When I was a sophomore in college, an oral surgeon made four incisions behind each of my bottom and top molars, ripped both upper and lower jaws from my head, repositioned them and painfully screwed the two sets back into my skull.

And I asked him to do it.

I had lived with a 1 ½ inch underbite for 10 years. However, in a matter of merely four hours, I would have closure on a decade’s worth of using miniscule brushes to excavate food out of my braces, dodging rubber bands which, while connected to each bracket, would catapult out of my mouth if I smiled too big, and much more.

Regardless, minutes before the operation, the only thing I could focus on while laying in my warm, comforting hospital bed purposefully equipped with a half dozen blankets for consolation was the small faucet in the prepping room intended for hand washing. It beckoned me to leave my hospital bed and run my mouth under it. Drip-drip-drip it sang, taunting me more with every single dribble.

But I couldn’t. And I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in nearly 12 hours as I waited for surgeons to reconstruct my face. If the anesthesia made me sick for some reason after the surgery, I could possibly start to vomit, which would destroy what my oral surgeon would do in the next half hour.

So, water was out of the question. All I could do was stare at the sink.

And then stare as a nurse came into my small prepping area at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City and slowly shoved a needle the length of an adult index finger into my left hand.

And then stare at my parents, both teary-eyed, as the nurse wheeled me into the operating room.

And then stare at the crowd of medical practitioners, completely disguised in blue scrubs and latex, as they cheered my name when I finally arrived before them.

I thought back to the third grade right before they put me under, when I first heard the term braces. At the time, I never thought my physical appearance and personality would travel  such a dramatic, transformative 10-year arc. Back in my orthodontist’s waiting room in 2004, all I thought about was how “cool” it was to be the first kid in the third grade to get some colorful, showy hardware.

“You have an underbite,” assessed Dr. David Birdwell after fitting together plaster molds of my top and bottom teeth he had taken from my last appointment. I was 9 and, surprisingly, incredibly enthusiastic to choose what color bands the doc was about to painfully stretch over each bracket.

Upon my return to class, my classmates were enamored by my now vibrant teeth. Colored brackets started popping up on everyone’s smiles during the next two years of elementary school. Although wiring would stab my lips and gums causing sores from time to time and I had been told to wear “headgear” every night—a contraption resembling a catcher’s mask, only hollowed and fit with rubber bands attached to my top jaw—I loved the temporary attention. By the sixth grade, my orthodontist took off my braces, and my teeth were fairly straight.

What I didn’t know was that braces wouldn’t fix my underbite. They had aggressively lined my pearly whites into an orderly formation a drill sergeant would have been proud of, but I wasn’t done growing by a longshot. My facial composition began resembling a person sucking on tobacco dip. A lisp started to slowly creep into my daily speech. Eating certain foods became such a challenge that by my senior year of high school, I couldn’t take a bite of pizza and was forced to eat many things with a fork and knife. During a visit to my orthodontist in my senior year, he advised me that surgery would be the only way to completely correct my underbite. What he failed to tell me was that my underbite would be one of the biggest corrections he had ever been confronted with.

Going into college, I believed appearances were extremely significant. Looking back on it, if a semi-dorky freshman with a weird looking smile (check), a lisp (check) and braces (check) walked into a fraternity house during rush or walked up to a girl, he would immediately strike out.

So I was a little apprehensive. My orthodontist and I made a deal throughout my freshman year, however: I would only have to wear bottom braces during my first year of college. Yes, I was and still am a little vain. But what adolescent guy isn’t?

The surgery went better than expected. My surgeon casually greeted me as soon as I woke up and assured me recovery would be easy. Although I was a little pessimistic about the healing process when blood seeped out of both my mouth and nose like a bath faucet as I sat up for the first time hours after, I made myself think positively. If I sulked around and complained about my situation, I was only hurting myself. The next day, I demanded to take a stroll around the hospital. I clutched onto my rolling IV like an old man holds a walker. Wide-eyed nurses and recovering patients were greeted with a muffled “What’s up” and a high-five as I strolled down the hallway, desperate to recuperate.

In the coming weeks, I would start to undergo various physical changes. The swelling in my cheeks (which resembled a mobster’s from “The Sopranos”) would go down significantly. I would lose 20 pounds in about two months due to my inability to eat solid food. My mouth would open only enough to fit a pill of Advil between my bottom jaw and the splint the doctors had installed to allow proper healing. For the first two weeks, the only path to a meal was through a plastic, hospital-grade syringe. The lowest point was when I drank pizza by blending two pieces in a blender.  It tasted as bad as you can imagine, but the grueling hunger that clawed at my stomach day and night was enough incentive.

Looking back on it, the process doesn’t seem that bad. My chin is still slightly numb, a characteristic the surgeon says is permanent. But, my facial design is much better than it was. I can enunciate every spoken word, and I can even eat pizza, which is obviously the best part.

But most situations, whether bad or good, are temporary. Optimism acts as a hefty tool as it can alter any situation for the better. Having my face completely reconfigured led me to one definitive conclusion: If that was the worst thing I ever had to go through, I can get through about any daunting task or situation.

Sitting on my couch while high on Vicodin days after the procedure, transcribing my barely-understandable thoughts to whoever visited me, I kept feeling this nagging sense of clarity. Even though I had just undergone a painfully transformative process, I was extremely happy and almost in a euphoric state. Because, for once in my life, I was looking forward and not back. I couldn’t wait to get off that couch, let the orthodontist rip the second round of braces out of my mouth and genuinely smile for once in my life.

Now, I smile all of the time.


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