The Root of the Matter

Be warned, I am not at all a happy bunny. You may recall that back in August, I had to have a tooth refilled after the old filling had cracked. Well, for weeks and weeks afterwards it was nothing but trouble, sensitive, painful and ultimately the cause of some neuralgia. And then it finally seemed to settle down. Until last Wednesday, when the pain started up again. I thought to myself, ha, it’s that nuisance neuralgia, I shall carry on as normal and not deign to pay it attention. Only by Thursday evening, it was still hurting and Mister Litlove was heading off to spend the night in London for the purposes of work. I never sleep well when he’s away and when you add toothache to the mix, the result was atrocious. I fought my way out of my first nightmare (trying to push a man out of my house who had burst in demanding money) only to see the clock read 12.15. Oh, it was a long, long night.

So on Friday morning I fixed up an emergency appointment at the dentist. I find the dentist scary, and was none too happy having to go there when I felt very tired and anxious. The dentist I go to is a brother and sister combination. The sister had put the new filling in, and it was the brother I saw. The tests he carried out were a bit inconclusive. He didn’t like the look of the tooth and feared it was fractured underneath the new filling. He felt it was likely I’d end up having to have root canal or an extraction. On the x-ray there was a place where he feared he saw an infection beginning. But on the other hand, he liked to be optimistic! He packed me off with antibiotics in case my face swelled up like a balloon (in which case root canal was a definite), and advice to eat soft food, do jaw exercises and massage the sides of my head.

Funnily enough, by this point my tooth had stopped hurting altogether and for the rest of that day and Saturday it was numb. This was a relief, as I felt pretty dreadful, that old combination of white nights, anxiety, pain and the collapse when it’s over meaning that I lay around like I’d had a swift blow to the head. My face was a little bit swollen, although not enough to make the dentist think I certainly had an infection, and by Sunday the swelling was going down, but feeling was returning. It hurt to talk, smile, laugh and yawn. By today I can talk a bit easier, there’s no swelling, but part of my face is very tender indeed. I’m not sure where this is going but I’m not sure I like it; what’s most upsetting to me is being very confused as to what the problem actually is. Why should the tooth fracture when I’ve just had a new filling? Will this be a problem until I finally get root canal or an extraction (and the rest of it)?

The thing is, this sort of feels like the last straw. First my work at the university finished in an unpleasant way that brought me a lot of anxiety, and now I’m trying to get used to my son having left home. I’m fine with my son going – he was so ready for it. It’s much more about adjusting to the end of a full-time mothering role for me. Two huge parts of my life have recently gone, and they were things I was quite good at, compared to what I’m left with which is all the things I’m not good at.

I realised as well that for both of them, I had made an intellectual decision about the sort of person I needed to be, and became it. I felt that to be a good mother, I’d need to be a bit to the left of my usual self, a bit more robust, a lot less sensitive, with more patience. Something similar occurred at work where I had a distinct professional persona. I was talking this over with my reiki practitioner a few weeks ago, and she said ‘It’s funny how anxiety goes hand in hand with the dissolution of a persona. It leaves you feeling very exposed and vulnerable, very unsure of yourself.’

Well, yes.

And then writing this year has been a bit of a disaster. I began 2013 working regularly for two journals. One closed almost immediately and the other, well, I’m not even allowed to talk about it but take it from me, it was a dreadful experience. Then this course has been… well, it’s fine, really, it’s fine and I’m sure I will probably have learned a great deal. But I think that there are times when it’s necessary to look back over your life and times when it’s best to stare resolutely forward, and the personal narrative aspect of the course has been a bit of a struggle. I’ve written about the end of my job and chronic fatigue, neither exactly cheery topics, though I did make the first as positive as I could (which was good in personal terms, but not personal narrative terms – more angst was required). I can’t imagine what I could write about next, even if I felt like it.

