How I Healed High School Trauma at the Dentist
Let me take you back to a time when the world was just beginning to be big. When we took our first inhale of American Spirit and our last exhale of innocence. When we first kissed in my mom’s car to that 2004-one-hit-wonder by that one-hit-wonder-indie-band. When we knew what pure love was and when we thought we knew what love was. When we broke each other’s hearts. When we danced in parking lots as an act of rebellion. When we didn’t know how to say “goodbye,” “I miss you,” or… "I wish you were at the parking lot that night.”
My last semester of high school was a defining moment. I was eighteen. I had my first real heartbreak and my first broken bone thanks to my ex-boyfriend’s best friend’s unintentional-but-intentional gesture. That broken bone happened to be my jaw. It broke in three pieces, just two weeks shy of graduation. It took me a dentist appointment thirteen years later to finally release the trauma not only from that night but that whole semester.
Flash forward to me at thirty-two. I’m loathing my dental appointment for I’m overdue for a teeth cleaning. I blame it on coronavirus, but really I’ve been running from a deep clean since 2017 (really, longer than that). As I’m chomping down on film for the X-ray, a wave of anxiety crashes throughout my body. I asked if the X-ray machine makes you feel light-headed (the radiation, right?!) The dental assistant asks me if I was holding my breath. She’s right, I’m not breathing. So I breathe. Then I think about how much I hate the dentist. How I hate anyone near my jaw—specifically putting things in my jaw, like sharp objects. But getting to see my teeth X-rayed is cool, I guess?
The final X-ray reveals something foreign and strange: a thick strip across the bottom of my front teeth with six screws secured deep into my gums. I interrupt the X-ray with an, “oh my God.”
“What happened here?” asks the dental assistant.
I explain to her how I broke my jaw in 2007. She then asks me, “have you never seen your X-ray before?” It dawns on me that’s a ‘no.’ I had never seen my steel plate for I’ve only gone to the dentist three times in thirteen years, the third being my current visit, the later two being in the last three years, which both didn’t include X-rays. I sink into my seat, drenched with embarrassment.
A few cavities, a scheduled filling, a deep clean and a two-thousand dollar financial plan later, I start connecting the dots of my dental phobia and beyond: I never committed to the jaw exercises in drama school, I still have curious dreams of my high school ex that I can’t make stop, the thought of running into high school alumni gives me chills, I avoided my ten year high school reunion invitation like I wasn’t a student there, I second-guess my voice as a creative and human too often to count.
Suddenly, a vortex of forgotten memories capture me: I time-travel back to 2007.
It’s 10:30 on a Saturday night. I’m at the high school parking lot. His best friend jokingly trips me. I land chin-first on the asphalt. Blood splatters. My friends think the blood is only from the scraped off skin on my chin but my bloody spit confirms otherwise. This is how people die in movies when they bleed out of their mouths, I think. I can’t close my jaw. I can’t open it wider than three-quarters of an inch. My friends drive me to the hospital while calling my parents. I wake up groggy from surgery with a white bandage on my chin, not being able to speak. My mom blends my Oxycodone with marinara sauce so I can sip through a straw—I eat everything through a straw because my mouth is rubberband-shut. I’m accepting a school theatre award for “Best Fall,” as my drama teacher attempts to make light of the situation. I’m on stage trying to say thank you for the bizarre award but muffled mumbles come out. My mom takes me shopping for new clothes after dropping five pant sizes in two weeks. My ex-boyfriend visits me after my surgery. He apologizes for his friend. There’s a heavy feeling of regret. I wish I could say, “I wish you were at the parking lot,” even though I knew he wouldn’t have been able to stop the trip. I wish I could say, “I wish we hadn’t broken up.” I wish I could stop crying. I wish this didn’t happen two weeks before leaving high school forever. I wish the Class of 2007 remembered me differently from senior year. I wish I had closure. Most of all, I wish I wasn’t alone.
Thankfully, I’m not time-traveling alone. My partner is sitting with me in our parked car, guiding my unearthed memories with EFT tapping. I tap on top of my head, my right brow-bone, temples, above my chin—I skip tapping my jaw for obvious reasons—I tap under my arms and my chest while saying, “I release and let go, I release and let go.” Then she tells me to imagine a peaceful place, to hold my wrists and say, “I’m at peace. I’m at peace. Peace.” Suddenly, I’m on a hill looking down at a beach. I hear the rolling, steady waves. I feel peace. I am at peace. My partner finally asks me what I want. I say “I’m done with feeling alone. I’m done with regret. I’m done feeling insecure with my voice. I’m ready to thrive. I am ready to thrive.”
Two months after my accident I remember starting college as if my final semester of my senior year never happened. I remember that first semester at college being emotionally challenging. I exchanged university after a semester. And then I exchanged, again. I kept moving from place to place. It never occurred to me that a part of my heart was still at my high school parking lot—clearly, I was looking in all the wrong places.
Revisiting my high school trauma isn’t my first rodeo at this work. I’m a survivor of emotional abuse. I have a trauma therapist. Hell, I’m a certified Breathwork facilitator where I assist people to release their own traumas. Regardless of all my training, work on myself and others, my trip to the dentist was a reminder of how sensitive, complex, and layered we are as humans. (If you asked me if there were any traumas I needed to heal before my dental appointment, I would have said, “2020 gave me my fair share.”) Now that I’ve found my eighteen-year-old heart, I realize I wasn’t broken: my eighteen-year-old self was hiding. And I found her, listened to her, and invited her back to this present moment. We all have the power to time travel: to find ourselves in the parking lot, to heal our wounds, and to restore the peace we all deserve. I finally have peace with my steel plate—and I can finally say I’m ready for my deep teeth cleaning.