The Root of the Problem

Yesterday, I felt human again for the first time in a week. It had been touch and go and there were honestly some moments when I wondered how I would make it to the next… but here I am, alive to tell the tale.

The cause of my near-death defeat and redemption? A tooth. A *&#! infected tooth.

It began last Wednesday on my way to join Nick in NYC to see Hamilton (yes, it’s worth the hype a hundred times over). As the plane descended, I felt some pain – and pressure – in one of my left upper molars. I’d seen my dentist only last month and everything had checked out okay (I had even mentioned to him that I’d had some pain in that area; it still checked out okay), so I thought maybe it was just my sinuses freaking out from the descent. Tylenol and an Advil Cold and Sinus helped get things under control.

Dinner and the show were uneventful, pain-wise – which was a good thing, because our meal was superb and the show… well. You know. It’s Hamilton, for goodness’ sake.

Overnight, I was awakened by more pain; nothing to write home about, but still, annoying to not be able to just enjoy a hotel room – after seeing Hamilton (it was, like, really good) – without my children. As the morning wore on and we returned to Newark, the pain intensified. By the time the plane touched down in Rochester, I knew something was very wrong. I was ready to schlep myself into the nearest Urgent Care but had a nagging feeling that maybe it wasn’t a sinus infection.

While I waited for my dentist to return my somewhat panicked call (see: “I don’t know what’s going on, but this pain is basically the worst ever and I might be dying so please call me back”), I Googled “sinus infection or tooth infection?” and self-diagnosed that I was probably going to get sepsis. When Dr. M confirmed that it was almost certainly a tooth infection, likely “a bad one” based on my description of the pain, he told me we’d schedule a root canal in a few days and immediately prescribed antibiotics and Vicodin.

This was most welcome news; the throbbing, constant, jackhammer pain was so strong, I honestly worried I’d pass out while driving to the pharmacy. Truly unbearable. The closest thing I could relate it to was childbirth – which baffled me, because… a tooth? That much agony from a measly tooth?

Thinking I was either insane or had the world’s lousiest tolerance for pain, I took to Facebook to see if anyone had insight. Their responses confirmed what I had suspected: infected teeth are tiny baby Satans.

If you’ve dealt with tooth pain, you know what I’m talking about; we’re members of a secret torture club. (Seeing my inability to stand upright or speak clearly, my pharmacist chided me for coming to pick up the scripts [Nick offered, several times, but I requested that he make dinner instead] and said she would have personally delivered them to me because “you don’t mess with teeth.”) It’s like when you’ve finally seen The Usual Suspects and everything changed; you’d heard Keyser Söze’s name bandied about before and it meant nothing, but once you knew, you couldn’t unsee it. (“Poof… he’s gone…” OMG.)

If you’ve never experienced the kind of tooth pain that requires an emergency root canal, you may think this is crazy talk – or, at the very least, an absurd exaggeration. I can assure you it is not. I’ve had knee, wrist, and abdominal surgeries. I’ve broken bones. I gave birth to two children, the second of whom I attempted to push from my body for over 3 hours without any pain meds (not out of choice but necessity) and then had an emergency c-section; the OB-GYN said it was basically like I’d given birth twice. While I cannot conjure the specific feeling of the pain that occurred with each contraction, I can remember the kind of pain it was, how it was – bar none – the most awful, excruciating thing I’d ever encountered, the kind I imagined might literally rip me apart.

This was worse.
At least a 12. No joke.

There was no escaping it. It was right there, in my head (there’s no getting out of your own head; I’ve tried), affecting my sight, my sense of smell, my hearing. Nothing made it better – not ice, not heat, not Advil or Tylenol or Vicodin, and definitely not trying to claw off my face with my hands. Admitting defeat, I retreated to bed – an almost unprecedented move for me – to wait for my head to explode.

Once the antibiotics began to kick in, there was marked improvement. Come morning, I was still alive, which was definitely a start. I’ll spare you the rest of the details – there were some reeealllly bad hours, several sleepless nights, and many tears over the course of those five days – but I will say that the root canal was a freakin’ walk in the park compared to the pain that preceded it.

I have a thing for lip balm, which is unfortunate when your lips are numb.

Dr. M said that he expected I’d be pretty much back to myself in 36 hours and that I should, barring some unseen complication, be free and clear by yesterday… And, by gosh, he was on the money. SWEET FANCY MOSES.

