Sunday, April 19, 2009

Teeth or Shoes? More on priorities...

When I was a kid, I hardly ever brushed my teeth. I dunno why, I guess it wasn't really important to my parents (both of whom, by the way, had false teeth). Yeah, I got the lectures at school where we chewed on those icky red tablets that stained your teeth to show you where you needed to brush better. And they always gave us the demonstration with the fake plastic chatter-teeth, and sent us home with toothbrushes and floss. But I don't remember ever flossing until I was in my teens, and until then I probably only brushed a couple times a week. The only real example I had of dental hygiene was seeing Mom and Dad drop their teeth in a glass of Polident every night. It just didn't matter that much. Until I got cavities.

The dentist tsk-tsked at me every time I went. He drilled every tooth in my head until my entire mouth was full of metal fillings. Then I figured I was home free! No more possible teeth to fill. But he said, "You can still get more cavities between those teeth, and on the sides. If you want to keep your teeth, you have to start taking care of them." So I did.

When I became an adult, I didn't get cavities, but I had a new problem. In my late 20's, all those metal fillings that were in my mouth before I turned 13 were cracking, falling out in pieces, and causing cracks in my teeth by expanding and contracting. I ended up needing a couple of root canals when those fillings failed. It was sheer misery, and for years I had nightmares about my teeth crumbling to bits in my mouth, and spitting them out into my hands. Oh I was brushing and flossing and using dental rinse, but the damage had been done early on, and there was trouble ahead.

One day I went to the dentist to get another metal filling replaced. I actually couldn't afford to have the work done, but when your tooth is literally falling apart, it has to be done. So I saved, sold things, and got in there ASAP.

As I sat in the chair, the dentist gave me more bad news. "ALL of those old metal fillings are failing," he said. "They're all in need of replacement. There is slight decay under every one of them, and my advice is if you want to save your teeth, replace all of these metal fillings with new, nonmetal ones." I said that would be nice and all, but I don't exactly have ten thousand bucks lying around to pay for it. I didn't have dental insurance, either. He started going on about a payment plan, how they would take monthly payments for the dental work, just a couple hundred bucks a month. "I can't afford it," I said.

"You can afford it." He replied. I stared blankly. What did he know of my finances? "Anyone can afford it. It's like time. People say they don't have time to brush and floss thoroughly, but oddly enough they have time to watch TV." Hmmm. "Money is the same way. You afford what you want to afford. There is always something you can give up to get what you want. It's just about priorities. It's about what is important to you. If you really want to get your teeth fixed, you'll just make it the priority and cut back on other expenses." He went on about cable TV, Internet access, brand name clothing, high-cost versus low-cost foods. Cut back on eating out. Just stop going to the movies on weekends. Anyone can afford new teeth.

I understand what he was saying, but he was wrong. Dead wrong. Sure, he was speaking from *his* experience... from the life *he* has. But I didn't have cable TV. I never went out to eat or to the movies. I was a divorced mother with four small kids, and I was wearing the same clothes for years or buying them for $2 on clearance, and my kids were wearing hand-me-downs.

To pay for my $10k teeth, was I supposed to stop paying the mortgage? How about the car payment? Maybe I could give up gasoline to get to work.

I was making $7 an hour and it was frankly *not enough* to even feed my kids. We ate from the food bank for free. We bought Ramen and bologna, rice and beans. There's really no way to cut back on that. My kids were already going for a few months too long without new shoes, because I couldn't afford them. When the holes got so big that their socks were hanging out, the next paycheck went for shoes. When the kids needed backpacks or school supplies, I'd sell a piece of furniture, jewelry, or some other item of value I had to get what they needed.

When my power was already shut off for non-payment, how was I supposed to pay to fix my teeth? My kids didn't even have beds; they were sleeping on mattresses on the floor. It's really not like I had anything else I could cut out to pay for dental work.

But the dentist didn't get that. He saw my "I can't afford it" as some lame excuse for not wanting to spend the dough on my teeth rather than on my luxury vacation or getting my fishing boat polished. "If you want to afford it, you will."

Okay, he was right. I did not do *everything* I could have. I could have become a drug dealer or prostituted myself to get some money for teeth... but if things got so bad that I was doing *those* things, I am pretty sure I'd still have used the money to buy my kids a winter coat and some food before I bought shiny new molars for myself.

Things are way better for me now. I quit that dead-end job, got my bachelor's degree, and became self-sufficient. I remarried and created a home for my children where they *always* have what they need... clothes and shoes in good condition, beds, food. And I even went and got my teeth fixed after all. But it took me nearly ten years to do, and a huge change of circumstance.

My point in all this is, it's not always a matter of picking your priorities. I *wanted* my teeth fixed, but there was just no possible way for that to happen. Not without sacrificing my house or my car and putting my kids through a lot of misery.

It really is about choices and balance combined with circumstance. We do the best we can with what we have.

Today I *wanted* to mop the floor, but the kids needed me. I decided to spend time with them instead. We had a lovely time.

Today I *wanted* to take a mile-long walk or a bike ride, but my right knee has deteriorated over the past 3 days so that it hurts to even get up or sit down. I am in pain, so I settled for a short walk to the park instead.

