I’ve got a vague memory I can’t exactly figure out. When I was a little boy, I remember having what you could call a 3rd front tooth awkwardly wedging itself between the typical 2 front ones. I think it was like a baby tooth or something to that effect that led a confused, bullied life. Ultimately, as my adult teeth came in, that little bugger finally got bullied out and was never seen nor heard from again.
Granted, when I try to remember it, I get really confused and doubt what I’m remembering, but the one thing I solidly remember it was being an already shy kid who felt uncomfortable and awkward because nobody else had a ‘middle’ tooth trying to poke its way through the fray. The memories of wanting to be even more quiet, not wanting to smile, or even risk being in a position where I might laugh are concrete. As a kid, you don’t have full grasp of your insecurities, so you fall in and out of being conscious of them very easily, so I’m sure that this bit of mental processing power was only a microcosm in the background of mini-James’ daily life. Minuscule as the seed may have been, I often look back on that tiny seed of insecurity in my life knowing the hazardous jungle it weaved.
It’s astonishing — the smallest nicks borne in youth that we end up chained to for our entire lives — you can’t predict that kind of stuff, only try to statistically eliminate the potential possibilities.
People always get on to me.
They ask, rhetorically, “why don’t you smile?”
We take pictures and they casually remark, “you never smile,” sometimes with hints of frustration or befuddlement — as if I didn’t know that.
I’ve got friends who can walk into a room full of blood thirsty savages and walk out with a dozen new friends. When I ask them how they’re able to so easily resonate with total strangers, they always tell me some variation of, “just put on a big smile and say hey!” If only it were that easy.
The truth is, it’s not always as simple as it could be, and I am pretty much have a reason for every single thing I do. There is nothing so small, so involuntary, or so subconscious for me to invest premeditation into.
Let’s pause for a second, and let me be clear: this piece of writing is one of the hardest I’ve ever put myself through. To force myself to follow through with it, but more so to hit publish. Sharing it? The gravity reaches Jupiterian heights as that moment approaches. If you’re reading this, odds are good you’ve read pieces of my mind before, so you should know I’m no stranger when it comes to baring uncomfortable truths like they’re mental genitals and I’m a pervy exhibitionist.
In all my life, this is very likely the greatest, longest living insecurity I’ve been attached to. As with any insecurity, If I have any hope of properly shaking, I need to work through its origins, its rise to maturity, and the many ways, overt and absconded, that it has affected me.
When I was a little older, in what you could call a kid’s prime years, my upper canine teeth came in. They were the last of them to really come in, because they didn’t really feel like arriving properly. It’s not something you have any control over. You just have to let it ride and fix it later. With that said, teeth aren’t supposed to grow outward like they did, and those self-conscious, insecure feelings over time grew, stirring me to squirm away and further try to reduce my social footprint.
I was shy. I wanted to be anonymous.
It’s weird to me how much my older sister mean to me. She is 7 years older than me, so most of my childhood with her was spent either being an annoying, hyper kid who got her in trouble, or just being lightyears apart as far as where we were in life. There is something implanted in most younger siblings. We see our older brothers or sisters and want to be so much like them. We want to be recognized for the things they do that we can’t. Just as we want to be admired for what they can’t do, we learn to strive for acknowledgement by not doing the things they shouldn’t do, too.
I don’t think you could call it a drive to be better than my sister, but, rather, because she was older, she had already set the path, the pace, and all the marks, and when you’re the one trailing behind on the path, you feel like you need to do as much as possible to stand off. Because, as the younger one, you’re always so impressed, so awed by how far advanced the elder is.
I tend to be stubborn and defiant. Given my nature, I found it was much easier for me to express how I looked up to my sister by rejecting the path she set and instead achieving my milestones of growth by my own means. Such tendencies lead to moments where you, as a naive kid to tell your parents that you’ll never get braces when your sister did. You don’t have to mean it or know what the hell you’re really saying for it to carry weight.
There really hasn’t been a point in my life where I haven’t, on some level, hated my mouth, hated my teeth, or hated smiling (as a result).
When I was in my teens, I realized I had inadvertently screwed up. Something I once told my parents in passing had led to a very crowded mouth and all types of personal discontent. On one end, it’s admirable that my parents would value my thoughts and feeling so much that, even as a kid, I could make pretty big decisions about my life. Their love has always shown how much they’ve valued me and I couldn’t imagine growing up any other way. I’d be a shadow of myself if I were raised any other way — and I quite fancy myself, but it’s funny how even your best allies can end up your greatest adversary.
The time came when I had fully come to grips how captive I was to my insecurities. I think that this kind of insecurity is intensely magnified, because basically everyone in our society couples those awful, spine twistingly awkward adolescent years with obtrusive metal and wires jammed in their mouth, and if they don’t utilize those already awkward years for that, they usually do somewhere on one of the ends of the awkward puberty sandwich.
If you skip out on this ubiquitous practice and aren’t blessed with a perfect mouth, you are immediately relegated to outlier status. So if everything else about you comfortably falls within that concept of ‘normal’ except one thing, that becomes the most harrowing thing in your life.
