‘It’s just you and me now, kid.’ I lost both my brother and my mom. My dad was the only one left.’ Woman confronts depression after family loss, ‘I feel lighter and freer now’

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“Depression helped to destroy my teeth. When you think of this particular mental illness, dental health isn’t usually the first thing to pop to mind. You’re more likely to bring up changes in appetite, the lack of energy to face the world every day, or the difficulty in just taking care of yourself when struggling with it. Your teeth aren’t a prominent aspect by far. They’re more likely to be lumped into the general inability to care for yourself. From my experience, your dental health should be talked about much more with regards to the wider picture of depression. To explain how I got to this point, we need some background to start.

Both mental illness and teeth issues run in my family. Teeth issues run through both while my mom’s side had predispositions to anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder which she’d been diagnosed with later in life. Guess who I was unlucky enough to take after more on these fronts. I’ll get to the teeth part in a bit. Now, predisposition isn’t the end all be all when it comes to mental illness. You need something to start the fire in your brain which alters how it works. For me, this was two things: bullying and one of my fifth-grade teachers.

My fifth-grade homeroom teacher was a top tier jerk (which is the nicest way I can phrase it) due to one specific incident. I missed a few days on a project, and he barred me from recess and exiled me to the computer lab for the near two months it took to finish it. He didn’t provide any help and was vague the few times I asked for any. It felt isolating to be the only one stuck in the computer lab. I became more withdrawn than I already was and threw myself into video games, books, cartoons; anything that let me mentally escape the prison I felt stuck in physically. Around the same time, the bullying started. I was already something of a social pariah thanks to being more on the nerdy side and because many of my elementary school friends had either moved away or distanced themselves from me. It all made me an easy target. The bullying was mainly two kids to start with. They knocked me down emotionally rather than physically. I was a fairly sensitive kid and they had picked the best avenue to hurt me with barely any effort on their part. They picked on me for the things I liked, my lack of friends, and the pets my family had (a lot more cats than average). The bullies who followed after those first two kept to emotional attacks over physical ones.

Because none of the bullying was physical attacks, the schools didn’t exactly take it seriously until it began happening outside school hours and my parents threatened police action if it wasn’t finally dealt with. Even though it tapered off heavily after that, this would be the spark which started the depression, but it wouldn’t become a bonfire till over a decade later.

As for my dental health, my teeth were mostly fine outside appearance to start with. I did have to get braces to fix alignment and one of my top front teeth being angled behind the bottom set. My brushing habits weren’t great before the braces, but got better for the time I had them. After I got them off, my brushing habits suffered. So much so I had my first root canal on one of my molars late in high school, and developed a cavity which stretched across two of my front teeth. This didn’t get much better in college, sadly.

Courtesy of Caila K.

I graduated high school in May 2011 and left for college at a branch campus before transferring to main two years later. During this time my diet wasn’t great and I drank almost nothing but soda. I was also still incredibly haphazard about brushing consistently despite my best attempts. It’s not surprising my teeth began to degrade a bit more and another molar was on track for a root canal. In late 2014, I got set up with a new dentist who extracted my wisdom teeth before moving on and scheduling root canal number two on the molar next to the already treated one. What I didn’t know was that this would be part of the Year of Tragedy and the beginning of my personal spiral downward.

The start of it all was spring of 2015 when I overloaded my class schedule. I was taking a full-time language, two grad level classes, and some requirements for my major. It turned out to be much, much more than I could handle, and I burned out to the point of major depression. I procrastinated on work and couldn’t motivate myself to do much of anything, including things I enjoyed.
Despite my lack of drive to accomplish anything, I still managed to get the second root canal and crown. I also got an electric toothbrush that started to help my brushing habits more, but it wasn’t enough to stem the tide which was to come.

It took several months into the semester to finally admit I needed to talk to someone on a professional level about the depression. I couldn’t get myself to cook and lived on hot pockets, snack foods, and water. I didn’t sleep well and tried to cancel plans when I could. It just felt like so much energy was needed to do anything which wasn’t laze in bed and keep to myself. It’s surprising my relationships, platonic and romantic, survived this. When I finally did admit I needed to do something about it, it was toward the end of the semester and I had, unbeknownst to me at the time, set up what would become grief counseling.

