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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

teeth

I was biting into my mozzarella and prosciutto sandwich with immense glee when I felt a sudden shift in the energy of the room. The lights darkened, the bread became stale, and the lettuce was wilted. There lying on my plate, laid the the bottom half of my front tooth.

Feeling its jagged remains with the tip of my tongue, I opened my front facing camera to survey the damage. "Is is terrible?" I lisped to my mother.

"Oh dear," she said with a grimace on her face . "It's not great."

I grew up with nearly perfect teeth that only required a retainer to fix a slight underbite. It was my greatest pride, the compliments I would receive over my 'perfect' teeth that required little dental assistance. Over the years, as anxious nail-biting presided over my life, my teeth shifted unpleasantly. Marred by the physical repercussions of my mental illness, my bottom teeth became crowded and crooked. My top right tooth pushed outwards, nearing snaggletooth territory. This shift from perfection to noticeable flaw became an even greater sense of stress for me. It was easy to blame myself, well, because it was my fault. If I hadn't been anxious, then I wouldn't have bitten my nails for 20 years, then I wouldn't have crooked teeth. Seems like sound, inexhaustible logic.

Anyway, during junior year of high school I was invited to a field hockey clinic at a prestigious college that I could only have dreamed of going to. There was a point in my life when I loved field hockey and then a point in my life when I was trying to convince myself I still loved it. This was that point. In reality, I was just going along with these clinics and tournaments because of a dream I once had, when I was 13 and I was certain that I was amazing. In high school, however, I wasn't certain of anything. I hated myself, hated school, and hated going to field hockey practice. Still, I went to this clinic because it was at Yale. I wanted to believe that in some delusional reality, the Yale coach actually saw past my shy and self-deprecating exterior and knew my potential. The truth was, they probably did not even know my name.

I was having a shitty season. I rolled my ankle during preseason and lost two weeks of training time and even worse, my conditioning. I was pretty much benched every single game, and during one game, I was the only player to not get a turn to see the field. For some, this would light a fire under the ass to prove themselves. For depressed high school me, it was the perfect reason to feel like a failure who was never going to amount to anything. During this college play day, I didn't play any differently than I did at school - reserved and completely in my head.

There was a moment with the college players, who were coaching my team, where I decided I needed to actually try. As a defender, that meant being aggressive and everywhere and unrelenting. I got on the field and decided this would be the moment, the moment when all the off-season training, dieting, and sprinting would be worth it. A forwarder came toward me with the ball on their stick. I met her, ready to poke the ball away. I was down low, my body crouching close to the ground, prepared to take the ball away from her and go up the field and- WHAM. She did a full-wind up, I'm talking golf swing, trying to launch the ball into the circle. Well, she missed the ball, but she certainly found a target with her stick. My face.

In slow motion, I grabbed my mouth right where she hit me. I pulled out my fire engine red mouthguard, and saw my tooth fall into the palm of my hand. My head was throbbing. I started sobbing out of shock. The head coach walked past us, looked at me, and said nothing. I knew then, that in this sport, I was nothing. I walked off the field.

My dad wanted me to stay. The player coaches told me I looked badass with my chip. I finished out the game, but my mind was anywhere but on that field. I knew that I was wasting my time pretending that I was going to get recruited, I just didn't have the heart to tell anyone that I knew that.

A week later, I realized that I was concussed. I spent the rest of the season on the bench, but at least this time, I had a reason to sit there and was not just embarrassingly waiting for my turn that was never going to come.

Field hockey is one of those things in life that had a sad ending for me. I almost got recruited to a school during my senior year, but when the coach had to pick between me and another player, she went with the other girl. She wanted a forward, I was a defender. It wasn't personal, it was just devastating. Who was I without field hockey? The truth, I ended up realizing eventually, I was better off.

Still, the sport that defined the first decade of my life is permanently, literally, etched into my body. I have a chip in my tooth that resurfaces once a year when I bite into sandwiches too aggressively. I have a scar on my nose where I ran into a girl and my face guard cut into my face. I have a particularly weak ankle that has seen its fair share of sprains, crutches at prom, and awful bruises.

That was a lot of exposition there just to talk about my tooth. As always with me, a tooth is more than just a tooth, and a story is there for a reason. The tooth is (don't roll your eyes are my oral puns), that me chipping my tooth eating my prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich is exactly a year ago to the date I had chipped my tooth last year eating wawa mac and cheese. The universe is absolutely insane for that. Maybe it's telling me to switch to salads. Furthermore, I'm still trying to discern what it means for my personal growth that this is a cyclical, quite literally annual thing at this point. So let's dissect it.

In high school, the chip didn't matter as much to me as the reason for it. I didn't actually care what I looked like because I went to an all-girls school where caring was considered weird. (If you wore noticeable mascara to school, you got questions.) I also was so focused on living the day to day battles of having no friends, trying to do well in a school where I often procrastinated, and going to practice for a sport where I was sidelined, that I didn't have time to care about how I looked. Besides, I knew high school was just a stepping stone to the next things, and so I just kept enduring with that in mind.

Last year, the chip mattered a ton because it reminded me of my perceived reality that I am unfixable and flawed. I felt literally disgusting walking around on campus and that I shouldn't speak lest someone have to bear witness to the chip. It represented the carelessness with which I often treated myself and even more so, was another piece of evidence for why I was unpalatable and unlikeable. To me, it was quite honestly a physical manifestation of all the things that had chipped away at my self-esteem and happiness. I hated it.

This time, even though I don't particularly love it, the chip is just there. I don't feel myself flinching every time I have to open my mouth. Even if it is unsightly, I can actually laugh about it and not feel like it represents some deficit within me. I still can go to work and help people find clothes that make them smile and I don't hide my smile because I'm afraid of being imperfect. That doesn't mean I'm not going to get it fixed, my appointment is tomorrow at 9 am. It does mean, that I can actually look at myself in the mirror as a whole person, which is pretty exciting.

This is my long-winded way of saying that when I have had physical flaws in the past, I haven't handled them well. Now, I feel like I am finally at a stage in my life where these flaws can be annoying, but they don't have to be world-ending. Chip or no chip, I am still the exact same version of me I was before I bit into that sandwich. And it was a good sandwich.

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