Photo: © JRP Studio / Adobe Stock.
There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I woke up with dried blood on my lips. This was the first sign that something was wrong. It was March, the month that everything was wrong. Outside my kitchen window the sky was gray, still cold, Brooklyn-bleak. I had just left my marriage, and at nights I drank wine in bed and listened to podcasts so that I wouldn’t have to sit with my thoughts. I hadn’t noticed anything strange when I got out of bed, not even the slight taste of iron in my mouth. It came together when I caught sight of myself in the bathroom mirror while the coffee boiled on the stove. My lips and every tooth in my mouth were caked in a gluey, rust-brown film of blood. There was no cut on my lip. My gums were healthy. But I had neck pain and back pain and shoulder pain, a tension headache, a lump on my lip. I had been grinding my teeth, and I had ground so hard that I’d made myself bleed.
The next day we were all fired. The bookstore where I’d worked for six years had been told to shut, as had all nonessential businesses in New York City. The writers festival for which I was due to travel back to Australia was canceled. From bed I did an interview with a journalist in London about climate change in contemporary literature and tried to stay calm. The grocery store was out of nearly everything, the subway was empty, no masks or hand sanitizer were to be found. The call came out from the mayor’s office. Shelter in place.
“Shelter in place.” But I wasn’t sure where my “place” was meant to be. I was already in a state of transition and flux. I had a flight booked to Sydney. I took it. That week ushered in the two constants of my life this past year: displacement, teeth grinding.
Ever since I entered adulthood I have periodically experienced dreams in which all the teeth fall out of my head. The dreams have different contexts, different narrative through-lines, but the physical experience is always the same: the teeth begin to wobble, I push them around with my tongue as I once could my loose baby teeth, and slowly, and then quite quickly, they begin to drop into my mouth like so many rotten fruits. I wake up from these dreams panting and unnerved. I push my tongue against my teeth, relieved they’re all still there.
When I was a child my father read a lot of Jung, performed tarot readings, named his cat Freud. So I grew up with the idea that dreams mean something, that they manifest the concerns of the wakeful mind. I have learned to pay attention to them. Teeth dreams are common. Just about everyone has them at some point or another.
What do they mean? Artemidorus, the author of antiquity’s first dream manual, believed that the mouth personifies the household and each tooth signifies a particular person or object. Freud associated teeth dreams with masturbation and castration, and Jung surmised that they represent fear of childbirth and growing older. Cirlot, in his dictionary of symbols, emphasizes a Gnostic interpretation wherein the teeth represent battlements, “the wall and the fortifications of the inner man.” Cirlot’s is my preferred interpretation, the one that feels right for me. My mouth is the trap of my words, the place where I take in the world when I breathe and eat and kiss. Crumbling teeth mean crumbling borders. Security gone. The battlements fallen. Contemporary research has suggested that teeth dreams generally occur during an episode of teeth grinding.
Teeth grinding, more properly known as bruxism, is the grating, clenching, and gnashing of teeth. You might unconsciously clench your teeth when you’re awake, and you may grind and gnash in your sleep. I do both. It can screw up your mouth and jaw. It can give you facial pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, headaches, earaches, aches in general. It can flatten down your teeth, stripping the enamel away to expose the sensitive brown dentin beneath. It can wear down the muscles and tendons in your jaw to the point that the entire joint begins to deteriorate.
Nobody seems to know why. All we know is that bruxism is related to stress, and the more troubled you are in your waking life, the more it will manifest itself in your teeth. This past September, a dentist wrote in the New York Times that in six weeks she had seen more patients with tooth fractures than in the previous six years. The stress of being alive in 2020 activated the deepest, most primal fear mechanisms. “All that tension,” she wrote, “goes straight to the teeth.”
In Australia, my teeth grinding accelerated. The shape of my two front teeth changed very quickly. Suddenly a noticeable dent was carved into what had previously been a straight surface. The pain in my neck and shoulders was constant. A lump formed on my lower lip. I discovered it was a mucocele, a cyst caused by adjacent teeth inflicting chronic trauma on the flesh of my mouth. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing to myself in my sleep, but whatever it was, it was bad.
