Personal Essays

Credit: Bruce Bortin

Clenching the Night Away

A mouth guard can do more than save our enamel from nighttime gnashing. It may also shield us from our daily anxieties.

Recently, my doctor told me to get a mouth guard to help my teeth-clenching problem. Happily, it appears mouth guards are in secret vogue right now. Whenever I mention my mouth guard to someone—which is often, because it is a great conversation topic—they admit to having one too. “Oh, I love my mouth guard!” they say. People like to compare how much their mouth guards cost. “Mine was $2,000,” a friend of mine told me. “It’s why I can’t make my rent.”

I bought my mouth guard at CVS. It’s a one-size-fits-all model—before you wear it for the first time you have to drop it into a pot of boiling water until the plastic softens, then put it in your mouth and bite down so it molds to the shape of your teeth. From that moment, even as I drooled down the front of my shirt as it conformed to my bite, I loved it immediately, more than anything I have ever owned before.

A mouth guard is like a giant piece of tasteless gum that shields your mouth from the havoc your brain wants to wreak on it. It’s a levee for pain, a shock absorber for the soul. Wearing it, I feel safe. Instead of unconsciously gnashing my teeth together in deep-seated angst, I can finally breathe normally again. It’s not just a barrier between myself and my anxieties, it’s prosthetic Xanax.

I started experiencing stress right after Princess Diana died. I’ll never forget that night. It was my brother’s 14th birthday party. I was 11, hiding from relatives upstairs, watching the news on my little black-and-white television. There was a breaking report about the crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Diana’s boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayed, was dead. Diana, though, was OK. She only had a broken arm.

I went to sleep that night in my emergency safe place—under my older brother’s bed. I was too bereft to be alone. I loved Diana. I read the stories about her in my mom’s People magazine every week. I thought she looked like my favorite aunt, Julie. I hoped to marry Prince Harry. She inspired a commoner like me, even though I was American.

I woke up the next morning at 5:30 a.m. to the thwack of the Chicago Tribune on our driveway. I went outside to get it in my bare feet. I was sure that the paper would reassure me Diana was fine, that her broken arm had been set overnight, and she was now resting in a castle-hospital somewhere.

But the banner headline said Diana was dead. What was reported as a broken arm was actually massive internal injuries. Diana’s heart had gone from one side of her body to the other. There was no saving her.

I went to sleep thinking Diana was OK; I woke up to her dead. This confirmed what I had always suspected: Bad things happen at night when we are not conscious.

And so the horror set in: I went to sleep thinking Diana was OK; I woke up to her dead. This confirmed what I had always suspected: Bad things happen at night when we are not conscious. People are kidnapped, murdered, raped. Businesses are robbed and pillaged. Important documents are shredded, giant insects crawl across your face. People you love die.

This resulted in a lot of stress, which I began to take out on my jaw. Each day, my bite tightened as the sun fell. I gnashed my teeth when I slept—if I slept—so hard that I woke up myself up with a foggy headache. The habit continued. I clenched my way through high school and college. Even today, I clench my teeth during disasters natural and unnatural. I clench my teeth when the cafeteria at my office only has Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. The other week I closed my jaw so tightly while reading a review of Salman Rushdie’s new book I thought my teeth would crumble into dust.

This form of stress expression is called “bruxism.” According to the Mayo Clinic, bruxism occurs when our brains are distracted by sleep or something else. The effect of bruxism is like “having a large football player standing on the tooth,” a dentist told the Times. It can be caused by anxiety, suppressed anger, or a competitive personality type, among other things. Untreated bruxism can lead to TMJ, jaw pain, earaches, teeth degradation, and enlargement of the facial muscles. The habit, literary as it is, was even described in the Bible, usually as a form of suffering or punishment: “Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which has a dumb spirit. And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away.” (Luke 9:17-18).

But even as my mouth guard has eased my bruxism—and my stress—it has also become a new cause of it.

The problem is that I want to wear my mouth guard all the time. Sometimes I wear it on the subway to work, looking like a chipmunk. I wear it at my desk when no one is looking. I wear it on airplanes and in the shower. I wear it while thinking about whether or not I will always need this crutch for my anxiety, but that tends to make me more anxious.

It might be that such is the zest of modern stress. To be alive is to be stressed. To be alive is to learn of death, to have your heart broken by someone you never knew, to go into a boxing ring with a mouth full of plastic, ready to fight, to bite down on the long B train ride to Midtown and exhale. “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for,” Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov. And for this life I have my mouth guard.


TMN Editor Leah Finnegan is from Illinois by way of Texas. She splits her time between New York City and her website. More by Leah Finnegan