Trying to fit into things you wore in middle and high school is a game that rarely ends well. So naturally, I recently decided to play a round. I didn’t go for my low-rise Lucky jeans, nor my *NSYNC concert tee (4th graders, always have your mom buy your concert tees in Adult M/L, thank me in 18 years). I went with my retainers. Not clear, Invisalign-inspired retainers. I’m talking vintage, early-aughts retainers; top and bottom, aqua and lime green, respectively; still sitting in their original pink retainer container (millennial pink; foresight!), complete with tags reading E. SMITH, 05/13/03.
While you try to get past how disturbing it is that I willingly shoved something dated May 13, 2003 into my mouth a month ago, I’d like to take a moment to remind you of what was happening in the year two thousand and three to make it even worse:
- “Crazy in Love,” “Get Low,” and “Shake Ya Tailfeather” were released — and subsequently (illegally) downloaded and burned onto CDs by yours truly.
- The internet says the iTunes Store was also born this year, so I guess I could’ve done that legally idk.
- The O.C. aired.
- I watched The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King four+ times in theaters instead of watching The O.C.
- Board shorts.
- I got my top and bottom braces removed before starting high school in the fall.
I remember running my tongue over my smooth, metal-free teeth before having a mold of my mouth taken. I remember choosing my retainer colors from bright plastic swatches. I remember eagerly nodding my head while my orthodontist tried to explain to me that sure, you’ve endured YEARS of painful metal in your mouth but no, this isn’t really permanent per se and yes, you’ll have to wear retainers for THE REST OF YOUR ADULT LIFE if you want to maintain your straight teeth bye!!!!
I don’t, on the other hand, remember the last time I regularly wore my retainers in my adult life. There has been no mention of it in my Facebook “On This Day” status updates, so it’s safe to assume it never happened from 2007 onward. It fell to the wayside along with things like a decent bedtime and eating not-cereal for dinner as I became “an adult.”
Still, there’s always been a nagging feeling that I should be wearing them. I’m assuming this is the sole reason I haven’t lost my retainers after 14 years and multiple moves. Then, last month, I began to see it: my four front teeth sitting at a slight outward angle in photos; a gap re-opening from that one time I casually had four teeth pulled to prevent overcrowding. It was time.
It took a good week and a half to muster up the courage to try them on. What if they didn’t fit? What if one shatters in my mouth? What if I undid years of braces, rubber bands, headgear (only worn at night, don’t worry), and the insane amount of money my parents sunk into my teeth?!?! I felt an immense sense of relief once they eventually clicked into place. But that feeling only lasted for a good four seconds because after that, it was just pain. SO MUCH PAIN. 15 minutes later, they were out.
I couldn’t wrap my head around how tween-me endured this (and much worse) on a consistent basis. The history of my orthodontic past flashed by like in one of those movie montages where the main character realizes, oh wait, I’ve actually been dead this whole time: laying there wincing during tightenings, coming up with creative ways to chew gum, smushing wax onto certain braces to prevent canker sores, sitting in the cafeteria sipping Jamba Juice while the rest of my classmates ate solid food.
And then, an amazing, grown-up thing happened: I put them back in and got over it. I’ve been on a nightly retainer-wearing roll ever since, and have found those two old-ass pieces of plastic to be strangely inspiring. Now that I’m forcing myself choosing to inflict the discomfort on my own volition, the same retainers that make me sound like a sitcom teen are making me feel like an actual adult-adult. Wearing them, I feel even more accomplished than when I manage to do a load of laundry before completely running out of underwear, or end up only being somewhat confused as opposed to completely confused when filing taxes.
They’ve also given me a lot of perspective. When I had my hair put into a particularly painful protective style, I reminded myself that it isn’t as bad as using a thin bar of metal to push your teeth back into place. When an instructor is yelling into a headset microphone that I hold a forearm plank or relevé squat for 30 more seconds? Not as bad as slowly forcing extensions of my skull into a straighter line, hours at a time.
They get me to go to bed at a decent-ish hour (because once they’re in, even surfing the internet makes me feel self-conscious); they keep me from sleeping in too late on weekends (because the first thing I want to do is get up, and take those effers out). I sent my last rent check before the first of the month, I immediately added more money to my laundry card after choosing a wash cycle, I started buying two of what I know I’ll need at the store instead of making a thousand trips a week. Coincidence? I think not.
All that is to say, the next time you feel like your life is falling apart, or that you’ll never get your shit together, you may just need to put your retainers back in. At least that’s what I’m telling myself after I brush (and floss) my teeth tonight.