The symmetry that aches

Heather Bryant
7 min readFeb 2, 2020


It’s the same forward and backward. Today. 02022020.

I have to admit I’m usually annoyed when people carry on about unique dates.

This is the only time when it’s gonna look like that!

Well…yeah. That’s how time works.

Photo by Murray Campbell on Unsplash

We get really excited about the opportunity to observe something genuinely singular. A near impossible occurrence in a universe in which no event or process is truly unique. What occurs once can and does happen again.

Circumstances we think we’re free of can rebound in our lives across the distance between now and then. Sometimes that makes it hard to feel like you’ve made any progress at all.

I’m missing nearly a third of my teeth. They’ve been gone since I was a teenager. My access to dental care back then was despairingly inadequate.

There was never money for preventative dentistry. Nothing was fixed, only removed when it became troublesome. Crooked teeth stayed where they were until they had to go. My wisdom teeth pushed in and under my molars, dislodging and breaking them. At that point in time, I was a high school senior, renting a house in the town where I went to school and driving to the next town over to work every night and weekend. I made $6.25 an hour to cover rent, my car insurance, gas, groceries, power, water and the fanciful notion that I could set some aside for whatever future I might have. That income dropped during year as I missed work to have two surgeries to address severe carpal tunnel in my wrists. Workman’s comp covered the the cost of surgery but covered the time off at a smaller percentage. When my teeth started hurting I found a dentist near Kansas City. Their advice was to remove the damage. Anything else would cost money I didn’t have. It was already complicated enough, they couldn’t just be pulled, I had to have surgery to properly remove them.

That didn’t end it though. Within a week there was infection and it was found that teeth further forward had also been cracked and damaged. I remember standing in a classroom talking with a teacher and some classmates and everyone was telling me my face was swollen. I had been running a fever. I signed myself out of school and went to the first dentist I found that could see me immediately. He pulled more teeth and gave me a prescription for antibiotics. I still had to work that night.

You can’t immediately see it when I speak. I’m fortunate in some ways that the missing teeth come from the back of my upper and lower jaws. The damage in the front is mostly limited to crooked teeth. It turns out the real damage has been accumulating deeper in my jaws for the last decade and change.

The missing teeth mean that my jaws don’t sit in the joint correctly. I’ve always had a click. I don’t have enough teeth to properly chew with. All the pressure goes on my left side where I have more teeth.

Internally, I’m out of place as I am externally. Not enough to visibly disrupt life but enough to notice. Enough to matter.

Multiple processes have resulted from this misplacement. In the joint itself, I now have degenerative arthritis and extreme inflammation where the bones are in conflict because the jaw doesn’t sit properly in the joint. The jaw bone itself has compressed where my teeth are missing. The jaw is now so narrow that in order to get any implants that could permanently solve the jaw issue or give me teeth to chew with, I would have to have a bone graft.

Childhood poverty is etched into adult bones.

I feel it now deeply because over the past month, the inflammation and pain has become a constant, near-unbearable throb that dominates the left side of my head.

Imagine the worst toothache you’ve ever had. I feel like I have one in every tooth on the left side of my mouth. The pain radiates through the upper and lower jaw bones and up to my temple. It never stops.

Within days of really starting to feel this I went to the dentist, resigned to hearing that more teeth have been worn down and damaged and was shocked to hear that the teeth looked fine. It wasn’t supposed to be as bad this time because I have insurance now. It should have covered some cavities or whatever this was.

The cause of the pain isn’t in my teeth. My dentist instructed me to go to the doctor to get my sinuses checked. Per my medical insurance’s protocols I called the medical advice hotline to get triaged and scheduled. I ended up speaking with a young-sounding man who panicked because my lack of any other symptoms could have meant I was having a heart attack. Considering it had been going on for weeks, I felt there was low probability I was in the midst of a weeks-long myocardial infarction. He was going on an on about the ways heart attacks appear differently in women with the enthusiasm and certainty of someone who had just learned this information and was now applying it to every medical problem they encountered. That phone call made my head throb just a little more intensely.

No sinus problems. No heart attack either. The doctor’s conclusion was “maybe it’s nerve pain.” Maybe it will go away and maybe it won’t. She prescribed stronger ibuprofen and a pill for nerve pain that I can’t take. The side affects are such that the pharmacist told me to only take it when I have 8 hours that I can sleep. The doctor wanted me to take it three times a day. How am I suppose to work if I can’t stay awake? If I can’t think clearly?

It was a CT scan that found the inflammation. I returned to the dentist and she clasped both my hands and did a little happy dance completely at odds with the intensity of how badly I’ve been hurting in the intervening weeks.

She handed me a small piece of plastic with two little pillows of air a half inch in length connected with a strip of plastic that runs above my front teeth on the gums under my lip.

“This is usually a $1,000 but I’m giving it to you for free because you’re such a good patient.”

I had been a good patient to the tune of several thousand dollars of repair work on a credit card. Root canal twice over on the same tooth because the first time didn’t work, misshapen teeth that have ground on each other, cavities from the damage. Things that throb and ache until any interest rate is acceptable as long as it stops.

The piece of plastic is okay at first but the longer it’s in my mouth the more it hurts. It’s reminiscent of the sharp edges of the plastic of a freeze pop. It feels like I have several of those pressed into my gums. By the second day of using it, my gums are abraded, cut and bleeding from the plastic and the sharpness of that pain competing with the constant ache that occupies the left side of my head. I’m tempted to just chop up my credit and insurance cards and bite down on them instead.

Dental insurance won’t cover a long-term appliance that won’t cut up my mouth. The dentist says that runs about $5,000 to $7,000. A figure that absolutely boggles the mind. Medical insurance doesn’t want anything to do with things in the mouth. That’s dental care. Even though it’s a jaw issue, because the fix involves dental work, I’m caught in the arbitrary chasm between dentistry and medicine that exists for no other reason than historical professional rivalries and an insurance scheme that followed along.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll continue to bounce between these two disconnected systems in the hope that I can get some help covering an actual fix. Preferably before this volume of ibuprofen gives me another ulcer and liver damage. In the meantime I’ve just been maintaining the same cycle of hurting and trying to work that I’m tired of being familiar with.

I’ve been performing some facsimile of extroversion and normalcy at work in conference calls but when the camera shuts off or the phone hangs up I just put my head on my desk or reach for the Icy-Hot I’ve been putting on my face and the Orajel I coat my gums with to help distract me.

I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in well over a month. I’m up at 4 a.m. writing this because the pain woke me up and I needed something to do and because I’m so angry and I need to get it out.

I was one of the lucky ones who’s been able to improve my situation through some work and more luck and circumstance. I’ve never, not for one second, forgotten that comfort is fragile. Once you know that, it’s impossible to not know it. Days like today remind me of why I can’t forget. The symmetry aches. The past is in my head and it hurts.



Heather Bryant

Deputy Director of Product @NewsCatalyst. Founder of @ProjectFacet, supporting effective, meaningful collaboration. The future of journalism is collaborative.