Adventures in wearing braces

Wearing invisible braces requires discipline, which I have in spades - until the day I dropped them in the toilet

I don't know when exactly it happened or why, but some time in the last decade, my incisors begin twisting and angling out of what was once a straight row of front teeth.

A month ago, I decided to stop asking people if they thought I needed braces and just get some.

Since I had missed the window to correct my teeth in adolescence, where the average level of ugliness makes orthodontia irrelevant, I wanted to seize the opportunity to enter my fourth decade of life with a brilliant, straight smile.

I was prepared to live with wires, but when the dentist said that in my case of just correcting the upper row, it would cost about the same to wear Invisalign, I agreed.

If nothing else, I figured the plastic invisible braces - thin and completely moulded to my teeth - would allow me to avoid repeated and unsolicited conversations about the braces themselves.

What sealed the deal was when my dentist said that she recommended Invisalign only to patients with discipline. Did I consider myself a disciplined person?

Did I! All my reward centres lit up at those words. Not only did I consider myself disciplined, I was the kind of person who fetishised discipline and thought it the quality that separated the wheat from the chaff.

My discipline fixation has gotten me into some of the most unpleasant experiences of my life - such as a triathlon, or an overnight trek up a volcano, or a juice cleanse - and Invisalign would soon join the Hall of Fame.

Within a week of wearing Invisalign, it was clear to me that the question of discipline was too broad to really prepare wearers. A better question was: "Can you imagine a life where you floss and brush your teeth five times a day, every day, in toilets of all types and cleanliness levels?"

For this is what eating and drinking (anything but water) is like for Invisalign wearers: Remove the braces, inhale your food and drink in half an hour, then run to the nearest toilet to floss and brush and pop the braces back in.

On the little case in which you're meant to store your braces during these compressed mealtimes, the unnatural law that now governs your life, is emblazoned: "Optimal wear: 22 hours/day".

Imagine all the eating and drinking compressed into two hours of your day and you'll understand when I say that crucial pleasures were immediately stripped wholesale from my life.

Nursing a cup of coffee while browsing celebrity gossip websites? A quick teabreak with colleagues? Sharing a bottle of red wine with friends on a Friday evening?

1) Hot drinks can warp the plastic;

2) Trust me when I say that a curry puff is not worth flossing and brushing for;

3) Incredibly forbidden, as red wine stains the plastic.

Worse still, the weight loss that this new lifestyle should usher in - and which other Invisalign wearers parrot about in online forums - failed to materialise.

In my zealousness, I ate like a starving prisoner-of-war each time, imbibing probably a thousand calories in 20 minutes.

There I was destroying myself with discipline when, a few weeks in, I encountered a colleague and fellow Invisalign-wearer sipping away at an iced lemon tea.

"What are you doing?" I demanded, with all the disproportionate emotion of an obsessive vegan witnessing a comrade having Eggs Benedict. "Did you take your braces out??"

He said that it wasn't a big deal. We floss and brush so often anyway that a few hours between a drink and the next round of teeth-cleaning were fine.

A few days later, another friend told me that she knew someone who wore his braces only at night.

My dentist had told me that failing to wear Invisalign for the optimal length of time would mean that the teeth fail to shift the appropriate amount to move on to the next, tighter tray on the schedule. So, the overall treatment time would be stretched out.

But this friend-of-a-friend claimed that his teeth were still shifting properly and wearing them only at night was not delaying his treatment.

These nuggets of information left me reeling. But it made sense: As usual, my discipline fetish had me take it too far.

The weeks since I've relaxed the rules on myself have been pleasant. I leave the braces out for hours at a time now if I want to have a nice social experience with food and drinks, and if that means a few more weeks to correct my teeth, so be it.

So far, there seems to be no adverse impact on my progress from wearing them for less than 22 hours a day.

But Invisalign seems to know where I'm vulnerable. I apply intensity to discipline because if I do not, my natural state of blithe carelessness dominates.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that last week, the case containing my braces fell out of my jeans back pocket into the toilet before I flushed.

But at least urine is sterile. A week ago, I merrily wrapped my braces in a piece of tissue paper as I had dinner with colleagues at the coffee shop. I was back at my desk before I discovered that I had left the braces behind.

At the hawker centre, the aunties led me to the buckets of hawker food trash with sympathetic faces and a pair of latex gloves.

My hands waded through the trash, disgust outweighed by desperate hope.

It's not just that each brace would cost $100 to replace, the new braces would take weeks to be ready, setting my orthodontic progress back.

I'm not sure what was driving me at this point - I now question why I didn't just walk away. But some sort of sentimental, primordial compulsion dominated.

Fate rewarded my dedication. There my braces were, swimming in a mix of gravy, soup, bones and soggy tissue.

I soaked them in a bath of mouthwash and vinegar for hours before putting them back in.

When they popped back over my teeth, my whole body relaxed with relief.

Somewhere along the way while I was busy resenting them, my braces had become a part of me. Now they were home.

rchang@sph.com.sg