In April of 2015, I lost my brother in a car accident. He was 19 at the time, and I was 22. He would’ve graduated high school the same year I graduated college. Losing him broke my family.

Courtesy of Caila K.

My mom’s health rapidly declined and she was admitted to the ICU several times throughout the next year for various reasons. The first time was during the summer when I stayed home with my parents to support them following the loss. She managed to pull through and had me take her to the ICU sometime later so she could thank the nurses who took such good care of her during her stay and give them flowers. I remember her crying as she thanked them. The next time was early into my final semester of college in Fall 2015. My dad called me to let me know what was going on. I remember telling him to keep me updated and I’d come home if need be. Thankfully, she pulled through then too and managed to stay in good enough health to see me graduate that December. This didn’t last long unfortunately and she’d visit the ICU at least one more time the following year. Throughout all this, I tried to be supportive by listening to her and encouraging her to bring things up in therapy and the like. She’d take me to my own appointments out in the city. My mom then managed to find a community through Facebook which helped her deal somewhat with the loss of my brother and her health troubles too. I’m still thankful for those people who helped her in ways
I couldn’t at the time.

My dad withdrew from public life as best he could. My grandpa, his dad, had lost my uncle at age 18 due to an accident, and my dad likened losing my brother to repeating what his father had gone through. He was already avoidant, but withdrew more. He’d stay home from what events he could and only begrudgingly attend those he couldn’t. He’s like this to this day. This is also a man
who rarely showed emotion before, whom I don’t remember crying openly, who started constantly shedding tears. He’d been through loss before– both his parents and brother had been long passed by this point–but this, losing his son, was different.

I became a shell of who I was. Burnout hadn’t even begun to destroy me compared to grief. It consumed my thoughts and nothing truly brought me out of this shadow. I could momentarily put it to the back of my mind, but it was still there, no matter what fictional world I dove into or real life event I took part in. I’d look over our last texts, him and I having a meme war, and look through what little he had in the way of written records of his thoughts, and I would sob. He had a life I didn’t fully know about because I wasn’t home for four years of it, and I could see how much better our relationship was becoming despite the separation. It hurt it’d forever be frozen now.

Courtesy of Caila K.

Not only that, but between the two of us, my brother was the rock and now I had to take over the role. It was a heavy burden even if I wasn’t asked to carry it alone. I had a support structure, many friends and a significant other, but I was being pulled down despite their best efforts. It’s a miracle I finished college after all this. I auto-piloted through my last semester for the most part, passed my classes, and graduated. Talking to his friends and the staff at the high school immediately following his death, I found out my brother had been so proud of his big sister who was finishing college. It hurts so much how he couldn’t
be there to see the ceremony, and it is making me a mess as I type. I may be in a better place now, but this loss continues to hurt.

The following February of 2016, I had my first car accident. It scared the living hell out of me. When my dad came out to see the damage to the car, I sobbed because I had lived, but my brother hadn’t. The possibility of joining him and further shattering my parents scared me like nothing else. This accident delayed a planned move to live with my now ex who had seemingly no sympathy for how scared the accident made me.

If the ‘now ex’ didn’t tip you off, the move was a mistake. I became more aware of this after the sudden death of my mom in September of 2016. Due to her health issues we saw it coming to some degree, so my mom’s death did not shatter me like my brother’s had, but it made my grief deeper and longer lasting. During one of my mom’s first stays in the ICU after my brother passed, my dad and I went for lunch since we hadn’t eaten for hours. When we sat down in the booth, he said to me, ‘It’s just you and me now, kid.’ I wish I had known just how true it would eventually be. My ex, who had been very supportive through the
loss of my brother, had changed quite a bit by this point, but I had yet to realize it.

Courtesy of Caila K.