I had bad dreams. I would often wake up screaming in the middle of the night. But usually the nightmares were not about my teeth. Sometimes they were about somebody dying, or somebody leaving. More often than not they were about my home: burglary, the house on fire, a prowler in the bedroom, a malevolent presence slinking up the driveway. It didn’t take a psychoanalyst or a manual to figure out that the dreams were about security.
When I first arrived in Australia I slept in my mother’s house in Sydney. For the next four months, I moved between five houses in four cities. I had left one home behind and was trying to set up a new one with my boyfriend, however provisional that home might be.
After a few months, my boyfriend reported that in my sleep I made strange clicking sounds: snapping, scraping, biting the air. At first he tried to shake me awake when he heard me grinding, but we soon stopped with that. If he didn’t let me grind, I would never sleep. Some afternoons I would take a nap on the sofa and wake up to see him sitting nearby, watching me, worried. I had begun to grind my teeth when I napped.
Most days, though, I was fine. I worked as best I could. I taught. I wrote. I exercised. I cooked long meals. I wasn’t very good at keeping in touch, and I wasn’t operating at full capacity, or even half capacity, but I was managing. It was at night that it all came out.
None of this seemed especially remarkable. Everyone’s bodies seemed to manifest the crisis differently. My mother, healthy well into her sixties, suddenly had high blood pressure. My boyfriend’s fingernails lost their cuticles, the skin on his hands went papery, and his fingerprints disappeared from every finger but one. My friends reported radiating back pain and shaking hands. I was teaching a class about the literature of the body, and each week we came together over the internet. We talked about movement, when our movement had been curtailed. We talked about eating, when eating had become fraught and stressful as well as comforting. We talked about illness, when so many of us were witnessing those around us fall ill, worrying about falling ill, and experiencing symptoms that either made us suspect we ourselves were infected or pointed to a problem unknown. My students reported dry eyes, an inability to move the head to one side, stomach pains. For me, it nearly always came back to my teeth.
“The insides of your cheeks,” the dentist said, “are pure scar tissue.” This was in Sydney, once dental offices had tentatively reopened in July. I hadn’t seen a dentist in years, because in New York I could never afford to. In just about every country with government-subsidized health care, dentistry is not included. It was cheaper in Australia, but not cheap. Dental procedures like fillings or crowns are often considered cosmetic procedures, even when the choice between a filling and no filling can mean keeping a tooth or losing it. Teeth—strong, straight, white teeth—reflect one’s ability to pay for them.
I didn’t know how I’d pay, but the grinding needed to be addressed. The dentist made a mold of my teeth with a kind of blue foam I bit into. The mold was sent to a specialist, and I returned to the dentist a week later to receive a plastic splint that fits precisely over the teeth in my upper jaw. There was nothing yet to be done about the unevenness of my front teeth. “If I repair the front teeth now,” the dentist said, “you’ll grind the repair right off in your sleep.” I would need to wait a year, after which he estimated that he’d be able to see slight indentations or marks in the splint where I had ground into its surface, and then he would know how serious the grinding was, what the prospect of repair might be.
Marks appeared in the splint after six weeks. There is now a visible dent in the plastic near my two front teeth, and wear at the back of the molars.
The other problem, the dentist detected, was that at the age of thirty my wisdom teeth had finally come in. The grinding might have helped them along, but at any rate they needed to come out. All four of them.
To have my wisdom teeth taken out I needed first to have an X-ray of my jaw. I was sent to an oral radiologist on the top floor of a building on Sydney’s Macquarie Street. There were wide, open views of Sydney Harbour, from the Bridge to the Opera House. I bit down on a piece of plastic while a machine rotated around my head and spewed radiation into my skull, and I pondered Sydney through the windows.
Teeth and bones are the only things left of us when we’re gone. Our houses and homes will be broken up and dispersed, our possessions will disintegrate, our coffins will break up, our cities will fall. The Sydney Harbour Tunnel that runs beneath the water might remain, but the Sydney Harbour Bridge probably won’t. The plastics in the sea will stay. So will the traces of nuclear waste. But if there are traces of our bodies they will be teeth and bones.