As with any insecurity, it was always much more monstrous with my own mind than it was was to the world around me, but there is undeniable influence of having messed up teeth; many of which hit in subconscious or immediately noticeable areas. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it is having to interpersonally weave through the many ways we can be subconsciously or immediately judged or assessed.
In this case, there are many things that negative perceptions that can be generated with people. Obviously, you can appear unattractive or at least not have a very inviting smile, you can give off the perception that you’re from a lower class background, less intelligent than you may actually be, or just don’t have good hygiene — among many other possibilities. In a lot of cases, this stuff shouldn’t matter, nor should what others think about yourself, but the problem is this: at the end of the day, they still do.
Anyone is welcome to think whatever they want about me, and I can’t control that — only influence it. The problem is, I want to at least have as much of a fair shot of influence as I can – I think that anyone should want that. I won’t lie, I am a lot more judgmental than I’d like to be, and surprisingly hypocritical, too. I think because of my own situation, teeth that aren’t perfect bother me more than they should (at first) — though I am hoping that is more because it is a reminder of my own fragility with the issue.
I wouldn’t recommend going through life without being able to smile. It’s a tremendous handicap.
When I was 17, I was going to get braces. Even when I was a lot younger, I was always very conscious of finances, and I hated the idea of causing unnecessary financial burden on my family. Especially considering ministry in a small church isn’t always the most financially stable situation. If it weren’t for TennCare, I probably would have never even told my parents that I need to get all my stuff fixed and sat on my inner demons even longer.
My teeth started out a cronie, a henchman, an afterthought that the hero effortlessly smacks away and never thinks about again. Over that entire timeline, it grew into a final boss. As with all notorious final bosses, the road to defeat the final boss is never easy. Just when you think you’re about to take the bastard out, he zaps you out of his space station and back in time or arrogantly reveals to you that the princess is in another castle.
After maybe a year of repeated dentist trips, root canals, fillings, and a few extracted teeth, I thought I was finally ready to endure the year plus of quasi misery to finally feel comfortable with my own appearance to begin to accept myself as something less than a self-created Quasimodo — I guess this is a good time to add another anchor that weighs you down when your teeth are messed up — even if you spend a lot of time taking care of them, it is easy to still encounter a lot of dental problems.
The princess was in another castle.
After all the dental work, my orthodontist slapped me with the, ‘by the way, your wisdom teeth are coming in now’, so off to the oral surgeon I went, and by then another cavity or two had decided to troll me. If I remember correctly, I got really busy with basketball and putting in a lot of time to play college ball so the entire thing got put on the back burner until the season ended.
Of course that back burner has a way into turning into a few years. My last attempt, in early college, was a similar process with obstacles thrown in the way until my dental coverage was about to run out, I became discouraged, didn’t want to make my parents have to pay for all that out of pocket and surrendered; defeated and incomplete.
Over all these years, I imagine that I’ve just gotten very good and operating in a way that lets me feel as comfortable as possible. I don’t smile as much as I’d like to, and I have even spent years and years developing laughter and smiling habits that I feel conceal what, to me, is this huge radiating blemish on myself as an individual. I know that most people probably barely give any of this too much thought, but I think about it all the time.
I don’t do a posed smile in pictures for a reason (plus if you look at my dad’s pictures as a kid, we just have a tendency to smile with our mouth closed anyway). I can’t smile at a stranger because in my twisted thinking it will run them off more than looking uninviting or, as I’ve had some people tell me, intimidating. For me, that’s starting at neutral and I can win them over from there, even if it is actually starting from behind in the real scheme of things.
I also am less expressive of a person that I actually feel I am as a result. Though, I think that I’ve compensated on this part for so long that I may just permanently be more dry and expressive-neutral than most. Then there’s the whole confidence thing
Confidence is such a mystery. Most of the people I encounter with the most confidence usually have the most reasons to not be confident, at least by my assessment. For me, confidence is kind of like science. It is built on years of empirical proof. For example, it has taken me 25 years to really develop real confidence in myself athletically. From a pure athleticism perspective, I’ve got to be at least in the 95th percentile. People who don’t know much about my love for basketball or any other sport you can get me to play always hear me [half-jokingly] brag about how I can jump or how fast I am. It probably comes off as the typical self-assurance most of us have when we talk to trash to our friends, “oh, you think you can beat me 1 on 1? Let’s go to the gym some time and settle that“. Here’s the thing, though, it is very easy to see who’s who in an athletic regard from a pretty objective viewpoint, yet it has taken a quarter of a century of strangers, acquaintances, and friends approaching me unprompted and asking me things like: can you dunk? How can you jump so high? Are you a horse? Dude, your head is practically at the rim when you rebound before I finally started to accept it as canon.
It simply is true. Of course I’m not the best athlete in the world, but if we are talking raw athleticism, I know I can pretty much hang with anyone. Despite that, it still only takes a small leak or two to create bit of self-doubt and make me forget who I am for a short spell.
