March 21, 2010 by 8junebugs
Here’s one of the most valuable things I’ve learned about being a grown-up:
If you take responsibility for yourself and your decisions, particularly the ones that only affect you, you can actually avoid outside guilt. Much as “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent” (Eleanor Roosevelt), no one can make you feel the kind of guilt you might have felt as a kid if you’re honest and you own your shit.
My periodic example of how this works is my semi-annual dental cleaning.
I have a rocky dental history. I had fillings as soon as there was something to fill. I had extra teeth in both jaws and had to have four permanent teeth pulled so that my braces could pull the extras into use. My dad still wants to hang the molds from my pre-braces teeth over his mantle, either as some sort of big game trophy or evidence of where my college fund went.
After eschewing dental care in my late teens and early 20s — partly because Dad didn’t enforce it, then partly because I couldn’t afford it, and partly because HOLY GOD I NEVER WANTED TO HEAR A DRILL AGAIN — I went through some work to repair the damage. A handful of fillings, a root canal…nothing drastic, and probably less than I deserved.
The thing is, I had rotten brushing habits. My mother had an excuse for it, but the story I leaned on growing up has been totally debunked by my dentist (who, by the way, is made of awesome). The fact is, I hated brushing my teeth, I don’t remember being forced to do it anyway, and I do not remember ever learning to floss. I still hate brushing my teeth, but I do it.
(I was stunned to learn that I had wisdom teeth and that they were in perfect working order — I never even felt them come in. It still makes me laugh that I went through so much dental trauma as kid, only to totally avoid wisdom tooth impaction and extraction.)
And I would always feel so bad at the dentist’s office. They’d cluck about me needing another filling or…well, mostly that. I felt sorry for them because they had to deal with my rotten teeth. And I felt sorry for Mom and Dad, who got to pay for all of the work. I remember being thankful that I never had to wear head gear with my braces, or change the rubber bands myself. Because I would be an UTTER FAILURE at it and RUIN EVERYTHING.
Here’s how a conversation with the dental hygienist goes, now that I’m a grown-up who owns my shit:
Hygienist: How are your teeth? Any sensitivity, any pain?
Jen: No, everything’s fine. /or/ Yes, a little in the upper right, toward the back.
Hygienist: Are you brushing every day?
Jen: Yes, every morning, but sometimes that’s it.
Hygienist: Are you flossing?
Jen: Not often.
Hygienist: You should be flossing every other day, at least.
Jen: Yes, I know. I hate flossing. I don’t do it regularly.
Hygienist: You should floss more.
Jen: I’m aware.
I’m totally calm through the whole thing, even though any guilt attempts tend to come from the hygienist.
Here’s how it goes with the dentist:
[chitchat about how life’s going — he’s a friendly guy]
Dr. Awesome, DDS: Your teeth look fantastic. You’re doing a great job. Anything going on in there?
Jen: No pain, I don’t floss enough, and I have not yet yanked that wisdom tooth with the cavity in it — it doesn’t hurt, and I haven’t gotten around to it.
DA, DDS: No biggie. Get in there as soon as it starts to twinge, though.
Jen: I will.
DA, DDS: How much are you flossing?
Jen: When I remember to or when something gets stuck.
DA, DDS: I’ll take it. Seriously, whatever you can do is better than nothing at all, and, like I said, your teeth look great. If they stop looking great, then I’ll get on you about it.
He also explained that he can see some spots that look like they tried to be cavities a long time ago and never made it. “Really?” I asked. “My body didn’t welcome every possible cavity with open arms? Because it sure as hell felt that way.”
“Nope. Cavities are basically bacterial infections that target your teeth. At some point, these spots were ‘attacked’ and your body fought them off. They’re fine — they never became decay, but I wanted to let you know that I can see ’em and we’ll just keep an eye on them.”
Here’s why I think he doesn’t bother hounding me about the flossing, aside from the fact that his income goes up if my dental hygiene goes down: It doesn’t reflect on him, one way or another, if I don’t take care of my teeth (as opposed to my parents — ahem). That’s liberating for both of us…and perhaps something to remember for other relationships, professional or otherwise.