Now that I’m on the other side and have had some time to contemplate the ridiculous set of affairs that is Teeth Infections, I’ve drawn a few conclusions. To wit:

  1. Screaming in pain scares the children. It just does.
  2. Moaning in pain alarms the children. And your husband. That’s why doors were invented: to prevent your families from becoming undone when Mama has a tooth infection.
  3. When you are in so much pain that you physically cannot get out of bed and get everything ready for the following morning, the world will still spin and the sun will still rise. INCREDIBLE, I KNOW.
  4. When your spouse (who has never had any trouble with his teeth and therefore can not relate to the death spiral you’re in) says, time and time again, “Babe, that sounds just awful. I’m so sorry. How can I help?” and actually means it and makes good on the helping part… it helps your heart and almost helps with the pain. Almost.
  5. Chronic pain not only hurts, it also makes you feel off-kilter pretty much all the time. There is a quiet (or sometimes really loud) desperation and anger that accumulates when you cannot banish pain. The desperation you understand; the anger is unexpected. (I have new empathy for those with truly chronic pain. Ugh.)
  6. Being angry – and in agony – for days on end is really debilitating and exhausting.
  7. Being chronically angry means being chronically cranky (and certainly not up for things like “games” or “children making loud noises” or “being a good listener”) and prone to tantrum-throwing (see: when the ice cream I’d ordered arrived with Hershey’s syrup instead of hot fudge; blasphemy). This, in turn, makes your children rather cranky. When both of them break down around day three and you recognize that it’s because Mama is there, physically, but otherwise nowhere to be seen, replaced by a moaning, shhhh-ing, complaining wretch, it really sucks.
  8. A canker sore heightens tooth pain. This is a scientific fact.
  9. If you are accustomed to chewing gum or consuming hard candy as a pastime (or maybe to help you not eat that second bowl of ice cream before bed, just saying), being unable to do so will make you lose whatever is left of your mind.
  10. Sometimes, the drugs used to treat the problem cause others – like, for example, an upset stomach. Did you know that pooping requires pushing, and that pushing creates pressure in your head and that that pressure hurts infected teeth like nobody’s business? IT DOES.
  11. Root canals are really no big deal and will come as a welcome relief after the pure hell of the infection.
  12. With that said, tooth infections can really, um… smell. Like, disgusting. Rotting flesh, durian fruit disgusting. I do not recommend it.
  13. This too shall pass. Either the root canal will do its job or you’ll pull a Tom Hanks a la Castaway and decide you have a future as a stunt double. Either way, win-win.

Now that the pain is gone and I can actually chew on both sides of my mouth, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. Tooth pain = perspective. Huh. Further, I’m considerably less cranky (well, aside from my usual crankdom), which is welcome news to everyone.

Also reassuring: my lip balm game? VERY SOLID.
When half your mouth is numb, smiles are… wonky…


Sparking Joy (aka I Gots Me Some Organizing Religion)

I haven’t been around here recently nearly as much as I’ve been in the past. Part of that is due to a conscious restructuring of my time (I’m playing the piano a lot more – holla!), but part of it is because something really big has been going on that’s been taking up every not-otherwise-occupied moment of my time.

But now, it is done. It is finished and complete and the weight of the world is off my shoulders and I feel SO FREAKIN’ GOOD about it, I can finally declare it to all of the internet world:

What? You were expecting other momentous news?

THIS IS EXTREMELY MOMENTOUS NEWS! For the first time in – ever? – I’m actually happy with my house and what’s in it. This is big, people. Really big.

Nearly every time she’d come over for dinner (which was several times a month), my grandmother would comment on how our house was too small for us; we needed more space. And every time, we’d laugh and reassure her that we loved our house – it was plenty big for us – and as soon as we took the time to do some reorganizing and purging, it would feel much more spacious. Taking that time, however, proved elusive.

We were probably destined to go on much as we always had if not for the convergence of two things this summer: the plan to add on a mudroom and my learning about Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The former has been a longtime dream of ours. It’s tough to live in Rochester, where snow is plentiful and mud season is long, without any kind of mudroom.

Additionally, one of the main entries into our house (and the only one that the dogs access) is directly from the garage into the kitchen – meaning that the kitchen is constantly filled with mud, leaves, dirt, etc. Add to that a general lack of storage (see: dog kennels in the dining room, Nick’s and my coats hung on the side of a kitchen cupboard…) and we’ve been itching to create a space for our coats and winter gear, the dog kennels and food, and the girls’ backpacks and school accoutrements. After speaking with an architect and drawing up some plans, we were on our way to making our dreams become reality.

In order to do so, we knew we’d have to make some changes. Specifically, the stuff in the garage would need to be stored somewhere during the construction – ideally inside – meaning we had to have space to hold it. Thus, the first bit of inspiration: in order to make space, we should probably, like, get rid of some of our current stuff. Simultaneously this summer, we were unexpectedly the recipients of some furniture from my grandma’s apartment, so we had to make room for new (to us) couches, too – which involved a lot of shifting our current furniture around and getting rid of other pieces.

This might have gone off fairly smoothly and quickly had it not been for the second bit of inspiration: the book. Three different people, on three separate occasions, mentioned to me that they had read Ms. Kondo’s book – which (I’m paraphrasing here ever so slightly) instructs folks to go through all of the items in their house in a particular order and keep only the things which “spark joy.” Each of these three friends said that this advice was, indeed, life-changing, and that they loved what this particular style of decluttering had brought to their lives.
Exhibit A: the area underneath the fish tank that had been used to store games.

decluttering games
Exhibits B and C: games now stored on bookshelf (books previously on shelf = donated), shelves and storage bins beneath fish tank for cold weather gear, school supplies, etc.
decluttering fishtank

I didn’t then have a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (my mom gave me one a couple of weeks ago – yay!), but my friends spoke so highly of it, I spent a lot of time with my boyfriend, Google, trying to determine whether or not the KonMari method might work for me. I read articles, listened to interviews with Ms. Kondo, and watched countless YouTube videos on her clothing-folding method (yes, there’s a method. And many, many videos… the internet is a strange place, y’all). As I did my research (so official, no?), I came to the conclusion that I could totally get behind her approach. BRING IT ON.
decluttering drawer
New folding method. Not sure how long this will last; check back in a month.