The smallest leak in confidence can turn your thinking into the ugliest disaster scene, even for the most empirical areas of life. What I’m getting at is that I’ve been living my life with a giant gash fuming out confidence with the force of hurricane winds. If you’ve ever seen me interact with girls that I don’t know, especially if I find them attractive, you know how I barely maintain any confidence. At best, I can fake it for a bit, but the entire time it is furiously exhausting from myself, and the longer I am interacting with someone I barely know, in my mind I feel like I am greater exposing myself. Effectively, taking my baseline of confidence, which is already leaking, and rapidly fractioning it off.
That’s my battle. That’s the war in my mind every single time I am interacting with anyone new (and it doesn’t have to be a single guy talking to pretty girl scenario, that’s just the most exacerbated example). I even feel pretty weak about it with those closest to me pretty often.
I think one of the least congenial elements of the whole thing is that I know it can be fixed, and I’ve been planning on fixing it for so long that the longer it takes, the more menacing it gets in my mind. Fatigue is undefeated.
For the first time in my life, I’ve been fully honest about something that’s plagued me for so long, looked at it’s lifecycle, and highlighted the many ways this has affected how I operate.
Honestly, I’ve been thinking about this point for so long, I never expected it to come, nor did I know how I was going to play it. A few years ago I was in the worst depression of my life and I basically laid out a plan. Finish school, get a job, move out, and so on. At the end of that plan was finally finishing getting my teeth fixed. After a lot of work, many blessings, and more delays, I’ve reached the end of that plan I so firmly dedicated my life to.
Even with good insurance, in the last year and a half I’ve spent a big portion of my disposable income on this goal. The unfortunate thing about not having any money for most of my 20’s is that it sent me back to the beginning of the dental cycle I detailed earlier, this time with wisdom teeth extractions and a few crowns just to get back to square one. I always knew that I was going to reach the end of this set of immediate major life goals, but I didn’t know how I was going to do this part. In my mind, I saw myself taking care of all this until one day it was all better and coming out and saying, “hey, here are these awful insecurities, by the way, I’m totally cured now!”
I wouldn’t put it past myself to try, in fact, I think maybe I could have pulled it off. I’ve had braces for a few weeks now. Well, half of them. I am getting the bottom ones in 2 days before my birthday. That’ll make for a fun birthday. As soon as I got them in, I knew that it was time for me to finally push through this, but I think part of me waited because I wanted to see if it was noticeable at all. Of course, it metastasized into putting it off, conceding to the power it has long had over me.
They’re placed on the back of my teeth, which is a lot more convenient in a lot of ways, but the unforeseen inconveniences of them are that eating was tricky for a while but now it’s only a slight inconvenience. The biggest part was that I’ve had to reteach myself how to speak in a sense. When speak slowly, I think I can achieve effectively the same speech patterns and sounds that I usually do, but I’m actually quite a fast talker. When you start stringing together words and sounds, the tongue gets a bit bewildered with the unfamiliarity of the metal attached to the back of my teeth (also when you drink and start to get lazy-tongued.. well it gets even harder).
That first week was pretty interesting, I don’t know how weird I seemed to be acting as I often was slowing down while I was talking to people, often briefly pausing to assess if the next word I was about to say would be hard to pronounce normally and, if so, devising a different way to say it with easier words.
Either way, after my last appointment my orthodontist jokingly told me, “you’ve got gold in your mouth,” he collected his thoughts for a moment then appended, “well, actually, seriously, you do.”
So there it is. I just wanted to let you all know, I have gold in my mouth. In a few more weeks, I’m going to take a really long time to eat my meals and probably act weird when I’m talking to you for a few weeks — and them hopefully nobody will notice anymore and just sweep it under the rug of it being a weird dude; as usual.
With all this said, I guess on some levels I’m glad to finally have all of this off my chest, but I think I am still going to continue to be very insecure about it all. I have patches during the day where I feel a lot more comfortable with everything just knowing that I’m finally at that point — a point I struggled to imagine for a decade and a half — where it is actually getting better. A point where I know the day where this becomes a fading memory is approaching. With that said, because I have been battered by this for so long, and just barely getting this out, I likely am not going to feel strong enough through it all to ever want to talk about it or still really actively acknowledge it’s a thing with anyone.
Not that I don’t want to, but I just think because it has been weighing me down for so long and it’s being fixed, I’d just rather let it fade into obscurity. In a sense, maybe I’m not really growing comfortable with this specific insecurity, but most insecurities we have to make ourselves outgrow. In this case, I’m merely eliminating it.
I’m not sure how I feel about that aspect, and it’s kind of funny because I’m already looking ahead to the other small things that will bother me even after all the orthodontic work is complete (like how much I’m going to have to spend on veneers because of the decalcification I had when I was a lot younger because I wasn’t taking care of myself properly), but I thank you for bearing with me being me; which is to say a weak, flawed, and not totally forthcoming individual.
So there it all is. At this point in my life, there is no bigger insecurity tearing, cracking, and wearing myself down.
I look forward to the day that I can look back on all of this like a far off dream and simply smile about it.