I had just turned nineteen when a routine visit to the dentist suddenly took a nasty turn….
“Look at those wizzies!” Fred said, fingering my gums. “We need to take those babies out asap!”
“Are you sure?” I asked, feeling sick.
“Of course I’m sure,” Fred said, offended. “I’ve been a dentist for twenty goddamn years. Don’t worry, they’ll put you under before they get started.”
I relaxed immediately. Several painful things had happened to me under local anesthetic, so I was apprehensive of staying awake during any sort of medical procedure and wanted to be put under for most things, including having my legs waxed. However, up until now, nobody had ever offered me a general anesthetic, so I felt very excited. Furthermore, I would likely be prescribed some sweet pain killers to cope with the post-op agony. My love affair with pharmaceuticals stretched back to infancy, and I had developed quite a strong tolerance for most over-the-counter medications by the time I reached adolescence. An opportunity to legitimately obtain some harder gear was way too good to pass up.
“Will there be panadeine forte or similar involved in this?” I asked Fred, trying to keep my voice casual.
“Hell yes,” he replied. “Do you have any idea how deep your wisdom teeth grow?”
I waved him away and sat back in the chair, already planning how this tooth extraction surgery would pan out. I would get to go to hospital for the first time ever, and the novelty of this would be so intense that it would outweigh any negative aspects of having my teeth wrenched from my head. After the operation, I would stay at my parents’ house, where I would lie on the lounge and watch Dawson’s Creek for a week. Of course, this didn’t differ very much at all from my regular life, except that now I would be doing it while I was fucked up on codeine. Further, I would have my mother and father around to wait on me. It would be like a holiday that didn’t cost any money, just teeth.
The big day arrived and my mother drove me to the hospital in the morning. After I registered with reception, I was taken into a consultation room and instructed to remove all my jewellery and hair accessories.
“I’m having my mouth operated on, not my pony tail,” I told the nurse.
“This is standard procedure,” she replied defensively. “Now, how much do you weigh?”
“That’s a little personal,” I protested.
“We need to know your weight in order to figure out how much anesthetic to give you,” she explained.
“Oh. In that case, put me down for 80kg.”
After I left the consultation room, I was shown into a pre-op area and given a gown to change into. My mother paced around the room, looking anxious.
“Don’t worry, Mum,” I told her, “I’ll be fine!”
“Oh it’s not that,” she said. “I’ve asked your father to tape A Country Practice and I’m worried he won’t remember.”
After I undressed, I was put on a bed and wheeled to the operating theatre. Once there, a man inserted an IV into my arm, smiled, and told me to count backwards from ten. “Ten…” I said, and promptly passed out.
When I came to, I was in a room with several other girls lying in beds. I panicked straight away. Was this an abortion clinic? Had I just gotten breast implants? Been hit by a bus? Donated an organ? I flagged a nurse and grabbed her arm when she came to my bed. She patted my hand reassuringly and adjusted my gown, which had slipped down to my belly button. I hadn’t even noticed, I was so out of it.
I woke up again about half an hour later. This time, my mother was sitting next to me. “Are you ready yet?” she asked. “I’ve been here all freaking day, let’s hit the road.”
When we got home, I strapped a pack of ice around my jaw. Then I took four panadeine forte and got into bed. I woke up at 3pm the next day and prepared to move to the lounge. But here, my holiday began to divert from the original plan. Codeine made me simple-minded and unable to follow the swift, verbose dialogue of Dawson’s Creek. I kept falling asleep during each episode and waking up confused. And despite using the ice pack, after 24 hours, my jaw had swelled incredibly and my head resembled a peanut. My plans to recover glamorously, lying on the couch and entertaining visitors while my parents fetched me ice cream, had been thwarted by the fact that I was too embarrassed to let anybody see me. My brother came home from work and sat on the coffee table, studying me. “You kind of look like you have Down’s syndrome,” he said. “Except uglier.”
“Fuck you,” I replied, too drugged up to think of any other response.
“I’m going to get my camera!” he said and went to his room.
I took two more panadeine forte and sank into the couch cushions, mentally willing my jaw to shrink.
The swelling did go down eventually, but it took exactly one week. One horribly long week of avoiding mirrors and keeping the blinds closed. Even after the pain in my jaw subsided, I couldn’t leave the house because I now had a deformed head. My brother invited his friends over to show them how ugly I had become. The ironing man looked at me sympathetically, the way one looks at a failed suicide who has inflicted hideous scars on themself but somehow scraped together the will to live, even with a face like a dropped pie. However, I was nowhere near that stoic. I wrapped big scarves around my face, even when I was home alone. And I flat-out refused to move back to my share house until my head had regained its normal shape. I realised that my face was the most important thing in the world to me, and I made a lifelong commitment to protect it. I would wear helmets and mouth guards and goggles and hats and sunscreen forever, because I knew I would never have the strength of character required to live with a crooked nose or a third degree facial burn. Oh I was born with blemishes like everyone else, but I was blessed with imperfections that I could mostly hide with clothing, make up, and lies. The Week of Ugly made me realise how lucky I was. Sure, I might have been dealt short-sightedness, scoliosis and terrible migraines, but at least I didn’t have a head shaped like a fucking peanut.