For a brief period of time, I thought my retainer might be killing me. I took it from my mouth one morning and considered it in the bathroom’s peach light. I was feeling particularly strange: skin vibrating, my nerves shifting in palpitating clusters, my mind releasing its chemical signals to warn of a “vague disquiet” on the floor. Yet the previous morning had dawned on a healthier Me, one who’d risen without a retainer in his mouth. By detective logic, couldn’t I reason that the retainer was the only variable at play?
My $700 piece of plastic bears the face of a dog, striped like a skunk with googly eyes that spend a few nights a week staring blankly into the floor of my mouth. Watching the occasional spider slip in while I slept. Wondering, maybe, why the orthodontist had cursed them with sight.
Unidentified white plaque covers its surface like thin plaster. However many years I’ve had this thing, shoving it over my teeth whenever I get the notion, and I’ve never cleaned it that well. Just the precursory brush, but a suggestion sourced either from memory or a mislabeled dream tells me to soak the retainer in a glass of mouth wash. A suggestion I’ve never taken, as a part of my broader neglect of hygiene etiquette, including daily showers and cleaning toenails.
It could be the retainer, poisoning me slowly in the night. The fact that I’d sunk so low as to pinpoint my retainer as the killer in the shadows just illustrates how desperate I was to put a face on my persecutor. Medical technology had marked off cardiac, respiratory, and gastro-intestinal issues, and I had little left to rest the problem on. “I’d rather it be you,” I said to the jiggling eyes of my retainer, “than a stranger.”
Panic disorder works like a seismic event, unearthing things forgotten. In the biochemical wake of its upset on my life, memories have risen to the surface. When I was twelve, I accidentally caught a clip of The Exorcist, with Linda Blair strapped to a bed, her face a casserole of decay, and for a year I choked down a fierce conviction that the devil was possessing me. I’d stare in the mirror, looking for a green tint or some other cosmetic sign of Satan’s presence in my soul. In the family kitchen one morning, I asked my father with nervous restriction, “How do you know if you’re being possessed?” I doubt my father even remembered my episode with The Exorcist by this point, but his answer came up with surprising ease. “Well, I’ve always thought, the Devil doesn’t possess you unless you want him to.” Then he whistled out of the room.
Did I want the Devil to? After a bad year of demonophobia, I didn’t know the answer exactly. Which side did I fall on in Satan’s regard? Pro- or anti-invitation? How do you know what you want when when in you’re in so deep?
At twelves-year-old, the first night I saw the disfigured Linda Blare on a Today Show clip, I slept in my parents’ bed. They were cooking dinner, maybe my father was in the living room, and I hovered on the dark periphery between urges to say no and yes. If I didn’t ask, if I abandoned myself to my solitary room that night, I didn’t know what would happen. For possession to work, Satan might need a lonely, quiet place. For all I knew, He (or She) was waiting on a parallel plane to see what I would do. But if I asked, I might have to endure my parents’ confused faces, a long moment with nothing to say, followed by, “No. You don’t do that anymore.” And a dose of red shame to exacerbate my situation.
I told them what I’d seen. My father nodded sagely. “I remember that movie. I saw it in theaters.” He flipped a page of something. “It scared the crap out of me.”
Then, in a practiced, casual tone, fiercely conscious of my age, I asked, “So can I sleep in your bed tonight?”
I lay sandwiched between my parents, watching the night’s progress of shadows cross the ceiling. When I was younger and this kind of thing used to be normal, my parents’ bed was the sweetest quick fix, like free-basing heavy tranquilizer. It was a beautiful world, in hindsight, where comfort could be so readily available. The night of the Exorcist, I felt far from safety. If it weren’t that night, it could be the next. All the Devil and his Horde had to do, really, was wait until my parents’ reached their threshold for a twelve-year-old bed-companion. Probably I’d already reached it.
In that night’s darkest hour, I imagined Satan rising up inside me and commanding me to kill my parents. What safety is there with thoughts like that?
As a twelve-year-old, I invented foods that curbed possession. In high school, I used t-shirts and good luck playlists to fight off acne. As a rational adult with a wife and dog, I’ve stumbled upon an empty arsenal. I used to have things I felt might save me, almost all of which were invented from nothing. Now I find myself disarmed and surrounded by the things that will kill me. Stress, job, t-shirts, bad thoughts, dead chickens, children, responsibilities, tax returns, climate change, the past, and the future: all a singular stalker in the night, one I’ve named Calvin in honor of a movie I just saw, in which a hostile alien squeezes everyone to death in the bowels of a constricted space station.
More twisted, though, is the perversion of the things that once saved me. I once used exercise to burn the excess fumes upon which my anxiety feeds. I remember the savage, blue pleasure of my pounding heart and blurry neurons, the waves of euphoria after, the feeling of improvement. I also loved coffee and beer, my liquid saviors. Now, all of these things are killing me. Exercise is terrifying. Caffeine, alcohol, just damaging substances. Sad songwriters tell me I’ll die alone. Once friends, now shitty little foes.
Only recently have I dredged the past for fruit. That lucky playlist, those t-shirts, the liturgical prayers I said to the encroaching night, were all improvised therapies guided by irrational voices. I wonder if there was a sense to them, like maybe they scratch some biological need. Even if they didn’t work, I might pretend I lived in a reality in which they did, and perhaps in there is a new application of the phrase, “Fake it ’til you make it.” If I take Bayer every day, if I drink one gallon of water, if through sheer alchemy I turn a piece of this earth’s material shit mountain into an object that might save me, maybe it’ll work like it used to.
Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t really know how adulthood works.