Dentistry and I go way back. I started out working for my family dentist, filing charts and developing x-rays at 16. Because I was “in love”, I quit high school, got married, and had my first child at 17…and applied to hygiene school at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC a year later with a toddler.
Whew, did it feel like I was carrying the weight of everything on my shoulders.
When I was 19 years old and immortal, seatbelts were not yet mandatory. I fell asleep on the way to school and totaled my car. The car drifted to the left and mercifully only took out a section of guard rail. By the time the ambulance arrived, my right arm felt heavy and my right hand was tingling. It was only my second semester and my hygiene hand wasn’t working. I had a compression fracture of C5. If you’re playing along at home, C5 controls your arms and hands, and also your diaphragm. I was lucky I was still breathing. Three days later, I was having neurosurgery. There’s now a thumb sized piece of my left iliac crest wired onto the back of my neck and a couple of wicked cool scars.
Needless to say, hygiene school was on hold. Anyone who has ever had an appendage fall asleep can relate. You may feel pins and needles, but no matter how sternly you tell it to move, it won’t. The last bit of sensation to come back completely was the tip of my index finger. You know, the super sensitive dentistry part.
It took another three years to graduate. I had my second son at the age of twenty, got divorced, and graduated hygiene school in 1991, at the age of 22. My sons were 2 and 4.
I loved hygiene. I loved the patient contact, loved being able to impact people’s lives, and loved watching kids grow up. Almost every dentist I worked for would ask “why aren’t you a dentist?” I had a plethora of excuses. I had remarried and (you guessed it) had my youngest son. I was the primary breadwinner in the family and felt enormous pressure to be perfect all the time.
When I was 33, I lost my older brother unexpectedly. My perspective changed in an instant. I was asked again, “why aren’t you a dentist?” Suddenly, I ran out of reasons.
What was I waiting for? Time to pass? To get older? My thought was, hell, I’m going to be 40 anyway, why not be a doctor?
At this time, I was working three part-time hygiene jobs and had three tween-/teen-aged boys. I called and made an appointment at the UNC School of Dentistry with the dean anyway. Our conversation was in the middle of May. Dr. Brunsen looked me in the eye and said, “take chemistry, take organic chemistry, take the DAT, and make As.”
In the span of two weeks, I quit three jobs and enrolled in the summer sessions of Chem 1 and 2. This was a shock for my family, particularly my husband. Everyone wanted me to think and ponder and “be sure”. Because of the timeline with my science classes and the application process, if I hadn’t taken summer chemistry, it would have been another year.
What was I waiting for?
Talk about a life change! I silently thanked my chemistry teacher from high school every day for having such a hard class. I DID make As, a whole bunch of them. Over the course of the next two years, I was unable to work as a hygienist, as I was in college again, full-time.
Enter the best job ever: I answered an ad in the local entertainment magazine to sell fairy wings at the Carolina Renaissance Festival.
The job was only on weekends. I got to wear magical clothes, pointy ears, wings, and glitter. I already had a love of fairies and dressing up; one of my favorite classes in high school had been theater. This was right up my alley. With a feather attached to my pencil, I was able to do organic chemistry homework sitting at my toadstool. I felt smart, pretty, and empowered. The owner put my picture on the posters, hanging in the local grocery store chain the second year and I knew I had to be the tooth fairy moving forward.
When I was accepted to dental school, I uprooted my family and we moved to Pittsboro, a very small town just outside of Chapel Hill. Dental school was challenging with children. My husband had 2 lower back surgeries during school and was unable to work. Once again, everyone depended on me.
I graduated dental school at 40 with honors—and I was not the oldest person in my class, nor the one with the most children.
A GPR was out of the question following graduation. I was now the only breadwinner and there was a mountain of debt with my name on it. After a couple of “not a good fit” associateships, I stumbled upon this hole-in-the-wall dental practice right in my small town. The owner had just retired at the age of 80. The place had only one computer, a daylight feeder, and 50+ years worth of size three bitewings. Every room smelled like IRM. The walls were beige, the metal blinds were broken, and the suction had been added after the place was built, so little copper pipes ran along the baseboards leaving gross greenish-blue copper oxide gunk stains on the floor.