So here we are, late October, the clocks have just gone back and it’s the time of year I loathe, I don’t know quite who I am or what I’m doing with myself, I was already anxious and my immediate prospects are persistent toothache and/or root canal work. You may see my problem. And yes, I have a lovely husband, and a delightful place to live and we’re not in the workhouse yet, all things I am very grateful for. I really am grateful for them, and goodness knows my situation could be worse. If only I weren’t such a coward about dental work. It’s probably just that spectre looming over me that’s making me feel so low. Thank you for the opportunity to moan. Hopefully I’ll perk up very soon.


51 thoughts on “The Root of the Matter

    • In my present mood, if a puppy was going to provide the answer, I’d have one. It doesn’t sound TOO bad an idea to finish off our elderly, bad-tempered cat and replace him with a kitten… but no, Mr Litlove would never let me get away with it. Alas. Hmmm, puppies. Very cute. Very fun. I can see the reasoning!

      • Since I lost my boys (Goldies) I have been trying so hard not to get another one and have done lots of carefree travelling but – there’s such a big hole ooh and all that devotion 🙂

  1. Yes I do understand your problem! However, and forgive me if I am completely wrong here, I really don’t believe “what I’m left with which is all the things I’m not good at.” This is not to say I don’t understand why you are not feeling good; I’ve been there myself (I’ve had major personal and work-related disasters too) but perhaps fortunately for me I never lost my self-belief too much. Maybe I was just lucky that I didn’t get simultaneous toothache 🙂

    Love from the darkest cat x

    • Aww, thank you, dear cat. Believe me, it’s surprising how much worse toothache makes everything! And oh, me and self-belief. Long story, no happy ending yet. I suppose the obvious things people do in my position – socialise a lot, travel, go out to theatres and exhibitions and so on, do work on their houses – aren’t the kind of things I do. And given I’m a bit more anxious of late, I feel less like trying them than I might. But I must pull myself together in some way with a shiny new plan because even I know that moping about is NOT the answer! 🙂

  2. I LOVE your blog. It’s helped me over very similar life challenges. And when I was in those challenges all I could focus on was what was wrong. Luckily, time went on, I read a few books for comfort, and eventually I was back to my normal (is their really such as thing) self.

    • Oh bless you. Isn’t it odd and perplexing how blinding the bad things are? It’s so hard to see around their edges. I just need to calm down (just!!) and accept whatever may be. My plan for this week was in part to finish off all the books I’m in the middle of – I should try and concentrate on that!

  3. There’s something weird and ironic about you having trouble with the personal narrative part of the course. Because you’re so good at it on your blog. You’re really self-aware, observant, sensitive, funny. This one is particularly vibrant – just unfortunate that it’s not for good reasons personally.

    The other thing you identify as a problem, losing part of your identity, is a really deep thing. I’d go as far as describing it as a kind of grief.

    • Oh you are so kind and lovely. Yes, I am grieving for important parts of my old life. If only I didn’t have to get so anxious when I do it! It’s odd because it’s easy to write on the blog – I feel I’m just talking to my friends. When I have to do something similar but for strangers, and it’s supposed to be neat and literary and meaningful, I think I seize up! As a process it certainly feels more stilted and I question myself a lot more. Well, the answer to that particular problem must be there!

      • I dunno – I also think maybe it’s a case of the thing you want to write about comes and seizes you? So maybe if I were writing a timeline without really knowing you, I’d go oh yeah, being ill and losing your job are biggies, they must be the things to write about. Whereas it’s the little things like your teeth and anxieties and family leaving that might hold more inherent meaning. Like Carol Shields as opposed to Tolstoy. It’s just a question of what suits your style – you’ve got great style. I don’t put you down as an angsty writer – and truly that’s not a bad thing. For example, Michael Frayn can live without angst, right?

        I also do recognise that losing the things you are good at is very traumatic. I did it when I had kids. I still feel severe pangs of envy for the pieces of lives I see of people who stayed on the career trajectory.

        Hope it all eases up soon anyway.

      • Denise, you are a wise woman. It wouldn’t be the first time I was trying to do something enormous and complex when something normal-sized and simple would actually do the trick! I’ll take that comment to heart!

