here when it comes to pharmaceutical help with physical agony.  But it’s just a little bit difficult to take pain meds when you can only open your mouth this far.

(Okay, so that sentence alone doesn’t really cut it.  Just lift your hand, hold your index finger and thumb about one centimeter apart, and now you’ve got a visual for my post-op mouth opening.  How the hell was I supposed to even get the pill far enough into my mouth?  Let alone take in enough water to swallow it?!)

I guess the best description I can give is this: take the very worst root canal, perform it on every tooth in your lower jaw without Novocaine, then for good measure break your jaw with a sledgehammer and screw it back into place.  That’s what it felt like.  Multiplied by a thousand.

BrightSide was with me the day of the surgery and took me the next morning for my follow-up appointment, but it turned out that I wasn’t the only one who took the “straightforward and logical” impression to heart.  Since neither of us really anticipated exactly how extreme the rehabilitation period would be BrightSide had planned to be back at the office that afternoon. Unfortunately, I was in no shape to care for myself.

My pain meds were on varying schedules (that, frankly, I couldn’t keep track of while I was all doped up) and I needed help with everything – staying hydrated, getting to the bathroom, even taking care of the dog.  I was seriously Down For The Count.  We sent out the crisis text to my dad who (thank heavens) was free to come sit with me while BrightSide handled things at work.

I will never forget the look on his face when he walked into the family room and saw me.  I came around long enough to hear him say, “Oh, Laura” and thank him for coming before clocking back out again.

At any rate, it was a slow and agonizing recovery filled with excruciating pain as my jawbone knitted itself back together.  There was a long period when my jaw was held in place by elastics. During this time I could only have liquids through a straw – protein shakes, smoothies, and melted milkshakes were my friends.  Once the elastics were removed I could open my mouth wide enough to use a child’s spoon, but my jaw was still too fragile for real work.  This ushered in the period of Jello, yogurt, ice cream, soft pasta, broths, and creamy mashed potatoes.  Not thrilling, but at least it resembled food.

I considered it real progress when I could eventually move on to things like small portions of chicken – food!  REAL FOOD!  It seemed like forever before some truly delicious things that require serious chewing, like steak and pizza (that crust is surprisingly stubborn), could be added back into my diet.

I mentioned I get crabby when I can’t eat, right?  I was going through some pretty serious shit, but BrightSide’s life wasn’t exactly easy either.  Living with someone who’s food-deprived and in constant pain can be a bit like walking the high wire.

At any rate, I eventually transferred care back to the orthodontist to finish aligning my teeth. And just when I thought I could see the finish line, I found myself in for rude surprise #412.  My braces finally came off – yay! – and they found thirteen cavities.  THIRTEEN.  Boo.

To add insult to injury, I learned that I wasn’t actually finished once the orthodontist released me. After he finished aligning my bite I’d have to spend time with my dentist, so he’d have a chance to correct any places where my teeth were hitting wrong.  And you know how they do that, right?  With that fun little tool that sounds like a torture device as it grinds out grooves in your molars.

So that’s the end of my braces/jaw surgery saga.  I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be inspirational –That which does not kill us makes us stronger! – or a cautionary tale.  But I do promise you won’t read a post about my teeth again anytime soon.

4 thoughts on “the Dark Days

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