I Have An Anger Problem — & It's Destroying My Teeth

Photographed by Danny Kim.
This week, Refinery29 is exploring mental health topics as part of our partnership with Clinton Global Initiative University.

"Your canines are flat," the dentist told me, drawing a straight line with his finger in the air. He pushed the backlit mirror in front of me, and I leaned forward, skeptically tracing my finger along the blunt edge. It felt like the tips had been cut artfully away with an X-Acto knife. He wasn't pulling my leg; my teeth were flat.

I didn't talk much as he began to list the causes and their solutions. He told me that most teeth grinders, especially women, grind their teeth even when they're awake and explained that the reaction was so habitual that most grinders probably wouldn’t notice unless it was pointed out. With a pair of false teeth, he demonstrated just how out of line my jaw had been moving to create my teeth's current shape. I would need a mouthguard if I wanted to prevent nerve damage. Gently, he asked if I was a nervous person, and I laughed (nervously) back at him.

I knew that I suffered from bruxism (the technical term for teeth grinding), all tied up with my laundry list of sleep and anxiety issues. Even when I was a kiddo, my mom says the noise from me grinding my teeth would tumble into the hallway like someone was operating a buzz saw. Like most grinders, I'm at my worst when I'm upset: It's bad when I'm nervous, but it’s even worse when I'm angry. And that’s what’s really at the heart of all this — anger.

In my day-to-day life, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who uses that word to describe me. More often, I get “nice,” a word that I want to cross out even as it sits in this sentence. Sure, we can all be bigger than the sum of one adjective, but nice just seems wrong: Nice girls don’t ignore their friends’ texts or chain-smoke on the balcony at parties to escape taxing conversations. They don’t argue with people on Facebook, and nice girls definitely don’t grind their teeth behind forced smiles so much that they flatten their canines.

For me, anger has always come in and out, like a radio station on a far-off highway. There are times when it weighs on me so heavily that I cut off all of my hair or relentlessly follow an outburst until I’m blue in the face, but mostly, I am nice. People compliment my ability to mediate — I talk to others calmly and with good humor, even when I want to shake them. I get little presents for people, and I send them messages to let them know when I’m thinking of them.

But between dentist visits, the anger situation had escalated from “keep an eye out” to “get in the bunker.” I felt duped. The betrayal was twofold: First, that my body was (very rudely) turning against me. Second, that it took a guy shining a light in my mouth for me to notice the damage that had been done. When had I stopped pay attention to my body so thoroughly that I had missed that?

Instead of buying the expensive custom-made mouthguard from the dentist, I opted for something more in the budget: a set of two moldable, plastic mouthguards from Amazon for less than $20. Each one comes in a little blue tray that you soak along with the guard in hot water, and then bite into so it shapes to your mouth. I did it three times, just to make sure, and then sent my husband a Snapchat of me smiling eerily with one slid in. It felt like a joke, but when I took out my mouthguard the next morning, it was marked with deep divots.

My worries, though sometimes an unnecessary burden, shape a lot of the way I present myself.

Wear on my teeth from grinding had always seemed inevitable, but I wasn't prepared for the tangibility of it all: I could hold the damaged mouthguards in my hand, and could touch my square-cut canine with the tip of my finger. And, of course, the dentist was right. Once he pointed it out, I began to notice myself grinding my teeth during the day. In learning how to change my outward reactions to people, I had dug inward. Whenever someone brought up "the liberal media" or how they weren't racist but, my jaw clenched, and I had to hold my teeth apart to prevent myself from grinding. Nights when I went to bed still swimming in thoughts from unresolved conflicts, my mouthguard earned deeper notches. And the more I worried about grinding my teeth, the more I was doing it.

I’ve seen enough motivational posters to know the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results, so I put my worrying to good use and devised a plan. With the help of my friend Sarah (who said she could also use some help chilling out), I created a spreadsheet for the two of us: columns of daily tasks to keep us busy, like reading and listening to podcasts. Before bed, we spent at least 30 minutes completely away from technology, and we kept daily creative goals. The reward? Points, which meant nothing except the bulbous number at the bottom right of the graph.

As the days on our tracker went by, the jaw pain lessened, and I went to bed a little easier. Even with the improvements, there were still nights when I wandered around my two-bedroom apartment, drinking water and bumping into sleeping cats, but for almost a month, those came less often. When January blew in, I nearly collapsed under a mountain of snow and stressors, from increased hours at my day job to dealing with the emotions tied to finding that meme of me. But I reevaluated, shifted, and returned to good habits.

In a way, my mouthguard has two roles: On top of its obvious function as, well, a mouthguard, I’m using it as a way to test my self-care. Am I eating enough? Drinking enough water? Spending enough time by myself? Check the mouthguard — the mouthguard does not lie.

But no matter how many changes I make, those bursts of perfection — when everything lines up exactly, and my head hits the pillow without the heaviness of some worry — are few and far between. My worries, though sometimes an unnecessary burden, shape a lot of the way I present myself. I want to be nice, and I want to do good for other people, but I also want to let myself get angry and, sometimes, I want to be selfish. Part of me wonders if the waking bruxism occurring more often in women is some demonstration of our overwhelming need to please and the way we’re shamed when we do tap into our anger, but that’s a worry for another time. Right now, more than anything, I just want to get some sleep.


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