I sit downtown Nashville, at a non-profit healthcare agency. Forty to fifty people surround me, hoping to be one of the fifteen chosen to be seen.
I am here because these are the Jessica Years. In August I turned 37 and have only three years until I hit my forties. I have knighted and ordained these three years for healing.
I’ve just watch my marriage collapse–it was a marriage that left me with deep scars. I now struggle to regain worth. Who I am? How does one recover from devastation?
My goals are threefold:
1.) Become healthy–emotionally, spiritually, and physically
2.) Fix my Teeth
3.) Establish Myself Professionally
Those goals better suit a twenty-year-old, but I’ve lost precious time, and like a writer on a deadline, I need to work hard to enter my forties the person I want to be.
I planned to start with losing weight, but apparently the Jessica Years kick off with me rising at 4 in the morning to go stand in line at a dental clinic.
The pain refuses to be ignored.
Pain, I tell myself as I rise from bed, can be a wonderful thing. It is an indication that something is wrong. It is motivation to fix it.
I stand in my walk-in closet, knowing that this is a big moment for me. Less than a year ago, rising before dawn and driving to Nashville would have been impossible. I had difficulty leaving the house to go to the grocery store much less driving to the inner city. How do I dress, I wonder, looking over my hodge-podge of Goodwill finds and donations from friends. If I look too well-dressed will they turn me away? Yet, I know I need to go to the office afterward. I can’t dress down.
This is a very emotional moment for me, as well. For years, I felt barred from pursuing the care I needed. There is no greater pain I know than believing the message that you are not worth the respect and care given to others. Pushing back against that belief causes emotional stress—every time.
Furthermore, I feel embarrassed because I know the way you can be treated when you’re seeking help for a preventable medical condition. And they are right. Ultimately, it is my fault my teeth are not fixed. I live in America. I have rights. I could have walked away at any time. I could have taken a job and refused to hand over the money and fixed me instead. Really legitimately, I have no excuse.
Yet I find myself in desperate need of grace and mercy. I know from past experience they may try to shame me. I also know, if they do, I will shatter easily.
I choose a dark shirt, in case there is blood. I choose blue jeans and leather sandals with a corduroy jacket. To it, I add a beaded necklace. It’s a good mix of casual and business.
When I get in the car, I lean over the steering wheel and cry. I beg God to please, please keep me from crying when I speak to people at the clinic.
It is a pointless prayer. And I know it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prayed it in the past. It nearly always goes unanswered. Perhaps though, this too, it is part of my healing. Tears keep you from hiding your vulnerability. And I have no greater wish than to hide it.
When I arrive, I face my first hurdle. There is a line forming at the door, and I am the only white person. Never, in my entire life, have I been in the minority. And right now, I really want to just blend in. No. I need to blend in. This is hard enough without feeling more self-conscious.
Not only am I the only white person here, but I’m the only one carrying a computer bag, wearing a blackberry and dressed for a day at the office. I hesitate, feeling embarrassed. It’s not like I can tell them I didn’t purchase these items—that my employers did. Some of the people in line don’t look like they have jobs. I feel like I am cheating them.
But I’m not cheating them, I rationalize. This clinic is here for everyone. And I legitimately need help. I’m a person too. So I join the growing line.
There are a few raised eyebrows, but there’s one welcoming smile. I guess the elderly man is Japanese. That one smile, that one small gift, helps more than its giver can imagine.
So I stand my ground.
And I observe. No one appears to be in obvious pain. I see no swollen cheeks. No warm packs against someone’s jaw. No wincing. I see gum chewing. I start to breath easier, feeling like maybe I’m not being selfish and taking something at the expense of someone else.
I also notice that my neighbors have manicures and pedicures, highlighted hair, designer bags and—yes—smart phones too. All things I’ve never purchased for myself. This interests me, because while I’m wearing the nicest looking clothing, they’re showing they take far more personal care of themselves.
An hour passes. The line grows to about forty people. Then the doctors and dentists arrive. Heads bent, they walk through us, forcing us to move for them. One nurse, wears a huge smile and tells everybody hello.
Soon the doors open. Orders are barked. We are to remain in order, ten people at a time are to enter, take a seat, and then the next ten people are to enter, and take the next ten seats. We are not to break our place, if we break our place in line, we will not be seen that day. And so forth and so on.
When we’re seated I ask the girl next to me, “Have you been here before?”
“No,” she answers. “This is my first time here.” Then she proceeds to tell me how she’s learned that only about ten people will be seen that day. “You’re lucky,” she says, “you’re number nine.”