  4. I can feel your anxiety just from reading this! I’m sorry you’re struggling.

    Unrelated comment: I am looking forward to reading your review of “The Signature of All Things.” 🙂

    • Thank you for your kind wishes. I’m looking forward to reading that book! It’s huge, so it may take a little while, but I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Gilbert generally.

  5. I do hope you feel better soon. I once had bonding put on my two front teeth and then right afterward some kind of infection formed near those teeth, on the roof of mouth. The pain was unbelievable. I had to take anti-biotics and pain killers from the doctor to make it go away. I know how stressful pain can be and add that on top of life. My tooth pain story ends with being over-prescribed pain killers by that crazy doctor, which led me to vomiting in a bush outside of a bookstore and then later in someone else’s car as we went around a turn. I hope my story can at least bring a laugh.

    • Oh but that sounds traumatic! I guess on the good news side, you survived to tell the tale! And hopefully it’s a distant memory now. Once bad events become anecdotes, much healing has been done. 🙂

  6. Oooh litlove, it does seem to be a really rotten time, I send you BIG hugs. I can sympathise very much with losing the things you are good at and being stuck with things with which you struggle and it’s pants until one day you (I) wake up and realise that it’s not so bad any more, actually your life is really quite good, no very good, how did that happen?

    But until that moment arrives, I’d advise lots of good comfort reading, complaining constantly to your husband and, in your case, some hefty painkillers until that tooth is sorted out. Try not to kill the cat in the mean time.

    • Oh Helen, you are hilarious! The cat is quite safe, even though he is still bad-tempered and no Henri either. You are quite right that time takes care of these things, one way or another. I am definitely taking your advice on the complaining, and the reading. 🙂

  7. I think when you resolve the issue with your tooth you will feel much more optimistic in general. Toothaches sap me of strength like almost nothing else can. I suppose my mortal fear of the dentist might have something to do with it. I hope you will feel better soon. This will be a different year for you with so many doors closing it only means that new ones will be opening soon!

    • Thank you for the solidarity! I am such a coward when it comes to the dentist, it’s not true. And toothache is SO horrid. I do hope your right. I would like one little door to open just an inch or two. That’s all, that would be very pleasant.

  8. Toothache makes everything worse, I agree. I had a deep, deep, deep filling almost two weeks ago that only stopped hurting in the last couple of days. The dentist in this case thought I might end up needing a root canal but wanted to try a filling first. So not only was I in dreadful pain, the pain was adding to my fear that a root canal was coming. I can’t imagine having those other stressors on top–just normal life stress was too much for me last week.

    I agree with the others that personal narrative is something you’re wonderful at, but I can see how writing for a course, on assignment is different from writing on your own schedule and according to your own inclination for an audience you’ve come to know.

    • Oh Teresa! My heart goes out to you! That’s where I’ve been – nasty, distressing pain and fear plastered on top of it that there may be this awful treatment ahead. And then all the rest of it, sigh. But there it is. These times are sent to try us, etc, etc. And I keep telling myself it really could be a lot worse. Bless you for being so kind about my writing. I can see that if I ever want to write any personal essays, I’ll have to prepare them piecemeal here first!

  9. Oh Lord, poor you! Tooth pain is just awful. I hope you get it completely sorted out soon — nobody likes to have the prospect of possible further tooth pain hanging over their heads.

    I’m facing the prospect of being tossed back into something I’m not good at after being away from it for — actually not that long, you’d think I was trying to force myself to become good at it by practicing a lot, which I AM NOT — but anyway, being away from it for long enough that I haven’t had to worry about it. It helps me to have a project in mind that I know I can do right, like making little sewn-binding notebooks, or putting together an extremely elaborate gift.

    (Or actually, right now, making a subtitles track for the digital video file of Kenneth Branagh in The Lady’s Not for Burning that i recently acquired. It is perfect because it’s tedious and meticulous, and I will be very, very pleased with myself once it’s done.)

