I am alarmed and embarrassed in equal measures when my dentist tells me he can see that I must be grinding my teeth. “They are chipped in front,” he says, “and the line of the teeth matches above and below.” I am alarmed because I hope to be around, chewing, for another forty years or so, and at this rate of chipping I am concerned that my teeth—my God-given, once unchipped teeth—won’t make it along for the ride. I am also alarmed because, although I knew that I had tension in my jaws, I had no idea it was chronic and causing actual physical damage.
To find this out from two relative strangers (the dentist and his assistant) as they peer into my gaping jaws is the embarrassing part. It is like being stopped on a street corner by a stranger who, in a well-meaning gesture of good will, points out that you are wearing your underwear on the outside of your slacks—information that you really should have, and the sooner the better, but which, when delivered in public, makes it difficult for your carefully groomed persona to carry off the impression that you are in complete control. So I carry my alarm and embarrassment out of the dentist’s office and proceed to do the only reasonable thing.
I buy a doggy-bite.
A doggy-bite, for those of you without pets and who have not yet discovered that you too grind your teeth, is one of those rubber contrivances that your dog can bite and tug on one end while you pull on the other. The dog usually growls during this interaction, and, if you are completely forthcoming, so might you.
So here I am, wandering the aisles of a pet store, searching the racks for a doggy-bite. As it happens, they come in different sizes, depending on whether you are purchasing one for Spike or Tike. Well, I am purchasing for me, and there is only one way to determine the correct size. Taking one off the rack and carefully surveying the shopkeeper and other customers, I turn my back and—hoping that I am not about to contract a factory-born disease that preys upon Homo sapiens but not canines—I chomp down. Hmmm . . . not very tasty, and definitely too large. Fortunately, choice number two is just right. I hand the doggy-bite to the store clerk, hoping that he won’t notice the chew marks.
. . .
Having barely avoided public humiliation, I set myself to the task of observing when my jaws are clenched. As it turns out, this is akin to making a mental note whenever I notice that my eyes are blue. That is to say, is there ever a time that my jaws are not clenched? So I adjust my criteria; instead, I will notice when they are especially clenched, and then take appropriate action.
Two days after my purchase, I get up in the morning and notice a certain fervent desire to clench my teeth, somewhat as though I am hanging from a cliff by my jaws. I stumble into my home office, barely alive, and sit down to meditate.
I practice a special form of vipassana—“lazy man’s vipassana”—which means that I occasionally manage to notice what is going on. If I am thinking, I note that I am thinking; if I hear a sound, I observe to myself that I am hearing; and so forth. After my visit to the dentist, I have added a new refrain to my mental register: clenching.
As I begin to meditate, I feel the urge to clench. Clenching, clenching. Noticing this is helpful, because clenching is the precursor to grinding, which is itself the precursor to orthodontia. I am on to something. The question is, What am I clenching about? And what to do about it? The answer, as I had surmised, is my carefully washed doggy-bite.
Curious, and a bit apprehensive, I reach for the doggy-bite. I put it in my mouth and bite down. As I begin to clench harder, I feel nausea in the pit of my stomach and an urge to throw up.
While part of me observes that chewing on a dog toy is not what I want to be doing at 6 a.m., my curiosity—and my dentist’s dire warnings—give me a push. I concentrate on the sensations—nausea, nausea—letting the feeling intensify, allowing spasms to ripple upward from my stomach to my esophagus. A drop of bile burns the back of my throat, and I think: This is for real; I could actually throw up.
I bite down harder and feel heat in my chest. The heat intensifies, and then tears form behind my eyes. I identify the feeling that goes with the tears: vulnerable, vulnerable.
I don’t want to feel this vulnerability, I really don’t. I pause, backing off from the feeling just slightly—enough to get a breather but not so much that I lose touch with it. I am chewing convulsively on the doggy-bite. The taste is nothing to recommend, but the texture and its palpable presence are reassuring: I clench, therefore I am.
Pausing helps me to renew my resolve. Once again, I clench harder. Feeling my vulnerability, I notice the beginnings of a sob. I hesitate, then let it rise in my throat, filling the space around the doggy-bite as it escapes into the room. Another sob follows, more loudly. The vulnerability takes on specific hues: sadness, an aching loneliness. An image of my ex-girlfriend, with whom I broke up three months before, flashes by. Grief wells up, and the next thing I know I am sobbing and moaning with pain. The sobs come from deep in my chest. I feel a tremendous emptiness, an aching for connection with a partner. I take the doggy-bite from my mouth and ride the tide of my feelings until, of their own accord, they begin to recede. When I am through, I notice that my jaws feel relaxed.
. . .
And so it has gone. It is now six months since my visits to the dentist and the pet shop. My doggy-bite has become my faithful companion. My jaws, with the help of my chew toy, have taught me about my need for connection—and a great deal more—taking me again and again into the subterranean realm of feelings I would rather not feel and thoughts I would rather not think.
I wish I could report that I have completely overcome my tendency to grit my teeth. The truth, as usual, is a bit more complex. Lifelong habits die hard, so the tendency to clench is still with me. The good news is that I am far more aware of it than ever before, and that awareness has given me options: I can either stop through an effort of will, or, time and environment permitting, I can dig deeper to find out what’s triggering it. The latter option brings extended relief, and—so far, at least—learning the underlying truth has offset the pain of discovery.
And, if truth isn’t motivation enough, yesterday my dentist, while inspecting my teeth, said, “We’ll have to keep an eye on this. It’s not getting any worse, but if it does, we’ll have to do something. Are you aware of grinding your teeth?”
Am I ever, I thought. Clenching, clenching.
Art © Michael Newhall. Detail from Monk Head Set—The Twelve. Sumi ink on rice paper mounted on canvas. Used by permission.