It started when his dentist recommended a night guard to stop popping enamel off the sides of his teeth. He was fitted with a custom plastic bit to grind so that he’d stop sliding his teeth across each other in his sleep.
The night guard didn’t help. He still woke up with a jaw that caught like a rusted gate. He had to ease into yawns by slowly opening one side of his jaw before the other, in a lopsided sneer, to avoid shooting pains or locking.
He saw another specialist who said he had temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. Essentially, the specialist said, the connection between jaw and skull was dysfunctional, possibly due to grinding his teeth. Possibly, he was grinding his teeth because of the dysfunction.
He left without a treatment recommendation.
After a few months, he started hearing his heartbeat in his ears for hours at a time. Sometimes when blood rushed to his head he’d experienced something like it for a moment or two, but this felt like it would never end. The incessant drumming became maddening and kept him awake at night.
And then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the maddening pulsing stopped.
He was so thankful at first, it was a few days before he realized he could no longer clearly hear through his right ear.
The Ear, Nose and Throat specialist said his temporomandibular joint disorder was crushing the Eustachian tubes in his ear. If he could stop grinding his teeth in his sleep, and if he could find a way to correct his jaw problem, his hearing would probably return.
The appointments and follow-up appointments began to merge into one long corridor of nondescript walls and ugly paintings. He was becoming an expert in the ENT TMJ MRI CAT alphabet soup.
The chiropractor said he had forward head posture and his spine was being pulled apart.
“The head weighs around 10 pounds when properly aligned but when tilted forward with hunched shoulders, like many of us tend to work and relax today, exerts as much as 60 pounds force equivalent. It can crush small nervous and circulatory structures.”
All he knew was now, in addition to the jaw, the throat, and your pain, his neck, shoulders, and low back hurt.
Next his left eye started to droop. He started noticing he was speaking more toward the right side of his mouth. His dentist said that wasn’t uncommon with TMJ, and recommended that he practiced speaking in front of a mirror.
His ENT said he might be crushing facial nerves, causing permanent damage, and he needed another MRI. He underwent the tests but there were no specific treatment options offered.
His chiropractor said he needed a cervical adjustment to relieve the pressure on the nerves. He also suspected a slipped disc.
There was only one consistent theme: He had to get his stress under control.
They recommended he slow down and relax more, and that he move around and engage in less sedentary activity.
They suggested travel, but he had too much to do. He’d tried yoga, meditation, all of that garbage, but they were too slow and boring. The teachers would drone on about taking the time to breathe, learning how to focus the mind, observing the body, blah blah blah.
Who had time for that garbage?
As time passed, however, he began to run out of options.
Pains and tension kept his awake at night. The nerves controlling his hands began to misfire, causing pain in some moments, and stiffness in others, and it was harder and harder to lift them without a shooting pain in his neck and shoulders.
Tasks that had once been simple began to become impossible. When the chiropractor said it was muscular tension and he should get a massage, he knew it was time to fire the quack. Obviously his muscle tension problems went beyond something so simple.
He had little luck with the other specialists, however, as his body’s condition worsened. His forward head posture and slipped discs began to compress his throat, making swallowing and even breathing more difficult.
Something was reducing circulation to his brain, causing random dizzy spells and vision problems, although his team of now half a dozen specialists were unsure whether it was the grinding, the jaw problems, or the postural issues.
How could such minor things become such major problems? What if his trachea was ever fully compressed? Could he suffocate himself from the inside? Was there such a thing as spinal strangulation?
He could no longer drive to work, but for a few weeks he tried to take the bus. This ended the day his feet seemed to just stop working. He tripped over himself, almost plummeting headlong into traffic. He was lucky enough to roll to the side and catch himself as he fell, but he broke his right wrist as he went down.
The rare moments when he had still been able to write, type, and feed himself with his dominant hand were over as he received a cast. He’d stopped viewing his own body as something out of his control and began perceiving it as his enemy. He was stuck at home on disability, too immobile to even climb the walls, his jaw often hurting too much to even speak.
Months earlier he’d laughed at the idea of traveling and couldn’t imagine a day away from work. Now the idea of moving at all seemed absurd. The fast-paced lifestyle he couldn’t escape was long gone, and only tedium remained.
He tried harder to drown out the aches and pains of depression with depressants, and began to obsessively search medical websites looking for miracle cures before the machine he was trapped in killed him.
One afternoon he awoke in a haze– he rarely woke up by morning now– and discovered a pen in his left, uninjured hand. A scrap of paper was on the floor, and as he picked it up, he was shocked to notice it had his handwriting on it.
Perhaps he was too cynical now to be surprised that he was blacking out, or writing while passed out, but what was surprising was the quality of the handwriting. It wasn’t the frustrating and incomprehensible chicken scratch he expected from his non-dominant hand. Instead, it was a perfectly legible, and precise note, written as though he had composed it in a healthier, less shaky time period.
It read, “Your time is running out.”
His brain tried to comprehend what he was seeing. Could somebody have snuck in…? That didn’t explain the handwriting…
Whispers and phrases from all those self-help books and wellness classes that he’d thought were so trite repeated and echoed in his ears. “Your body will take care of you,” seemed so much more ominous now.
“Notice your body’s messages… You can only ignore them for so long.”