    • I just love the idea of you making subtitles for a movie – what a fantastic thing to do! And of course you have hit on something so important – it’s that gentle, tedious, painstaking work that provides the most comfort. Something almost mechanical. I also like the idea of doing something alongside the tough stuff that’s spirit-lifting, too. You have all my sympathy for being obliged to return to difficult tasks. I live in fear someone will force me to do something maths-related. Although really, only an idiot would even ask!

  10. I want to second Dark Puss. I don’t think you’re left with what you are not good at. I think you are left with what you think you’re not good at.
    I hope your tooth problem is soon resolved. It’s so stressful to have something and not really know what it is.
    The problem with writing about something like chronic fatigue is that you have to travel back in time or the writing will be lifeless. That’s quite risky and can trigger a lot of anxieties, I’m sure.
    In any case, I wish you’ll get better very soon.

    • Caroline, so much good sense here and comfort. I like the distinction you make, drawing on DP’s wise words. I do at least understand better what’s happened to my tooth – I’ve bruised a nerve. The hope is that it will slowly heal, so cross your fingers for me. And yes that’s exactly the problem with writing about CFS – it has to be lived through again, and it wasn’t much fun the first time around.

  11. I’m not sure a shiny new thing will be a good answer for you. You can try a lot of things, and then you may slip into a different kind of life with a few new details.
    Root canals aren’t that bad. Finish your course of antibiotics and keep going to dentists until they figure out what caused the pain. I had a crack in a tooth so small that no one could see it, even until it was finally pulled. Before I finally had the thing out, the infection spread from my tooth to my knee (always my weak part). Don’t mess around with the possibility of oral infection.

    • Actually, there’s a lot in that – it probably WILL be a reorganisation of what’s in my life already rather than anything wildly new, which you’re quite right, I don’t feel like. Fortunately I haven’t had an infection yet – though I have antibiotics on hand. And my dentists have been very good, encouraging me to come back at the slightest change that causes me worry so we can catch any problems in time. It turns out I’ve bruised a nerve in my tooth, and we are all just hoping that it heals. Cross your fingers for me!

  12. You are never completely over either mothering or academia. Mourn the loss of intense involvement in them, but remember they are still part of you.

    But… Maybe it is relevant that I came down with CFS when I retired early, we moved to beautiful rural area, and I relaxed.

    • I agree – it’s when you take your foot off the pedal that your body does its internal laundry. My reiki practitioner is adamant that it’s only when something’s over that all the associated anxieties come out – and goodness knows I’ve had enough anxiety about mothering and the university! It will probably take a while to balance myself back out. Thank you for your wise comment – I agree, the intensity lessens but the structure remains.

  13. I came here to find out if you’d like to review a recently republished novel of mine … but it’s an ebook so I shan’t ask you about that. But reading this post – and I seriously sympathise, including with the toothache, how vile it is – I was wondering if you’ve ever read ART & FEAR I think it’s the most wonderful, sympathetic, sensible, honest, encouraging book about why we stop, give up or become discouraged about making any kind of art, and what we can do about it. The authors aren’t writers, one’s a photographer and one’s a painter, but their sympathy and empathy extends to writing and they don’t teach, they show. Perhaps it might help?

    • That’s a fantastic recommendation and it’s gone straight on my wishlist. I’m really sorry not to get to review your novel, though, as I’d have liked to. I don’t have an ereading device and I just loathe reading long pieces on screens – they alter the timing somehow. If you ever have a paper copy free, I’d be delighted to review for you.

      • I could send you a paperback of SPEAKING of LOVE if you’d really like to review it … if other things (let alone life) aren’t making it difficult for you to review books at the moment. But if you really would like to, please send me an email with your terrestrial address (and your name … I only know the Victoria part …) and I’ll send it and a synopsis and then if you decide to review it I could email you a jpeg of the new digital cover and a link to its amazon page, if you’d like those things. But if – since your reply to my comment – you’ve decided you’d rather not, no worries. The subject matter isn’t the easiest although there is hope by the end … I can’t abide (now where did that word come from? I never use it … ) novels that end in despair.

