Farewell to a tic

For most of my life, I have been a lip-biter: when I’m nervous, bored, working, not working, watching TV, reading, or simply taking up space on a chair, I bite my lips — often to the point of making them bleed. People often mistake this for a sign of Deep Thought or Ponderous Intelligence. I beg to differ: I’ve watched other people do it and it looks more like a sign of impending Bell’s Palsy.

It is not a pretty habit.

It started, oddly enough, when I was about 15 years old: I had a crush on a phys. ed. teacher at our school, Mrs Thomas, and I thought she looked the height of coolness, sitting on the coaches’ bench at basketball games and gnawing on her lips. I gave it a whirl (the way impressionable teens do with cigarettes or platform shoes) and I was hooked.

May lead to lip biting.

Over the years, people have prodded me to stop. Exes have swatted my arm and hissed “Stop biting!” (leading bystanders to clutch their necks uneasily and look around for vampires). Friends have told me I look idiotic. My dentist has casually enquired as to whether the inside of my mouth has been assailed by termites. (He’s that kind of guy. I love him, which is not something one normally hears in reference to dentists.)

And like many people with bad habits – nail biting, hair pulling, smoking, overeating, making faces at small children in supermarkets – I have tried nearly everything under the sun to make myself stop. I have tried reasoning with myself (“This is a silly habit and you can break it”), threatening myself (“Your face is going to stay like that”) and using deterrents like having to put a dollar into a “charity jar” every time I went for a nibble. In desperation, I have worn an elastic on my wrist and snapped it hard against my skin each time I caught myself biting my lips.

Nothing worked. It should be noted here that I smoked for years, first when I was at university (because it was “cool”) and again when I lived in Europe (because everyone does, and there’s really nothing quite as European as enjoying a Gauloise Bleu with a glass of champagne beside a cobblestone street at sunset, and then wheezing your way home up the mountainside later on, clutching your ribs and trying to remember the word for “emphysema” in German). Anyway, I will freely admit here that it was far, far easier to quit smoking than it has been to quit biting my lips.

Ah. Nothing like a glass of Sekt and a tumour at the end of the day.

And then about two weeks ago, I chomped over-enthusiastically into a cob of fresh corn, jarring one of my bottom teeth badly. It happened to be the one that has a crown on it, thanks to a childhood accident, and so I was more than a little worried when it began to hurt. Crowned teeth are, by definition, dead. Dead things should not hurt. Zombie movies tell us that when dead things hurt, bad things happen.

Anyway, a visit to my dentist, and a quick x-ray, revealed that there had been no damage. This was welcome news, since we all know that damage to one’s snappers usually means corresponding damage to the pocketbook.

But he did notice that my bite had shifted, which is fancy dentist-speak for “your teeth are moving around in your mouth.” They do this, apparently, in the same way that one’s bits begin to sag and succumb to gravity as one gets on in years. (A dear friend of mine once told me, “When I was your age, dear, I was a 38C. Now I’m a 42 Long,” which caused me to snort several cups of brain cells out my nose.)

Anyway, without further ado the dentist whipped out a little sander (I’m sure there’s another word for it) and proceeded to buzz some real estate off the top of the crowned tooth. (I have absolutely zero fear of dentists or their wares, so I apologize here to those of you who are now gripping their keyboards and wetting themselves in terror.) He slid a little piece of inked paper between my teeth, said “Bite down,” and pronounced himself satisfied with the results.

Open wide.

Me, I could feel it at once — my bottom teeth no longer click against the insides of my front teeth. It’s a tiny, tiny thing but it did feel different.

And it wasn’t until I was sitting in front of the TV that night that I noticed the other, critical difference: I can no longer bite my lips. And, even more peculiar, I have no desire to do so.

So there you have it — a habit of over 30 years, banished with a stroke of the dentist’s tool. I’m sure that wasn’t his intention when he revved up the sander, and I am at a loss to explain why it worked. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing, like when you have a nick in your tooth or a cavity (I will invite howls of outrage here by admitting I’ve never had one): you simply can’t stop playing with it, poking it with your tongue. In my case, I clicked therefore I gnawed. Who knows?

But regardless of the reasons, I am for all intents and purposes miraculously cured of lip-biting. I am still so thunderstruck (and grateful, it must be said) that I’m seriously contemplating setting up shop with a bright light, a comfy chair and a small electric sander to administer the Smiter Method™ to anyone with a bad habit, a credit card and 10 minutes to spare. My dentist, of course, will get a cut of the proceeds and a mention in the waiting-room literature.

The only people I will refuse to treat, on principle, are those who make faces at small children in supermarkets. Frankly, the more of us there are, the better the world will be. Nyah!

Smiter out.

Mummy, the bad alligator made a face at me!

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