They didn't teach me to floss. They were insistent on brushing – though I never wanted to and would often lie to get out of it – a routine that proved enough to keep me cavity-free into my adult years.
But, for lack of flossing, I developed tender, bleeding gums.
At the dentist, I would always spit blood during the rinse routine. I thought this was normal. I thought the post-dentist aching mouth – relieved only by clenching my teeth – was unavoidable. But my delicate pink tissue started running away from the tooth roots they are supposed to protect, an affliction I was able to ignore until my application for the Peace Corps required me to get gum graft surgery to fix it.
I was flossing more then, but not enough. I told my dentist it was every-other day, but it was more like once a week. And it was a trial because when I flossed, my gums bled so much. It was terrifying and messy. I couldn't believe the carnage I was causing inside my own mouth. I bought Extra Soft toothbrushes and tried being more ginger with my gum line, convinced I'd scoured away the flesh, exposing my roots to painful cold water and rogue bits of food.
The gum surgery – through which I suffered during one of my worst bouts of flu ever – was so bad, the recovery so arduous that I actually started paying more attention to my oral care. And I was thinking I was doing a good job, until I had to go back to the dentist, and out I spat the blood, the red-tinged mouthwash swirling in the bowl, little bits of my mouth getting stuck in the drain.
When I moved to LA, my new dentist tried to encourage me to floss more by instructing, "Only floss the teeth you want to keep," assuming that if I wanted to keep all of my teeth, I'd floss them all daily. At the time, I'd gotten so good at flossing, I could say I was doing it every-other day and not be lying. But my gums were still bleeding.
"Are you doing it hard enough?" my dental hygienist asked.
"I don't know, it feels pretty hard. How hard am I supposed to go?"
"Like this," she said, demonstrating and slicing my gum in two between two of my teeth.
"No, I am not doing it that hard," I mumbled, dabbing away the drips of blood with a tissue.
During my last visit last summer, my dentist tried to negotiate with me to figure out how to get me to floss every day. If not the spool of floss in the plastic dispenser, how about the disposable ones? How about a waterpik?
Since it was really only my bottom row that was a problem, I made a deal with myself that I would floss at least half of my mouth every day. I would leave the floss out on the soap dish so I couldn't forget. I would floss between each tooth, and I would floss them hard. I would not recoil at the bloody bath I would be giving my teeth; I would merely brush and rise it away.
And you know what? After more than six months of being rough on my gums, in a it's-good-for-you tough love sort of way, I'm not bleeding anymore. I'm flossing every day – mostly, since sometimes I'm running too late or I still manage to forget – and my gums are stronger for it. They can handle the pressure, the friction, and the stress without succumbing. They hold fast to my teeth rather than swelling away from them.
I guess some things perform better when challenged. The same can be true for some people.
Now let's see how they hold up for my dentist appointment next week...
The Power of No
City Conversations: At the Dentist