  14. Even I, with my total loathing of anything remotely feline, do not advocate killing the cat. You won’t be able to cope with the guilt. I’m sorry to have to say this but the only way I know through a period like this is one day at a time because there are no quick fixes and counting your blessings often makes you feel worse. But then you know that, don’t you and you also know that we’re all here for you and sending virtual hugs and pots of honey. I suspect that when the answer does come as to which way you should take your life now it will be from completely left field and take you totally by surprise. With that in mind perhaps you should not try to look too hard but read and see what comes. And now I will go away and try and take my own excellent advice 🙂
    Love from us all.

    • Well it IS excellent advice! 🙂 Every time something like this happens (and it has been a year for something regularly happening that takes me by the throat), I have this compulsion to steam through it at top speed, and of course, it simply cannot be done. It does take time and patience – the latter being something I do struggle to find! It’s about easing into a different rhythm of life, and a different level of expectation, isn’t it? At least for a while. I wish it were easier to remember that! Sending much love back.

  15. “I had made an intellectual decision about the sort of person I needed to be, and became it”

    This sentence says so much. I think many of us do this to some extent, trying to be what others want or need us to be. I expect as a mother the expectations are even greater. I’m feeling a bit lost at the moment and not in a good place to dish out advice, so I’ll just wish you well and hope the tooth doesn’t give you more grief!

    • Thank you, Andrew – I’ll happily take those wishes. And yes, I feel that those decisions were huge events in my life, well, life sentences in all meanings of the term. I’ve never felt good about failing anyone, or not providing the service they need, and it’s something I have to think about a lot now, how I want to – well, have to – alter my attitude if I want a more liveable life. It’s sad when the ideals die, but they are very hard to live up to, day after day.

  16. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you shared your burden in this post. I totally sympathize with your situation because I’m in such a bad place myself (Worst fibromyalgia attack in decades with chronic fatigue–ugh!).

    I think being able to say what’s up for you enhances your blog, because your readers know you through all the books you write about, and because books help us all get through all this muck. Books and book blogs have been the key elements that have helped me keep my sanity since this horrible bout started in mid-September.

    Thinking about you,
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Oh Judith, I am happy then that I wrote this post and we could share some of our burdens together. I am sending all my sympathy. I’ve had a little fibromyalgia and it is horrible, really debilitating. I completely agree that blogging is the most tremendous help and support. I don’t know what I would have done these past seven years without dear blogging friends to cheer and comfort me. I’ll be thinking about you, too. Take very good care of yourself.

  17. I’m so sorry about your tooth! And that the pain has come with very bad timing! I think pain is easier to bear when it’s part of a narrative with a clearly defined end. Not understanding fully what’s going on is the worst! I do hope the dentist gets to the bottom of the problem soon and that you start to feel better.

    • Oh so right! I absolutely hate not understanding what’s going on. Finally I think I have some idea of the problem – I’ve bruised a nerve in my tooth and we have to wait and hope it heals (nerves move slowly, apparently). And so having just got my head around that, I’ve now also come down with a cold. Sigh. I think I may hibernate! 🙂

  18. Poor you! As you say though the tooth pain makes everything seem worse and without the tooth trouble things don’t seem so very bad, not easy, to be sure, but not so horrible. I hope it feels better soon. I hate the dentist as well even when I go in for just a cleaning. I also can’t believe you only have left the things you are bad at. Things will start looking up soon. Hugs!

    • I remember you being VERY brave about having crowns. I can only hope I’ll be as courageous if/when the time comes! I really do think that toothache makes everything so much worse. It is getting better, I think, just very slowly (still, I’ll take that!). And I’ll take the hugs too – at least the one thing you know about life is that nothing stays the same forever! Let’s hope nothing gets worse… 😉

  19. Have a hug, Victoria! Toothache makes everything a hundred times worse – I spent most of the last year with it, and consequent headaches, and was all due for an extraction when a new dentist and new doctor worked out what was going on. But you feel so helpless, don’t you? I don’t think medical people understand how scary it is to be in pain and not understand enough to know why.

