Think back to the worst pain you ever experienced. Look past the event, the day, the situation, the reaction – just try to remember the physical sensation. Can you?
I felt divorced from reality – like a protagonist of a Terry Gilliam movie, in the world but not of it.
On Friday, June 29, I cracked one of my two remaining wisdom teeth. I froze, mid-chew. I thought about what had just happened for a few long seconds before gingerly exploring the scene of the crime with my tongue. It wasn’t so bad – a small bit of broken tooth and a dull ache.
Several hours later, after the bar, I was sitting in a living room with a large group of friends when I was suddenly wrapped in a paralyzing pain. It moved around my cracked tooth, whistling and howling and hot and sharp. It was impossible to think anymore, or coordinate myself enough to move – not that moving would help. The nerve was exposed. This was not so good.
When I found myself able to move again, either a few minutes or an eternity later, I walked shakily into the kitchen and started drinking straight rum. That made things more manageable.
This was not the first time I had been stupid about my wisdom teeth. That started back in high school, when I refused to have them taken out because they never bothered me. I was determined to be one of those people who has healthy, intact wisdom teeth for their entire life. What an idiotic goal.
On the morning of Sunday, July 13, 2008, I woke up in agony. At first, I didn’t know where it was coming from – it felt like it was everywhere and nowhere all at once. It washed over me in waves and, eventually, during a brief nadir, I figured out that it was coming from my jaw.
The calculus here should have been simple. Tooth hurts. Tooth REALLY hurts. Get tooth taken out at the earliest opportunity. Monday. Unfortunately, a small problem: my press screening for The Dark Knight, in IMAX, with Christopher Nolan in attendance, was Tuesday and there would be no way I, swollen and bloody, would be able to make it if I had teeth removed. This was an unacceptable conclusion.
In the early hours of the morning before the screening, I was standing in my bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror. A bottle of something brown and alcoholic was on the bench behind me. I had pliers in my right hand. I kept saying, over and over again, “I can do this.”
I couldn’t do it.
I eventually passed out. Thanks to handfuls of ibuprofen, I somehow made it into Manhattan to see the movie and even managed to enjoy it. I then did my shift at work. And another on Wednesday. I had the two offending wisdom teeth removed that Thursday.
I remember how cool the air conditioning was in the theater. I remember clenching my eyes so tightly I squeezed out tears. I remember the metallic taste of water after the extraction. I remember the ins and outs of the two seasons of Burn Notice I watched on the couch, foggy from painkillers, as I recovered.
I look at the one unbroken tooth, with its hideous roots that curve into a hooked point – a totem of anguish – and I remember I was in pain. But I don’t remember the pain. I know I felt it, but I cannot recreate that in my mind, the way I can a sight or sound or taste.
If I could, I would have had the other two removed a long time ago.
Four years passed, almost to the day. There’s a new Nolan-helmed Batman movie coming out and I proved that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
After drowning the initial surge of pain in rum, the nerve quieted down. I almost forgot it had happened, but for the ever-so-slight whisper I felt. It was hovering, warm and waiting, an inch from my jaw, a ghost and a promise. It grew slowly but steadily, day by day, into a constant hum, but for a while, I didn’t even realize how it was debilitating me.
My ability to concentrate was the first thing to go. With that also went my ability to sleep. I got forgetful. I would drift off to this empty white place in my mind, for who knows how long, before returning to the task at hand. I found myself staring absently at things, or observing events with a degree of puzzlement. I felt divorced from reality – like a protagonist of a Terry Gilliam movie, in the world but not of it.
Perhaps pain could be transcendent. You think stupid things when you are in pain.
I remember thinking, one day on the train, that this pain was a kind of consciousness-expanding experience, the same kind of thing Crowley was after with magick and heroin or Huxley was after with LSD. Perhaps pain could be transcendent. You think stupid things when you are in pain.
Eventually, the hum turned into a buzzing that was impossible to ignore. Sometimes, I would discover my left hand clenched so tightly that the joints ached when I relaxed it. Headaches set in. A pressure started to build in the wisdom teeth, like they were primed to explode.
I attempted to go to bed one morning around six. As soon as I did, the detonation went off. The buzz turned into a roar and it simply would not stop. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t sit still. I could feel every one of my teeth individually – even slightly brushing one with my tongue would send agonizing sparks through my entire head. Nerve pain poured like lava down my arm, into my chest and spattered over the top of my head. It took over six hours and more Vicodin than I am willing to admit to quiet the howling.
When all this started, I was halfway through reading The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. As my ability to concentrate slipped, so did the ease with which I could enter Chandler’s world. I could still read, naturally, but I was only recognizing words in their mechanical and grammatical sense – I was unable to weave them into a fictional space for me to inhabit.
Television shows and movies fared similarly. The interaction was so passive that I would completely fail to engage with them. I watched several hours of DVR’ed TV shows and couldn’t tell you a thing about them. It is just time that is gone.
But games – I could play games. They were something I could hang on to.
Max Payne 3 offered just the right amount of manual labor and sensory stimulation for me to fall right into it. Hours flew by as I murdered half the population of Brazil (and Hoboken, New Jersey) and that engagement spelled a certain relief from the physical pain.
My perception of the game was dulled by pain, but that is all right – it makes it a dream, a vision, something apart from regular reality.
Around the same time, I got an email from indie developer William Robinson about his new iOS game Teething, a reflex game in which an anthropomorphic molar runs around avoiding the falling candies that will rot him while catching the toothpaste that keeps him healthy. The tooth’s reward for a job well done? Moustaches in various styles. I couldn’t have asked for a better game to distract me from a toothache.
And then there are the dozens of hours I’ve logged in The Secret World. There are games you just know you are going to love before you even really know what they are. For me, Secret World is one of those games – it grabbed me with its eldritch tentacles and dragged my consciousness entirely to its witch-haunted New England island. Sitting down for a marathon session is like going on vacation. When I was away from the game, I spent my time thinking about it and reading about it, partly to devour its lore and partly to learn the arcane mechanics that have developed over the years since my last MMO, City of Heroes.
Where I could not find a way into Chandler’s hardboiled world, I could dive in headfirst to this one. My perception of the game, like everything else, was dulled, but that is all right – that makes it a dream, a vision, something apart from regular reality. And when the screen darkens and turns red to indicate my imminent death, it is reminiscent of how I physically feel. My discomfort informed the game’s experience, gave it urgency.
Vicodin muffled my pain, but the games allowed me to escape it, for a time.
When I finally had my two remaining, cursed wisdom teeth removed, the pain I had endured was gone immediately. I will never feel anything like it again.
We like to think we are special, as humans, because of our ability to reason, but that veneer is thin. Something so slight as a crack a fraction of a millimeter wide turned me into something less than myself: angry, unthinking, miserable. What would it take to make me no better than a beast, violent, reactive—or a monster, murderous, chaotic?
I think, twice now, I have glimpsed the answer to that question, but I’m not sure. I can’t remember the pain, not like I remember other things.
Stu Horvath is happy to be able to type his thoughts in complete, grammatically correct sentences again. Follow him on Twitter @StuHorvath. All photos of teeth are Stu’s, from his personal collection. Yes, he has a collection of teeth.