I don’t feel lucky. I feel sick. I feel like I’m robbing someone else of the chance to be seen. The girl is number eight.
The manager seats the last person and asks in a loud voice for all medical—not dental—medical walk-ins to please raise their hands.
There are only two, which means everybody else here is dental too. Well, I think, at least I know where to go guilt free the next time I have a medical condition.
The manager goes on to explain that approximately fifteen people will be seen today, and they might have to wait all day. Anybody who wants to risk being one of the fifteen is welcome to wait. Patients will be evaluated in the order they came in. If our case warrants being an emergency, then we’ll be passed through. If not, the emergencies will go ahead of us.
I close my eyes, fighting unease. What constitutes an emergency?
Inside is when you notice the body odor. When the babies cry. I seem to be the only tense person. Everyone else is chatting, reading, watching TV and snoozing. We sign up in groups of ten. Next to your name, you have to check a box as to whether or not you’ve been there before. Number Eight has checked yes. Puzzled by her, I check no.
Once signed into the system, people break rank and sit in different places. This surprises me. Someone else claims my seat. I move three times, never feeling comfortable.
When I am called to speak to the manager, to be evaluated, I feel tears rising.
“Why are you here?”
I explain that I have periodontal disease, and that I have my first appointment scheduled there in two months time, but the infection has inflamed, and I’ve taken antibiotics and I’m not sure what exactly is wrong, but I know it won’t wait two months.
“How do you know what you have? Who gave you antibiotics? Do you have insurance? Where were you last treated?” Her question comes out challenging.
My words tumble out. I can’t seem to stop them. I’m telling her about how my old insurance worked, and how I had a planned to use the allotment given me each year back to back in December and January, but wasn’t sure I could because I still owe money to the specialists. And then I’m telling that my husband left in Oct, leaving me without a job or car and that then I couldn’t pay the dental work, and I don’t know what else to do but come here—I start crying.
And I see the transformation on her face, she no longer doubts me, but feels compassion. Only I don’t want compassion at the price of tears. I don’t want her to think I’m crying because my husband left. It’s embarrassing.
When I leave her cubicle to take my seat, I hate that my face splotches red when I cry. I hate there is no hiding it, and I’m not sure if I’ll proceed, or how long I should wait to find out.
The next thing I know, I hear my name. I’m called up—told that I passed and I’m going through, and then told I to sit back down, because they accidentally called me out of order.
So I sit back down, this time knowing I’ll make it through. They are apparently determined to put me through; so much so, they broke their own rank.
Twenty minutes later, I cry again when the doors of the elevator close shut, and take me up to the second floor, and I am alone.
Because it’s an emergency walk-in, I’m told I have to choose which painful area I want looked at. I choose where it hurts the most.
“That’s not an issue with infection,” the endodontic tells me. “You’ve got a vast cavity. We can pull the tooth, or you can see if a root canal will save it, but I’m not sure it will. I’ll give you a referral if you want.”
I don’t have to consider. Bridgework is more expense than a crown.
So I get a referral and learn that it brings a $1200 procedure down to $600.
For days and days I crunch numbers and debate whether or not I can afford this. I move the appointment out another week, because I can’t decide. There are so many needs right now. My sister is the deciding factor. “It’s your health,” she says. “Lose everything but that.”
So once more I find myself rising early to go to the dentist. This time I do not cry. I have an appointment. I’m not competing with anyone for care. I can pay for this.
It’s actually a proud moment. I have decided I am worth it. It’s my money, and I’m allowed to decide my own health is important. It’s a wonderful thing moving from humiliation into humility.
They spend about two and half hours saving the tooth. Apparently the decay was so vast, it required a root canal and a drilling away of most of the tooth. As I lay in the chair, my jaw aching from being open for so long, I wonder how long I had the cavity and how much of our lives are like this tooth. We ignore something wrong that needs to be fixed because other, bigger things loom on our horizon.
When I leave their office, my body feels as numb as my mouth. I feel shell-shocked. It’s not easy facing the emotional pain of the past.
I climb into the SUV that someone gave me, keeping my body stiff, only moving as necessary. I didn’t want to move or open my mouth. But I taste burnt tooth, blood and medicines, so I decide to drink something to rid myself of its taste.
So I baptized my new mouth with coffee. Lukewarm Starbucks, Italian Roast.
It might only be one tiny step of many toward healing, but The Jessica Years have officially begun. And once again, the healing does not follow my prescribed path.
Three hours later, I learn I no longer have full-time employment.