    • Oh Simon, poor you! How awful to have to put up with it for so long! I completely agree – the not understanding is the hardest part. If you can at least conceptualise what’s going on, it helps. I’d be very interested to hear the end of your story and what the problem turned out to be. Hugs back!

      • I shall tell the tale! The toothache ended up being a split tooth beneath a filling (which the new dentist solved immediately, so I’m not very happy with the old dentist) – the headaches, which carried on for longer, turned out to be unconnected. They were to do with spasming neck muscles causing tension headaches, apparently, but came at the same time as the tooth pain because apparently that pain meant I bit differently which set off jaw muscles which, in turn, set off neck muscles! Not something I’d ever have guessed myself… but with the filling being re-done for the fourth time in a year (sigh) and with neck exercises, I seem to be back on track!

      • Ahhh, how interesting! A split tooth under a filling was one possibility for me, but I was told it would have to be extracted if that were the case. Hmmmm. I’d be happy to have a second opinion on that. I am SO glad that you found the cause of the headaches too. I am forever screwing up my neck muscles, hunched over my laptop or a book or something, so I can quite see the problem. You certainly deserve some extremely good health now after getting through that lot!

  20. Oh Litlove, that is so hard to go through the ending of a major part of your work life, and to let your son go to start his life. A big empty space left… you think the personas you developed to deal with both aspects, are ones that you are used to? I’m curious that you did create them so deliberately – I know we all do to some extent, and certainly I am aware I am one way at work and quite different at home, though I call it my public personal vs my personal persona. I don’t like having to do it though, it feels dishonest in some way to me and to them, even if the work area feels like an arena with lions sometimes! I find I get tired out in the world now, and would rather spend time at home as often as I can, where i can be myself.

    Certainly the toothache won’t have helped, and it’s a kind of pain that is agonizing and you know it will lead to more visits to the dentist – I dread going, and funnily enough, a deep pocket near one tooth is flaring up, and I can feel the pain spreading down my neck now. I’m trying to ignore it since it’s not the tooth itself, just the gum, and I will do anything to not go to the dentist! I hope your problem does get fixed. Well, it will, I hope it will be with less pain and surgery than what they are intimating.

    • Dear Susan, thank you for your sympathetic and understanding words. I think my awareness of my personas is very much due to the benefit of hindsight! Not that I didn’t consciously realise I would have to alter my behavioural patterns and up my game, as it were, but that I didn’t conceptualise this to myself as the creation of a persona. It felt more like striving to become the person I felt I needed to be in each situation. But now I look back, I realise just how much I relied on role-playing to get me through, and how big the differences were between my comfortable self and the ones I employed. I downplayed all that in my mind. I feel so like you, though, in wanting peace and privacy to be exactly myself now. I am also sending huge solidarity for your sore gum! My bruised nerve is slowly settling down, though I suppose it could become infected still – it’s a worry! But it doesn’t hurt as much as it did. Here’s hoping we can both of us avoid the drill! Take good care of yourself, too.

  21. I am sorry to be so late to comment. But I wanted to thank you for saying what your reiki practitioner told you, about anxiety going hand in hand with the dissolution of a persona. My daughter (only 8!) has had severe anxiety with the start of a new school this year, and I think this may be part of it. Quite a revelation. Thank you.

    I hope you are doing much better, dear dear Litlove.

    • Dear Jenny, I feel so sorry for your girl, and can remember very well how taxing the start of a new school could be. I am delighted if anything I’ve said has been helpful – it’s the reason and the hope I invest in writing these posts. If someone else finds the information useful, then it makes me feel that the event was worth experiencing. I’m sending love to you both, and absolute faith that you will see the changes through together and all the stronger for that.

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