The French paleontologist George Cuvier said, “Show me your teeth and I will tell you who you are.”
Every day of our childhoods is fossilized during tooth formation, leaving information about our diet and traumatic life events, as detailed as tree rings. In our early twenties the growing stops, and from that point our lives can be read through the damage—the cavities, the wear from eating and biting, the changes to plaque, cementum, the receding gums. Acidic air can make teeth erode, heavy metals like cadmium and lead that leach into drinking water and food supplies and get into the structures of the body.
So in my teeth they will find traces of the chemicals I have breathed and the foods I have eaten. They will see enormous wear, from constant grinding. If a paleontologist digs up my bones, what they will be able to know about my experience of the world is “stress.” Whatever else living in unprecedented times does to us, it leaves traces behind in our bodies, even if we never fell ill.
You sometimes hear about bodies found in remote places, so decomposed they can only be identified by their dental records. This has always made me uneasy. I knew that no dentist had ever taken a record of my teeth as an adult. It was not until I had my mouth X-rayed in Sydney, not until a mold was taken of my broken mouth, that I knew there would be definitive records. Good, I found myself thinking as the radiologist pointed to the four impacted wisdom teeth growing slantwise in my skull. Now somebody will be able to find me when I’m gone.
General anesthetic is unpleasant. It dulls pain, but it also creates a disagreeable distortion in time. When I had my wisdom teeth out I went under and woke up without the sensation of time passing. A breathing tube was extracted. I coughed, calling for a tissue, and then yelled when I blew my nose into it, finding that what came out was blood. Blood in my mouth and blood in my nose, blood flowing down the back of my throat. Later, I went to the bathroom and saw myself in the mirror. There was brown blood dried into the cracks of my chapped lips and scarlet blood trickling out of my mouth. The oral surgeon had injected a local anesthetic into my jaw to numb the pain after surgery, and so I couldn’t feel the blood on my chin. A few days later I went back to New York. To properly start a life with my boyfriend I needed first to clear out the apartment I’d left so abruptly in March. It had been sitting precisely the way I’d left it, empty. A book was still splayed out on the arm of a chair.
For days and then weeks in New York, I packed up my home. I made myself smoothies and drank a lot of wine. Liquids only. My mouth was still healing, and I was worried about a condition called dry socket where the blood clots are dislodged and the jawbone is exposed after surgery, a condition both painful and expensive to resolve. They were lonely weeks. I packed alone, everything I owned, dividing up possessions, dismantling a home.
The first night back I was so afraid of disturbing the blood clots in my mouth that I didn’t wear my splint. But I had a nightmare, a losing-my-teeth nightmare. When I woke up shouting in the empty bed there was blood all over my lips, blood on the pillowcase and sheets. I hadn’t dislodged the blood clots, but I had been grinding in my sleep, I had drawn blood from my mouth for the second time in a year, and every night afterward I had to carefully insert the splint so that I wouldn’t do it again.
There’s no resolution, not really, just time passing. Everything is still in flux, everything in transition, but I’ve found a place to hold onto, and I’m holding on. I do not have nightmares anymore. No more teeth dreams. No more blood. But I still grind my teeth in bed at night in my new apartment, so I wear the splint. When I forget, my boyfriend hears me click. It’s a sound somewhere between a squeak and a scrape, like heavy furniture being pushed across polished floors, like a tin box of marbles, shaken, like what it is: bone on bone.
Battlements, Cirlot says of teeth. “The fortifications of the inner man.” It is hard to feel your fortifications crumble. Hard when you are meant to shelter in place but find yourself asking, What place? Which shelter? What do I have, and where will I go, and what will be left of me when I’m gone?
Madeleine Watts’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, The White Review, and Literary Hub, among others. Originally from Sydney, Australia, she has been based in New York since 2013. Her debut novel, The Inland Sea, is available now from Catapult.
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