Today I *wanted* to cook dinner but by the time I got home from essential errands, I felt like I was going to crash. So we had bananas and cantaloupe, whole wheat crackers and cheese and hummus instead.

Now I really *want* to go to bed, but no one else does. I have kids out fishing, kids out earning money mowing the neighbor's lawns, and a daughter playing My Little Ponies at my feet. When everyone is settled, when the homework is done, when I get the dishes washed and the toddler tucked into bed, then... then I think I will just RELAX a bit tonight, gear up for a very long day tomorrow, and get to bed around 10.

I am forever grateful to that 30-year-old single mother who refused to accept the state of things *as they were,* but instead worked and fought to get out of that dismal state and improve her life. If she hadn't kept trying, my kids might still be wearing shoes with holes, eating stale food bank donuts for breakfast, and sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

We can't always have what we want, even with the best of plans. But maybe, if we keep trying to improve our circumstances, eventually things will fall into place.


Anonymous said...


And now your kids have more than shoes and clothes and what they need...they have your tremendous example. Talk about "priceless."

Vickie said...

what a good posting - the one before it was good also.

I am glad that you are feeling better today. I was worried about you!

It is so hard to balance everything and everyone - I am cheering for you and yours.

*Kristine* said...

Im fixin' to go to the dentist after 10 years of not going because of not having dental insurance. I'm afraid that I'm going to hear this same crap.


Why don't employers offer dental insurance.

PatriciaW said...

Lyn, it's still a matter of priorities, I think. You just made some other things a greater priority than your teeth getting fixed. The point is not that it's not about priorities. It's that the things you chose are okay because YOU chose them. Your priorities are your priorities, and you don't have to ever apologize for them when you're not hurting anyone else to have them.

BTW, I've got a cracked tooth that I can't get fixed right now. It's a priority but it's not my highest priority at the moment. The welfare of my three children is greater.

Anonymous said...

I really like the spunk of that 30 year old Lyn that refused to accept the state of things the way they were and worked to change them. I think this can apply beautifully to weight loss and sugar addiction that so many of us struggle with!

Off to brush, rinse and floss now.


jo said...

Wow, that was a very powerful post.

Amy Jo said...

Lyn -
You just never cease to amaze me. :)

Have you ever thought about writing a book about your life and diet struggles? I know there are a lot of us who would buy it! Sure, you're still in the losing phase, but there are a whole lot more of us out there that are always struggling in the "losing" stage than people who have successfully lost it all. You have so many great insights into diet, exercise, life in general. You're a great role model :)

moonduster said...

I agree with Amy Jo! You are a very talented writer.

Ceres said...

"We can't always have what we want, even with the best of plans. But maybe, if we keep trying to improve our circumstances, eventually things will fall into place. "

You nailed it for me right there :-)

Knitty said...

That dentist was addressing you from a position of enormous privilege, and it really annoys me that he was so clueless.

As always, you are an inspiration :)

Karyn said...

you are a hero, Lyn....and I mean that in all sincerity. So many people would have sat down and cried, depended on government handouts (at least in Canada), and just accepted their 'fate'. YOU have worked so hard - in so many different circumstances to change your 'fate'. And you've succeeded.

When you are feeling everything is out of control, remember how you have taken control and changed things for the better!!!

With a resume like yours, there is NO DOUBT that you will reach your goal, weight-wise!

I'm so proud to call you my friend.

Billie said...

The last 2 posts are really great.

My parents were the same with the teeth. I never remember them telling me to brush my teeth. I think they just expected all of us kids to end up with false teeth as well.

Actually i have a lot of resentment over it, because now that i'm older and i want to have nice teeth so it is something i am going to have to work and save for.

But... my first priority is that my daughter takes excellent care of her teeth and to pay for her braces. The first 10 grand goes to her teeth, the 2nd 10 grand can go to my teeth.

antgirl said...

Great inspiration! Thank you for sharing.

Salted with Shadows said...

Great post.

new*me said...

I can really relate to your story....been there, literally.

Yesterday, I didn't work out in the evening........why? I was helping my son practice catching. He's on the baseball team this year and not doing so well with the catching part. I know I got some exercise in and at the moment, my lil' guy was priority.

Balance.......working on it :)

Anonymous said...

You need a new dentist. You could even say "you're right. I do prioritize things that are important to me. Right now I will prioritize finding another dentist."

And then maybe you could think to yourself "you enormous tool."

Feel free to improvise!

Chautauqua said...

Very inspiring. I'm on the brink of financial disaster right now; and your post grounded me and gave me hope. Thank you, and blessings on you and your family.

Theresa said...

I wanted to mention that it is more likely that your teeth suffered when you were pregnant with your children and struggling with finances..... the nutrition during pregnancy can change your teeth. I just did not want you to blame yourself for what you did as a kid! Many people who floss and brush regularly have poor teeth.... and many who hardly elevated a brush don't have a cavity. Fevers can also ruin tooth enamel. I really am enjoying your posts. You are such a thought provoking writer. I check your blog daily to see what you have to say and have printed out a few of your posts that are particularly meaningful to me. You've helped me dig deep into my own reasons for being obese.
Thank you so very much.