It was 864 square feet with five women. Three ops. The ultrasonic was in one op, the autoclave was in another. My office was also the chart room, break room, storage area, and passageway to the bathroom.
That was in 2010. I’ve grown from that little building and moved to 2800 square with five upfitted ops; the other two are waiting for chairs and a player to be named later. Things are amazing and yet I still struggle to feel as though I’m good enough, important enough to let my voice be heard.
My life changed again very significantly a few years later, when I was 46. I got divorced again, had a fall, injured my lower spine, and was assaulted, all within the span of 6 months. Like most women, my mind wouldn’t let me acknowledge that I was assaulted and my beautiful, protective brain fell back into the easiest emotion it could find. Shame.
I began having panic attacks. Over the course of the next four years, my body screamed at me. My lower back injury was emotionally tied to my assault and I was in pain almost constantly. Yet I continued to smile and say I was fine. It took having my jaws stuck in a closed lock for me to see a doctor and get help. By that time, my body was responding with full-on fight or flight mode all the time. I felt like I was walking on Jello. Because I couldn’t eat, I lost 35 pounds in about six weeks and had to step away from my practice. Nobody knew if I would be able to come back. As it turns out, all those chills that would run up and down my spine when I picked up the handpiece were PTSD flashbacks.
A team of heroes helped put me back together. Neuroscience became my new favorite subject. I focused on how our behaviors develop over time, how we change, why we change, and the reasons we don’t want to change.
I became aware, on a very fundamental level, that I am the one in charge of my brain. I’m the one thinking the thoughts. All learning is embodied. Just as sights, sounds, and smells are incorporated into your memories, so are your body posture, balance, and facial expressions. As my nervous system and my brain were trying to reorganize my memories, I realized that my body had to learn new pathways, too. Everything we do is based on what has come before; all the way down to the way we smile, the way we breathe.
It has been a difficult journey and one I am grateful to have taken. Now, several years later, I spend time every day acknowledging the beauty in my life. My thoughts are full of hope and gratitude.
I’m 53 now. I have been a business owner for 11 years. I’ve taken this practice from a hole in the wall to a beautiful new facility. My team and I are involved in our community. I still dress up like a fairy, and not just for kindergarten classes. I mean, who doesn’t want to twirl around once in a while, right?
As I continue to nurture myself as well as my practice, I’m also at a place where I want to take the hard lessons I’ve learned and help other women. I know there are more of us out there who continue to swallow our feelings, continue to push forward despite our pain, and put everyone else first. We say things like “I’m fine, I’m just tired.” We delay our own dreams. We wait for someone or something else to make us happy.
Nobody else is responsible for your happiness. Nobody. Period.
When my boys were little, they would get into trouble. Someone always blamed someone else. I asked them to repeat after me: “I am responsible for me.” Those words are so very true. I AM responsible for me. We are what we practice—what we practice telling ourselves and what we practice doing. When you believe the bad stuff that’s in your head, misery is what you’re practicing. Once I realized that joy was something you could cultivate and practice, my whole life changed.
A few years ago, I started taking vacations. They were difficult for me at first, it took the majority of the time off just to relax enough to enjoy the last few days the first time. I decided to keep practicing, and last year, I drove down the coast of Oregon from Astoria to Gold Beach in a convertible. It was phenomenal and I came back a different person. I will schedule my August vacation every year now and I love having something to look forward to and plan that’s just for me.
I’ve recently been certified as a laughter yoga instructor. This is laughter not as the by-product of exercise, but AS the exercise. Learning to laugh for no reason at all is emotional strength training. It’s teaching your nervous system and body to respond to stressors by decreasing cortisol in your system and increasing your awesome chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. We can’t always change our circumstances immediately. We can ABSOLUTELY change how we think about, approach, and respond to them.
Here’s what I’ve learned about life:
- Don’t wait
- Stop saying, “I’ll do that someday”
- Plan it now
What are you waiting for? Time is passing. Where do you want to be? Dare to imagine amazing things!
Who’s in charge here?
What are YOU waiting for?