For a while there I was obsessed with flossing my teeth. When I say a while, I mean four and a quarter years. And when I say obsessed, I mean I flossed them to the point my gums were pretty much always bleeding.
It started out as a hygiene thing. I flossed twice a day, morning and night, like most people. Then I started to carry floss around with me. I always had a pack stashed in that front coin pocket of my jeans. That pocket is the perfect size for floss, and I like to think I used it for its true purpose, and the pocket thanked me for it. I needed my teeth to feel clean. More specifically, I needed the gaps between my teeth to feel clean. To feel polished, empty.
But then I had these incidents. You might call them freak outs, but I choose to call them incidents. I work in IT at a multinational bank. For a long while it was very stressful. My boss was forever pulling me into her office, telling me about some new sort of attack on our system. One day I got confused, and I called her sir. “Yes, sir,” I said. She let it slide. And it didn’t register for me until later on, when I was walking home from work. Actually, I wasn’t certain I had called her sir, but I wasn’t certain I hadn’t called her sir, either. Even so, I rushed into the bathroom of the closest café, and went to work with my floss.
If the incident was particularly stressful, I’d be in that bathroom for a good forty minutes, and I’d go through an entire roll of floss. The blood came in at around the ten minute mark. Twenty minutes in and it was gushing. What I’m telling you is my whole mouth tasted of aluminium. I’ve spat litres of blood into sinks and toilets all over the city. If you took a sample from the sewage at that time, you’d find traces of my blood all over the place.
And yes it hurt. Flossing over already-shredded gums hurt like hell. But I had a system. While certain gums were bleeding – let’s say the gums between my bottom right molars – I’d get to work on the gums between my top left molars. And when they started to bleed and hurt too much, I moved on.
Sounds crazy, but it worked. When I stepped out of that bathroom after a forty minute floss sesh, my gums may have felt like a swarm of wasps had been at them, but mentally I was tip top. Reborn. If I had a date to go to, I was relaxed and funny and charming. If I had a meeting, I took names and cracked skulls.
The main issue was my dentist, who was like wtf. “How much are you flossing?” she asked. I lied and said, “Oh, maybe twice, three times a day.” Weird right. Usually the dentist will ask if you floss, and you lie and say you do. For me it was the opposite. I had to lie and say I flossed less. But you can’t fool dentists. They’ve seen it all. Actually my dentist had never seen anything like what was going on in my mouth. She said, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Turns out my gums were on their last legs, so to speak. In some parts, I had nearly flossed down to the bone. Plus I had a mouthful of open wounds, which meant regular things like eating and kissing and even breathing were becoming highly dangerous. For me and for others. My dentist ordered me to stop flossing right sway, which was a first for her, and maybe for the entire profession. It’s something I’m oddly proud of.
I worked really hard, and for a while there I did stop. One thing I did was brush. A lot. In my back pocket I carried a little plastic bag with a toothbrush and a small tube of that toothpaste, like the ones you get on airplanes. It didn’t work nearly as well as flossing, but it gave me a little relief. Mostly I was a nervous wreck. On dates I was no good. Over dinner, one person called me a ‘raw nerve in a bag of gravel.’ I thought that was pretty poetic. Not to mention accurate. I was terrible at work too. My colleagues were done with my anxious moaning, my constant catastrophising, so they moved my desk down the basement of the bank, right by the server. They did this because they couldn’t fire me. Sacking someone over their mental illness will get you sued quicker than you can say, ‘suck it up, champ.’ I sure as hell didn’t have the stomach for a lawsuit, and they probably knew that, but they weren’t about to take their chances.
Of course, the server in a multinational bank is the size of a small house. It lets off a serious amount of heat, its covered in red and green and blue flashing lights, and it hums constantly. I was pretty convinced it was giving me radiation, that it was melting my brain stem. It messed me up something proper. I couldn’t deal, so I went right back to the floss.
This time it was bad. I mean I know it was bad before, but this was the knockout round.
I was constantly convinced I had food stuck in my teeth. But not bits of food, I thought I had large chunks of gristly steak wedged between my wisdom teeth. I couldn’t shake it. I’d go to the bathroom to look in the mirror, and I saw nothing. But I could feel it, and if I could feel it, then it must have been there. I’d floss between the teeth where I felt it, and the feeling would go. But as soon as I left the bathroom, bam, I felt a fresh piece of meat stuck between two different teeth, so back I went to floss that piece out.
I was pretty much flossing all day, down in the basement, by the humming server, where I didn’t have to hide it from anyone. The phantom pieces of meat woke me up at night too. I’d get up and floss, but when I lay back down and closed my eyes, I felt a leg of lamb between my canine and my premolar. The obvious answer was the stop eating meat, which I did, but the phantom pieces of meat were replaced by phantom corn kernels, phantom mustard seeds, phantom entire broccoli florets.
On my next trip to the dentist, she said, “Enough is enough.” My gums were basically non-existent. My jawbone was out in the open, walking around basically. She said I was on the verge of a major blood infection. She didn’t trust me to put down the floss for good, so she called an ambulance. I ended up in emergency, and from there I was transferred to a clinic. It was a nice place actually, with gardens and a fountain, and a little vegetable patch you could tend if you wanted to.
They tried all the usual stuff, like Zoloft, group therapy, but none of it touched the sides. They took all my floss away, but I could sniff out a roll of peppermint ribbon from across town. When the other patients were asleep, I snuck into their rooms and stole their floss. More than once they found me out by the vegetable patch in the dead of night, flossing away like mad. After my third strike, they said if it happened again they would kick me to the curb.
I wanted to change. I had to change. My poor old gums. I said to the doctor: “Do what you need to do, man. Have at it.” So they did. They strapped me to my bed. If I couldn’t use my arms, I couldn’t floss. I stayed that way for weeks. And lord, it was tough. They fed me through a straw. Soups and smoothies. If I didn’t have solids, I couldn’t feel those phantom chunks of food between my teeth, or so the thinking went. But the dreams I had. Corn kernels chasing me down snowy mountains. Lamb chops drowning me in the pounding white surf. It was no good.
When they took the straps off, I felt reborn. But not in that fresh revitalised way, more in a helpless baby dripping amniotic fluid kind of way.
I’m still a nervous wreck, and a pain in the neck to be around, but things are looking up. I got into meditation, and running, and sucking water through the gaps in my teeth. And when I went back to work, my doctor from the clinic went into the bank and tore my superiors a new one. They moved me out of the basement, away from the server. So now I sit in a corner office, alone, but I do have a comfy leather chair, and a view of the harbour. It’s pretty chill.