Street Talk: Ode to a toothache

·6 min read

Oct. 23—Mae West

For many days, the tooth was just an aching, throbbing nuisance down there at the bottom of my mouth. It was always there and it was impossible to ignore, but it wasn't yet the brand of bright red agony that leaves even the strongest of men writhing in helpless agony and willing to consider the most drastic of options in his desperate prayers for relief.

But look at me getting ahead of myself. For the past week, I've been trying to think of ways to describe the punishing pain of a really bad toothache. No matter how creative you get with the analogies, no matter how many twisted images come to mind, none seem to do it justice.

A red hot needle jammed into the gums? A raw nerve yanked into open air and set on fire? A rusty spike driven into an open tooth socket and then sprinkled with salt?

The pain of a bad tooth is immense. Extraordinary. When it comes for real — this screaming banshee of agony — you, the sufferer, will have moments where you are rendered clinically insane. You cannot BELIEVE that pain can get this bad. You cannot BELIEVE that any mortal being is capable of enduring its inexorable wrath.

Your twisted and traumatized mind will flirt with ideas of grisly death as a viable option to escape the enormity of the torment.

You will punch the walls, swipe tears from your eyes and consider any and all potential remedies you can find.

The proposed remedies are many.

A whole clove set directly on the aching tooth? An aspirin crushed into powder and sprinkled upon the agony? Clove oil? A peppermint tea bag? Salt water? An over-the-counter numbing agent?

Puny things, all of them. At that stage of pain, it's like using a flimsy stick to fend off a bolt of lightning. But you'll try them anyway, because how long can you possibly endure that spike of lightning in your mouth?

If someone were to come along and tell you that graveyard moss and eye of newt were the answers, by God, you'd dash out and start scrounging in the backyard.

If you thought that yanking the offending tooth out of your head "Castaway" style would end this torture, you'd try that, too.

It's a serious consideration because, remember, all reason and clarity left you the very moment your throbbing tooth soared to that impossible level of pain and then refused to budge.

"Does anyone sell Novocaine on the street?" you will whimper to the walls of your lonely room. "I will trade my house, car and kidney for just a dram."

Along with your sanity and sense of manliness, one other thing will leave you when your bum tooth decides to fire up a blow torch in your head: your fear of the dentist.

Scared of that man in the white coat? Why, you'd fix him his favorite dinner and offer to put his kid through college if he'd just come over RIGHT @!#! NOW and remove the source of this agony.

When you're in the grip of such paralyzing pain, you'd gladly accept the help of a back-alley hack operating from the trunk of his car if that fellow was available.

Anything, brother. Anything at all. No remedy is too far fetched, no option too drastic when that sizzling, white hot spike of pain spears into your head and renders all other woes tiny and insignificant.

I have a decent threshold for pain. I'll walk off with steely machismo a stab wound, a punched jaw or a baseball to the groin.

But I've had bad toothaches before and when this fresh one came on, I was seized by a kind of terror that is utterly childlike. There is a helplessness about it — a clawing panic and a sense of desperation and doom.

said George Bernard Shaw,

Your teeth, as it turns out, have an abundance of neural connections to the pain centers in your brain. A bad tooth will send a sadistic messenger to that pain center and he will jab a spear in it — a spear that's not going to go away no matter how much you scream or how many holes you kick in the drywall.

There are two kinds of people, I've found. Those who have suffered the unparalleled trauma of a bad tooth and those who haven't.

The first kind of folks get it at once when you get to whining about your pain. They'll wince and cringe the moment you bring it up.

"Sincerely wanted to blow my head off," said one man who experienced that ice pick to the gums.

"Won't lie to you," said another. "I cried like a baby and sincerely wished for death."

The other type, those fortunate souls who have never had the pleasure of real tooth pain, are typically wise folks: men and women who keep appointments with their dentists every six months whether they have pressing needs or not.

"Can't you just put some Anbesol on it?" these folks will ask, as you writhe like a wounded caterpillar on their living room floor.

They mean well, those people. If they've never suffered a raging tooth, they won't understand that over-the-counter numbing agents only make a throbbing nerve angrier. There will be hell to pay for even considering it.

The day that the glass-shard pain moved into my mouth and refused to leave, I spent 36 hours without sleep — nobody, but NOBODY sleeps with a toothache — every second of those hours a clinic in agony.

My entire existence was narrowed to one small corner of my tiny room where I alternated between rocking back and forth and whimpering, and making frantic calls to any dentist with a listing. When I found one, I couldn't get into his chair quick enough, and I greeted his chisel (or whatever it is they use to pry a vexatious tooth out of its socket) not with dread, but with reverence.

The ripping, the crunching, the twisting and tugging ... Child's play, all of it, when compared to the monstrous pain that delivered you to the chair. A person with a toothache will express nothing but gratitude to the stranger inhabiting his mouth with cold steel implements.

That damned tooth consumed the better part of a week for me, yet in all those hours during which there was absolutely nothing else on my mind, I still failed to come up with a single fitting way to describe a toothache.

Why bother, anyway? If over-the-counter medicine and a world full of natural remedies can't touch a toothache, what good are a few adjectives going to do?

I have failed. But frankly, I don't care because now that the pain is gone, I'm tired of thinking about it. I'll leave the rest of it to the great thinkers of our time.

said the poet Ogden Nash.

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