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#79 - pain as presence
And getting my tooth extracted.
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The throbbing had been there for a while but I didn’t think much of it. It only really happened when I drank something cold or bit into something hard or chewy, especially bagels. My brain took note of it but moved on as quickly as the pressure, that rose and fell like a surfer’s desire. It must have been like this for months, maybe years, but who can know with pain deluding time, turning two minutes into eternity.
So it was fairly surprising to me when in August the short stings inside my mouth escalated from level 4 to undefined in a matter of hours. I was all set to go on a camping trip up North where we were going to portage for a second time. My show, Higher Hair, was opening in 10 days, and while there was still a lot to do, I knew that being outdoors with no phone and few industrial sounds would give me time from renewal, rather than cut into it. But, I couldn’t get an emergency dental appointment until well after the planned departure time, so I bid C farewell, who ran out to get me numbing gel before being unreachable for days.
The dentist said my root canal was infected; I had gotten the procedure done 10 years ago while living in India and didn’t realize it had an expiration date. There was a crack, the nerve was exposed, and there was no shield for its sensitivity. Dr. Shin gave me antibiotics and told me I would either have to pull out the tooth or get it replaced. Both options were seemed grim and pricey.
I popped a pill as soon as I got home but as the evening unfolded I found that I could not close my mouth without a missile shooting through my body, leaving me momentarily paralyzed and lost in space. After each episode, I was dizzy, and not sure where I had been and how I was still standing.
In moments like these, where my anxiety is on the edge of a panic attack, I usually apply what I call a delusion-as-survival strategy, where through repetition I convince myself it is going to be okay. The drugs will kick in soon. This is only temporary. The pain is just a sensation. You’re okay. You are okay. This is okay.
As the pain intensified, so did my googling. I sat in bed, now with a cotton ball dipped in apple cider vinegar, to hold my fighting teeth apart. Natural remedies for a toothache. How to cure a toothache. What to do if your root canal is infected. Toothache pain escalating. Emergency dental services + Toronto. Every time I found a new recommendation, I would run downstairs and try it. Gargling with saltwater. Sucking on ice. Eating pieces of garlic. Infusing oil with cloves. Lathering Orajel. The pain would temporarily subside but then return with a punishing fervour, weakening my pacifying strategy and compelling me to pop pills: another antibiotic, an extra-strength Tylenol, and then a cocktail of Advil and Tylenol as advised by the telehealth doctor I managed to talk to for 3 minutes. Rationally, I knew it was too many pills, but I was outside of myself, watching a telenovela between the queen of life and the kiss of death while being devoured by it. I dropped to my knees and prayed at the edge of my bed. My faith swelled and my desperate cries awakened the past and future.
Even though there were a few people home, it was the middle of the night, and the house felt like it was perched on a hill, miles from a noisy civilization. My room was the universe and I didn’t know if it was a womb or a waiting room for the afterlife. I ran up and down the two flights of stairs from my room to the kitchen, sure I was disturbing the peace, but they didn’t hear me, and I didn’t hear them, as we all roamed other realms. The next day, my housemate A asked me why I didn’t wake him up. I don’t know what anyone could have done, I said. I could have just sat with you, he replied. If someone had asked me what I needed at that moment, I don’t know what I would have said. A cure? A miracle? A place against their skin?
I set a timer for 6 AM when the first emergency dental office opened in the city. Minutes meant nothing and the clock felt like a farce. How could I possibly make it to morning?
In between what now felt like contractions, I scrolled through pictures on my phone, letting the babies and toddlers melt the part of me that was unwilling to accept, allow, embrace, or observe the pain. My love and admiration for these little wondrous creatures overpowered the discomfort.
A year prior, almost to the day, I was inside a warmly-lit living room in the East End, as a witness (and amateur photographer and husband-doula) to my friend C's home birth. The teachings of pain were abound as C laboured through rounds of entering the pain with a Buddha-like surrender to being swept away by it like a home on the banks of a flood. I had never seen anything like it - this primal design at the centre of human creation. I wondered what the pain was like, only having my menstrual period as a reference point up until that point. If my monthly pain felt like it was searing my flesh with a hot iron rod, what could her pain possibly be?
During the contractions, C’s doula, an elder woman firmly seated in herself, would lock into her eyes and guide her towards relaxing into the pain. I learned that without the meeting of pain and acceptance, dilation of the canal to earthly life was seemingly impossible. This wisdom offered at birth remains true throughout our lives - pain is the canal to love, change, desire and life itself, but to enter it and leave it, you must soften, relax, melt, and trust in its process and power. This principle is fairly simple to understand but hilariously antithetical to how we’ve come to understand how to live, pursuing pleasure at all costs to avoid the big and small pains of our confounding paradoxes and shocking fragility.
Whenever the nerve of my tooth was touched, either from closing my mouth or grazing it with my tongue, my screams harmonized with an ancient choir. Please, please. Please help me. I spoke out loud, desperate for other worldly strength.
The second 6AM rolled around, I called the dentist that was located downtown, grateful for a professionals dedication to almost around-the-clock care. He picked up and greeted me quietly in an early morning voice. I begged for help and he listened but wouldn’t be able to see me until later in the afternoon. I popped another Tylenol / Advil cocktail and put on some binaural beats, which have always been sounds of refuge.
There was 120 minutes until the next clinic opened, which didn’t matter because every minute took on a length of its own. It could have just as easily been called 400 pages, 300 squats or 1000 recitations; numbers were futile in the unknown, where hope was theoretical.
When 7:59AM rolled around, I dialed the number on my phone and waited until 8:01AM, only able to muster a minute of respect. The dentist who had given me antibiotics, Dr. Shin, agreed to see me at noon. We were going to extract the tooth. All of a sudden, time had meaning again, as the pathway to hope, to relief. Pain it seems is manageable if we trust that it will eventually end.
Those four hours resumed to moving like a Friday morning. I finally slept and my friend S came over to keep me company, with a few green juices in hand (the way to my herbivore heart). She walked with me to the dentist, dropping me off at the doors like a loving parent, and told me to call her after.
Twenty minutes later, it was done. An injection, a set of pliers, and a bloody tooth in a bag. A limb lost forever. As quick as the pain came, panting for attention, it left, ready to die and dissipate. After the tooth was extracted, there was no trace of the pain. It was not sore, tender or inflamed, just gone. My body raked up some toxicity - emotional, spiritual - turned into impossible to ignore physical pain - until it was disposed of.
To think we avoid pain, brush it away, and curse its presence, when it is merely just trying to clean up house and make space for life to keep moving, flowing. In those 24 hours, I experienced the most excruciating expression of the human body I’ve known to date. It’s hard to not see it as a message, a reminder, that avoidance always eventually becomes urgent, and that if we answer pain’s first call, it never actually has to become pain-full. A relationship with pain, is a relationship with presence, where time ceases because the our greatest capacities as humans are found when we use time to then stop time.
A tooth left my body, but something bigger and timeless entered.