‘When I left home at the age of 19 to attend University I put off finding a dentist as the bulimia deepened … fear of being found out was too strong.’
Eating disorders rob us of many precious things – including our smile. It’s hard to smile without front teeth – I know. And we need to smile, for smiling allows light and warmth into our starved and hungry soul.
The good news is that we have a great opportunity to tell dentists what it feels like when our eating disorder starts to ‘eat’ and destroy our teeth. On April 5, I will co-present with Prof. Susan Paxton at the 35th Australian Dental Congress in Melbourne. Our presentation is listed on the main scientific program. Our topic is: Reflux and related diseases. I invite you to share your experience to help the dentists know how to help others.
The congress theme is Fact, Fiction and Fantasy – apt for eating disorders. I mentioned in a previous blog that my two front teeth were destroyed by anorexia at age 12. A big gold filling was inserted to fill the gap. It kept falling out. Sometimes I would sit it on the table cloth at meal time in the kitchen of my parents’ farmhouse, thinking it was safer to do this than swallow it. Sometimes my industrious mother would swoop the cloth off the table and take it outside to flap it in the breeze and shake the crumbs into her flower garden for the birds – oops, the gold filling flew through the air, too. An urgent emu-parade type search search would be undertaken among the plants and dirt. Prayers would be said. Please God, may we find the filling before the hens gobble it up thinking it is a nice piece of corn – otherwise we will be looking for a golden egg. Amazingly, the filling would be retrieved and re-instated … and a prayer of thanks would be given, until next time.
At age 28, with advancements in technology and savings in my bank account, the two front teeth were capped. Smiling became easier. I felt more confident. How I had hated that gold filling which did not reflect light. But my problems did not end there. The caps would fall off. At the most embarrassing moments. Like when chomping on a raw carrot while filing a story in the busy newspaper office (try talking with your mouth closed) and while swimming at the deep end of a 50-metre pool (more prayers, much deep duck diving, more prayers, more deep duck diving, searching among the band-aids, and other paraphanalia swirling around on the floor of the pool, feeling like a gold medallist upon retrieving the small but mightily expensive cap). Sounds like fiction or fantasy maybe, but for me, this was fact.
My dentists over the years have been kind and supportive. They have helped me to hold on to what teeth remain, and take care of them. I did not reveal, when I was young, that I had an eating disorder, and the dentist did not ask. I think it would have helped a lot, if the dentist had broached the subject – because the more people on your treatment team the better, and you cannot hide evidence of an eating disorder in your mouth. To put it another way, the nasty, elusive eating disorder cannot hide there. The dentist is in a prime position to spot early signs and symptoms of an eating disorder and encourage intervention. The dentist is in a prime position to confront ‘Ed’ and help both prevention and recovery.
Thank you to ‘V’ for sharing this story – I hope inspires you to write about your experience too:
My parents always made sure my brother and I went to the dentist twice a year, they did their best to make sure we looked after our teeth and each time the dentist commented on our healthy teeth.
As a teenager, the usual fear of dentists became an anxiety which kept me worrying for days before the next appointment. I was sure he would be able to tell I was making myself sick. But still he was pleased and I left relieved and proud not to have any fillings.
When I left home at the age of 19 to go to University I put off finding a dentist as the bulimia deepened. I knew I should find one but fear of being found out was too strong. I felt lucky that my teeth were unaffected by the vomiting then one Christmas eve as I was biting off sticky tape to wrap a present, I felt my tooth crumble. There had been a slight gap between my front teeth but now the tip of my left front tooth had broken. I used to smile all the time even if it was to hide how I was feeling, I did not dare to show my teeth to anyone anymore, if I caught a glimpse of them I felt disgusted with myself. Soon the right one began to chip away and all of them were growing more sensitive.
It took five years before I decided I had to go to the dentist, certain he was going to comment on them. He didn’t, I was given antibiotics and told a reminder for the next appointment would be mailed in six months. Now I felt like I wanted someone to ask what I was doing but I didn’t go back for another two years.
Pain forced me to visit again; in the same surgery I saw a different dentist and she asked if I had thought about fixing my front teeth with a filling. I saved up and went for it, a composite filling which meant I could smile again. They lasted two weeks before one fell off, I knew why it had but I couldn’t say. After it was fixed she asked me if I drank fizzy drinks or fruit juice and to drink them through a straw to stop the erosion to my teeth. I was sure she knew the real reason and in my mind I was pleading for her to ask. Every few months one of them would fall off and she would say the thing.
By this point I had decided to find help through my GP and was in therapy. Now I am fully recovered and last year visiting family in Arizona, the filling once more fell out. My mum took me to her dentist in Mexico where I was told Crowns were the only way to fix them now.
I had dreaded this moment. As she worked away, I knew I was losing my own front teeth for good; she was very kind and caring. I kept thinking I did this, I ruined my teeth and although she did not know why I was upset, I felt safe there. Something in the way she spoke to me gave me confidence.
It still catches me sometimes, thinking I have no front teeth left, I can smile and she did a great job but I know they are not real. I need to go back to my own dentist again; I no longer have the fear of being discovered but I am still scared of what she will think and of the damage I have done.
The sharing of your experiences will be anonymous. In brief, I seek life experiences from sufferers of eating disorders – your feelings in a) going to the dentist b) responding to questions c) effect of dental visit d) effect of ED on your teeth – short term, long term and e) effect on your happiness, and above all, your smile:-). What steps can dentists take to help a patient who they suspect may have an eating disorder sufferer today?
I look forward to your response – by March 15. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org