When people change, it’s not a sudden turn about to how they were before. More often than not, and in the case of my ex, it is a slow descent you don’t realize has happened until they become set in their new, toxic ways. That’s how it went for me, realizing my ex had become an emotionally closed off man. He didn’t believe my inability to fully overcome my depression and anxiety was more than a ‘lack of will,’ and tore down my core beliefs and morality to the point I felt my existence was something I wanted to end. He’d always say things like, ‘You just lack willpower,’ in a kind of playful, mocking tone; as if what I dealt with mentally wasn’t all that serious and I could change it at any time if I just willed it so. I can’t count the number of times he said the phrase ‘It’s all in your head,’ to me about my mental illnesses. He was very much a person who believed everyone was capable of just getting through things like mental illnesses with a simple change in thought. He didn’t understand it because he didn’t live any of it, and if he didn’t live it then it didn’t really exist or was over exaggerated by those who did. Being ignorant of the realities I was going through wasn’t the worst thing because he was still supportive and cared for me. He was fine with me going through therapy as long as I felt it helped, and supported my idea of eventually naming one of my future children after my brother. He still loved me and I loved him. We might not have been perfect matches, but we still worked. Until we didn’t. And I tried to avoid seeing we didn’t.

Between my graduation and moving in, his views on many social subjects changed and warped from what I remembered. He came to be very much skeptical that LGBTQ+ community was more than people intentionally making themselves ‘victims’, considered putting little lawn signs talking about accepting all people as ‘painting a target on your back,’ and honestly flat out disagreed with anything which could be considered left of center on a political spectrum outside very, very select ideas. Have what beliefs you will, but this man believed his to be the only correct ones and all other people were ‘sheep.’ I can’t say I was never been guilty of it in the past, but I’ve never used my beliefs to claim my significant other lived in a ‘fairytale land.’ Most
conversations became arguments no matter how much I avoided and deflected them. It was like he wanted to tear me down, or make me tear myself down more like it. I started questioning my very core beliefs, what I felt was right and wrong, and couldn’t reconcile it with his world view in a way we could at least coexist. I still loved him and thought he still loved me.

Every argument, no matter how seemingly small and asinine, no matter the topic or how subjective it may have truly been, ended in tears and me wanting to leave this world. I didn’t want to die per se, but I didn’t want to exist anymore. I wanted to be in the dark, drifting in between dreams state of sleep. No more pain, no more worries, no more arguments and tears; just silent, dark rest. Taking care of myself wasn’t a priority. All that mattered was I survived and met my obligations, even if I was a zombie. I ate fast food, I drank soda, and I barely brushed my teeth. My teeth degraded very badly during this time as a result, and I wouldn’t know the full extent for a while yet.

Toward the end of things, I became attached to a particular song: ‘It’s Over, Isn’t it?’ from the cartoon, Steven Universe. The topic of finally ending things was being brought up in therapy sessions regularly at about the same time the song released. I would listen to music as I showered and whenever this song would come on and I’d sing with it, I’d cry. Not light, silent tears, but deep sobs which made it difficult to keep singing. I didn’t want to face what I knew I should do, what singing this song over and over and over was forcing me to realize: It’s over, isn’t it? My friends had been bringing this up even before then, in particular they would bring up the fact he didn’t come to my mom’s funeral when he had for my brother. I tried to defend him by saying he couldn’t get the time off, but it was a flimsy excuse since he was able to do just that a year before with about the same amount of notice.

Later on, one of my oldest friends, ‘J’, asked me if I could move back after posting online during one of my depressive episodes. I
broke down in tears at the thought of starting from what I believed to be zero if I were to do so. I was stubborn and willingly blind to what I should do. And my stubbornness nearly cost me one of my closest friends, ‘B.’ I was hearing what B was saying, but I wasn’t actually listening to what she was telling me. It got to the point she stopped talking to me for a while. We managed to mend things, albeit shakily. And yet, despite almost losing B over everything my ex did which messed with my head along with being entirely egocentric at the time as a result, I was still too afraid to break what I thought was the only solid ground I still had. The problem is the ground was long beyond broken. I just thought I could ignore the cracks I’d seen and go on believing he still loved me. I wish I could say I was the one to end things, but I didn’t.

