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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Spencer Rendahl: On Retainer

I recently found myself where I never dreamed of being at age 43: in an orthodontist’s chair getting my retainers adjusted.

This almost didn’t come to pass. Sometime after graduating from college, I decided that I had also graduated from wearing the two retainers that I had popped into my mouth every night for a decade. I unceremoniously shoved them to the back of my dresser and declared that I was the boss of my teeth now.

But my upper right molars disagreed. They pushed forward, and in less than two months my two front teeth started to cross. I dug out my old retainers but couldn’t cram them back into place.

So I made a pilgrimage back to my home-town orthodontist. After examining my jaw, he announced that he could design new retainers, fully loaded with springs and hooks to coerce my teeth back into place. He warned me that I’d have to wear them around the clock for a month.

He didn’t warn me that I wouldn’t eat solid food for a month.

I got through it, though, and since then, I visit a local orthodontist every year to get my retainers adjusted and wear them every night. When my husband and I slept at Camp Muir on our way to the summit of Mount Rainier, I wore my retainers. When we went on our official honeymoon five years late and hiked around the Dolomites in Italy, my retainers tagged along. They even made it to the hospital for the births of my children.

Now, someone in Hollywood has immortalized an even greater commitment to these pesky orthodontic devices than my own: in the film Gravity, actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney reach the damaged Space Shuttle Endeavor, only to find an assortment of items from the cabin - including a retainer - floating out into space.

Here on Earth, my kids may get their own dental hardware. My daughter’s dentist pulled me aside during a recent appointment, to say that even though my daughter’s only lost a few baby teeth, we should take her to an orthodontist.

The vision of thousands of dollars getting siphoned from our paychecks for the next several years reminds me that orthodontics is very much a modern-day, first-world, middle-class-and-up phenomenon. People have lived with crooked teeth for eons and many still do. But we live in a society where straight teeth are achievable and rather nice to have, so I called an orthodontist.

My own orthodontist announced at my last appointment that my teeth have stabilized enough that I only have to wear my retainers two nights a week. I’ve graduated, sort of.

I’ve discovered, though, that after almost 30 years of wearing my retainers every night, I can’t sleep without them. So I continue to pop them in each evening. My husband periodically teases me about the questionable attractiveness of this bedtime ritual – but when pressed he quickly admits that he does finds straight teeth rather sexy after all.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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