In which I am officially no longer a metal mouth (it only took 25 years!)

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So I’m sitting at my computer last night when my tongue informed me that there was something wrong with my mouth.

Normally my tongue doesn’t inform me about stuff like that. I mean – it’s a tongue, it sort of just rests there on the bottom of my mouth. But I was idly playing with my website, trying to figure out how to make it prettier, when I realized that my 25-year-old fixed retainer had reconfigured itself into a twangy instrument that my tongue was attempting to play.

Now, I’m used to my tongue on the retainer – after all, I’ve had the little strip of metal wiring cemented along the back of my bottom six front teeth since I was about fifteen years old, the same week I had my braces removed. Its entire purpose in life is to ensure that my teeth – which my parents spent thousands of dollars in an attempt to straighten – don’t slide back into their crooked, despicable ways. I have no idea why the orthodontist gave me a fixed retainer instead of a removable one, but he did, and that strip of metal has been the bane of my existence ever since.

Why? Well, for one thing, it’s impossible to clean around it without special tools. The wire runs so close to my teeth that toothbrush bristles can’t get under it. Regular flossing doesn’t work either, because since the metal is around the halfway point of the teeth, the floss never actually hits my gums. They make special loops that are meant to slide under the metal wire so you can floss under there – but you can’t just go into a store and buy them, you have to special order them online and even when I’ve tried the samples the dentist gives out, I can’t get them damn things to work.

I have over the last fifteen years asked every dentist I’ve seen if they can remove the thing, citing my difficulty in cleaning under it. And despite every one of them complaining about how I don’t clean there properly – they’ve all refused, saying my teeth might move back into their original positions without the retainer. Which just seems silly, since by this point, my teeth have been in their current positions for twice as long as they were ever in their original ones. If they want to move after twenty-five years of being in a fixed point – well, it was kind of a lost cause in the first place, wasn’t it?

But back to last night. I’m sitting at the computer, clicking away with my mouse, when I realized that my mouth was clicking too. Well, not clicking. More like twang-ing, as my tongue flicked the suddenly mobile retainer up and down, as if it was rehearsing for an audition for a milk-jug bang. TWANG TWANG TWANG. I’ve been feeling this metal bar on the back of my teeth for twenty-five years – I’ve never felt it move. So I had to go and see what was going on in the bathroom mirror.

And sure enough – one end had popped clean off.

Now here’s the thing: not even eighteen hours before this happened, the boys and I had left the States and gone back to the LoL. I don’t have a dentist here, and I’ve heard some horror stories about cost and wait times and the like (though the quality of care is supposed to be okay). Of course, it doesn’t matter how the quality actually is; half the time, the State Dept gets real wiggy about having medical care in countries other than the US, and will med-evac for the smallest of reasons.

So Con: my loose retainer might mean a med-evac.

Then again, Pro: my loose retainer might mean a med-evac to London. (Not that I really want to get on a plane again after a 24-hour set of flights and an extended layover in Abu Dhabi.)

I’m not sure why I did what I did next. Maybe it was the jet-lag. Maybe it was the thought of having to actually deal with a med-evac, and all its moving pieces. But clearly it hadn’t hurt when one end of the retainer popped off – after all, I hadn’t felt any pain.

What if I… just with my fingernail… sort of tried to…


And just like that, I did what no dentist was willing to do for me, and also denied my tongue a place in the Musician Hall of Fame. I removed the damn retainer that’s been impeding my ability to properly brush my teeth for the last 25 years and held it in my hand. 

It's kinda cute, maybe?

It’s… a lot smaller than I thought it was.

The back of my teeth looked terrible. There was a ridge of gunk where the retainer had been sitting, as if twenty-five years of plaque had set up permanent residence. I could see the cement sitting forlornly on two teeth, and there were a couple of dark spots that resembled deep pits of despair and dental suffering. In short: not good.

Now, maybe some people, when they have something fall out of their mouths, their first reaction is to freak out. Or to put it under their pillow for Tooth Fairy Bribery. (Which actually I should totally try: I wonder how much the Tooth Fairy offers for old retainers?)

Me? My first reaction was to do something I have been wishing I could do for 25 years now.

I brushed my teeth.

(Okay, fine, I brush my teeth all the time. Just… not those teeth, in that location.)

Brushing was great. Until I spit in the sink, and realized I was spitting blood.

Also not good. But not painful in the slightest, so I carried on and flossed.

It was heavenly. For about a second, and then it just hurt. Within two teeth, not only were my gums bleeding, but the floss was stained with blood, and when I looked in the mirror, I resembled a vampire.

Now, bleeding when you haven’t flossed in a while is normal, and those poor gums have only ever really seen floss when I’ve seen the dentist. But what really had me worried was that the ridge of plaque was still there, and the cement was still there, and the Dark Holes of Death and Decay were still there.

(Which makes me wonder: if the gums were so bad that they were bleeding everywhere for just being touched by a piece of string… how close am/was I to actually losing them entirely?  And how is that preferable to them moving back into their teenaged positions?)

So now my mouth was clean (if a bit bloody), and my tongue, denied its chance at musical greatness, was running itself along the ridge of plaque, which just felt weird. Mentally, I knew that brushing and flossing again so quickly would probably do more harm than good, but it was really hard to ignore that impulse against the desire to get the ridge gone.

So I did what any self-respecting jet-lagged idiot would do.

I tried to scrape it out myself. With a set of pointy tweezers.

Do not use on teeth.

(Look, I was jet-lagged. You cross three continents with two cranky children and spend $60 in an airport for three slices of pizza, a can of Pringles, and a bottle of water, and tell me you wouldn’t do the same.)

The good news is I still have my teeth.

The better news is that it worked. I was able to scrape away enough of the plaque that I suspect it wasn’t actually 25 years of build-up (maybe six months of build-up, since that was the last time I was at the dentist). I got most of it off, too – the backs of my front two bottom teeth are nice and smooth, or so my tongue is continually informing me. The cement is still there, the Two Black Spots are still there, and there’s still some build-up left in a few places, but for the most part, it’s pretty good.

(I’m sure every dentist I’ve ever had is screaming in horror and has no idea why.)

Say "Ah!"

So now I have a 25-year-old retainer in my desk drawer, a tongue that can’t stop caressing the back of my teeth, a trigger-happy dental floss container, and a newfound vigor for brushing twice a day. (Also a probably-traumatized set of pointy tweezers.)

I’m sure people have done stupider things under the influence of jet-lag – but I have to think attacking one’s teeth with tweezers isn’t that far down the list.

Posted in my life.


  1. Oh my! I’m kind of horrified that any dentist would cement wire into your mouth for that long. But I think I’d have done exactly what you did – in fact I have used tweezers on my mouth before. You see about a month after I had a tooth which had shattered taken out my tongue informed me there was something sharp in the gap and after inspecting with a mirror I could see the tip of what looked like a shard of tooth sticking out of the gum. So I got my tweezers and, after a few fake starts, pulled. It came right out and felt so much better afterwards!

    • OUCH OUCH OUCH. I’m amazed it didn’t hurt when you pulled it out – but I’m glad it felt better after.

      From what I’ve been reading online, having a fixed retainer for 25 years is on the very, very long end. Most of the people posting about having them fall out have only had them in for 10-15 years, and even then they’re told that’s on the longer end of normal. I guess my orthodontist just had super-powered cement – or I’m not eating as many apples as he anticipated. 🙂

      Anyway, I’m going to try to find a dentist or orthodontist here – they do exist – and see about getting the cement scraped off and check to make sure everything’s all good. I never realized the back of my front teeth were so bumpy!

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