Courtesy of Caila K.

In June of 2017, my ex and I finally broke up. He sat us down to talk, and we both agreed it would be better to end it. ‘You’re not happy here, are you?’ he asked. I didn’t answer him. He then said, ‘I can’t be happy if you’re not happy. You need to be with people who think like you.’ I still disagree with the latter part even now. It’s not I needed to be with people who think like me; what I needed was my significant other not to ridicule what it was I thought and believed, to support me instead of tear me down. But, in the moment all I saw was an out and I took it without much argument. It made me the happiest I’d been in months. Following this talk, I moved back home with my dad. The final separation was messy, unfortunately, despite the amicable ending at first, but I could finally move forward. Then began the long trek out of the tarpit of darkness and back toward something resembling the light; the grey of dawn instead of the dark of midnight. The change in my environment drastically improved my mental health. It’s a wonder what not being pushed into tearing yourself down will do. I felt lighter and freer than I had in more than a year. I made it a priority to get my teeth straightened out after landing a full-time job after the move back home. I knew at least two root canals were on the horizon. I was undercounting though from what I found out when I saw the
dentist for the first time since summer of 2015.

After seeing the dentist for the first time around late 2017, early 2018, I finally got a damage report and it was worse than I thought it would be. Four root canals and treatment for periodontitis (gum disease) were the prognosis. Despite the shock, I scheduled the first of those root canals and the gum treatment as they would not move forward with anymore work without it. I cried in my truck after the appointment. It was overwhelming for someone who just got their first real, adult job, even if the pay didn’t seem to reflect that (spoiler: it still doesn’t after about three raises). I had decent dental insurance, but how in hell could I
afford all the work? The answer was by doing it piecemeal and having payment plans set up. Since then I have had a further three root canals and another of my molars has been added to the count. At this moment I have two more left as well as some cavities to fill, which my dentist seems less inclined to focus on. I’m looking into switching soon as I can as a result. I want to prevent more problems with my teeth where I can and my habits are starting to reflect that.

As a result of all this, I have stopped drinking dark sodas and now have an established dental care routine for morning and night. I sometimes miss my night routine due to tiredness or falling into small depressive episodes, but refuse to miss my morning routine. I opt for fluoride every time I get my teeth cleaned and keep to my teeth cleaning appointments. I’m more than willing to spend the $15 for those treatments twice a year when my depression has already cost me $2600 (estimated) in nerve treatments and crowns since college. It has been worth it to be out of pain and fix my self-esteem somewhat. I am glad to be rid of the large
cavity across two of my front teeth I’d had for years. I still rarely smile in pictures, but it’s more a habit than a reflection of my self-consciousness about my teeth at this point. According to my dentist, my teeth are stable right now. There’s no additional work I need at the moment; just the list of what’s been on the docket for some time and may be for a little while yet while I save to afford the work.

Courtesy of Caila K.

Depression has done a number on my teeth, but it’s not the first or even third thing anyone ever notices when they mention how much better I seem to be doing. Dental health is one of those things which goes unnoticed unless you have  large cavities on your front teeth which get constantly pointed out as I did. It becomes a silent symptom of the illness affecting your brain, and as you can see from my experience, it can cost you quite a bit to fix when you finally reach the point you can. We don’t emphasize enough how much depression can affect this facet of health, and it has cost many people pain and money as a result. I’ve seen others with worse damage go through worse than I did to fix their teeth. All of us have come to see just how bad depression has wrecked this part of our bodies.

It’s not an easy fix and I hope my story helps you realize no matter how bad it gets, you have to try to be cognizant of the long term effects of this illness. It is so hard to do that, but all anyone can do is try. Use those little disposable brushes with paste pre-applied, swig some mouthwash, get yourself to a dental school when they’re doing cleanings. All I ask is you take care of your teeth so you don’t go through the expenses I and many others have thanks to our brains working against us.”

Courtesy of Caila K.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Caila Koring. You can find her on twitter here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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