And so, while we emptied out corners of the house to hold the stuff from our garage and rearranged furniture and replaced old carpeting with laminate flooring, I made a conscious effort to approach each reorganization and clean-out using (what I hope is) Marie Kondo’s plan.

Which means I went through everything in our house. No, I mean Every. Single. Thing*. I opened every drawer, every closet, every cupboard and took out every single item, held it in my hands, and determined whether or not it brought me enough joy to keep it. Every baking dish, every linen napkin, every bottle of nail polish, every board game, every mitten, every ornament. EVERY. THING. If the items made me happy (photographs) or were useful/necessary (staplers, Spanx), I kept them. If they didn’t fit those criteria, they were donated or trashed.
*except the things in the girls’ rooms. It’s crazy up in there, yo. That’s on them.

Found these in the bookshelf. THIS WAS LIFE BEFORE GOOGLE. Good grief.

It took nearly six weeks, but it happened. One day, the kitchen cabinets and the area under the sink. Another, the drawers and cupboards in the girls’ bathrooms. The dining room hutch. The living room shelves. The front hall closet. Lastly came the basement, which held storage-y things like decorations and tools, but also the part that, according to Ms. Kondo, would be the hardest: memories. Photos and love letters and the boxes of my childhood mementos containing everything from first grade report cards to every single notebook and paper from every single class I took in college; EVERY SINGLE CLASS WTF.

It was the simple concept of Sparking Joy that made the clean-out process both easy and relieving. I hadn’t known just how many things I’d saved over the years because I thought I should — unused gifts from extremely kind and good-hearted friends, expensive kitchen gadgets that I’d felt guilty ditching, clothes that had made me smile but didn’t anymore. Once I realized that they were no longer making me happy but that they’d served their purpose (I loved remembering how wonderful it felt receiving the gifts, being thought of in such a sweet way; how excited I’d been for the kitchen tools, etc.), I felt completely comfortable in letting go of more stuff than I’d imagined possible. The same, surprisingly, went for my childhood mementos. (Full disclosure: I kept all of our photographs, every last one. They still spark joy.)

decluttering cassettes
Also kept: these, from my original cassette collection. 
Forget sparking joy; these are ON FIRE.

Taking up more space than anything else were my teaching boxes. If you’ve ever lived with a teacher, you know how much stuff we accumulate. Resources, ideas, professional development certificates, letters from former students and parents. It spanned my days as a K-8 music teacher, 5-6 homeroom teacher, 2nd grade teacher, and middle school music teacher — eleven years of papers, tests, quizzes, syllabi, transparencies, lesson plans, IEPs, meetings, goals, comic strips, and communications.

And that doesn’t touch on the textbooks, lesson books, planning books, references, gradebooks, three-ring binders, CDs, cassettes, office supplies, classroom posters (my favorite: “You can’t scare me. I teach.”), decorations, or hats (yes, an entire box of dress-up hats; teaching elementary music, these are essential, I tell you). Basically, when you’re a teacher, you need to assign an entire room of your house to hold all of your materials.

Once I finally accepted that, in all likelihood, I’d never be a regular classroom teacher again, I saved the music-related things (a good 10 boxes’ worth) but ditched the rest; it took a full Bagster dumpster to hold it all. Still-relevant resources were added to our donation pile, which took up half of our garage. When the day came to donate it to our school district’s annual second-hand sale, we wound up renting a U-Haul to hold everything.

There’s, like, an entire house’s worth in here!decluttering garage2
decluttering garage3 Steering this thing was not easy.decluttering garage uhaul2

It’s hard to describe the almost manic drive I felt to complete this project. For six weeks, it was all but an obsession; every spare moment that could have been spent on other things (like, um, writing) was devoted to going through the house. It was a completely consuming task… but in the end? Fabulous!

Above kitchen desk – beforedecluttering kitchen

Above kitchen desk: after
Because I actually made space in the cupboards (by ditching non-sparky things) to store the gift bags and tissue paper and boxes of cards. OH YES I DID.
decluttering desk

For the first time, every item in the house belongs there. Every room, every space, feels comfortable, joyful, clean. This isn’t (at all) to say that we no longer have stuff – we do – but the stuff we have is purposeful and meaningful. Plus now I have more time to write!

The one downside to this is that the house is so decluttered, when our awesome housecleaner comes, no one* notices.

(*I notice. She is amazing.)

The mudroom project has hit a snag so we don’t know when/if it might be completed, but in the meantime, the house is a happy, cleaner place to be. My only regret is that my grandma never got to see it like this… But I’m confident that, somehow, she knows.