This is one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting, challenging, amazing things. This is the story of my friend Jess and her decision to get braces (for a second time!) at age 30.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
Hi! I’m Jess. I live in Minneapolis, MN, where I was born and spent most of my childhood. I’m 30 years old. I work at a large nonprofit organization doing digital communication. For fun, I love cooking, reading, riding my bike and thrifting. I also love to travel, whether it’s an hour-long road trip or a grand adventure to Paris!
Did you have orthodontia as a kid?
I had braces (top and bottom) from about age 10 to age 12. In addition, I had to wear rubber bands and later, headgear. Luckily, that was only while I slept. Middle school was difficult enough without having to wear headgear in public.
I grew up in the suburbs and most of my peers had braces, so I didn’t feel like I stuck out that much.
How did you feel when you got your braces off at age 12?
I felt like a million bucks! I got contacts around the same time (plus I learned how to pluck my eyebrows) so I felt like a whole new person. I was still too afraid to talk to my seventh grade crush, Steve, but I felt beautiful nonetheless.
When did you realize that your teeth had shifted back?
Around age 23, I realized I had a tendency to grind my teeth in my sleep. I would wake up with a sore jaw and headaches. I had just started my first real job, so I figured it was just because of stress. My dentist (who was new at the time) made me an NTI bite splint for me to wear at night and it quickly relieved the headaches and soreness.
At this point, my teeth were perfectly straight. I had worn my retainers through middle school, high school and a couple of years in college. Only after about a year of this bite splint did I notice my teeth had moved. I couldn’t tear open plastic bags with my teeth. I couldn’t bite into foods like I was used to.
If you looked at my teeth, you would see that they were straight, but from canine to canine, none of them touched. This condition is called an open bite. If I bit into a slice of pizza, I could scrape off the toppings, but couldn’t tear the dough. I became self conscious when eating in public. I had no choice but take big, tearing bites of things, or pull them apart with my fingers. I never realized how big a role eating had in my life, at the office, at networking events, grilling at my friends’ houses…normal, everyday operations had changed for me.
I went in to see my dentist and explained that my teeth had moved. He said he had never seen this happen before, and he said he’d made these splits for many patients, even some of his staff. He referred me to a jaw specialist, who said that my grinding was a symptom of TMJ. To close my open bite, I’d have to get braces in the next 5 years.
Then, I panicked. I couldn’t afford braces! I couldn’t even afford a car! I put off the braces until I could get in a better place financially. A year later, I got a better job and thanks to a Health Savings Account, I started saving right away.
All this time, I continued to see my same dentist. Yes, even after learning his splint may have caused my teeth to move in this significant way. Why did I keep seeing him? He was nice when I had to get a filling. I went through a break up and didn’t want to shop for a new dentist. Things like work, moving and having fun at friends’ weddings got in the way. (I bet Sarah Von could write a whole blog post on excuses like this.)
What made you decide to get braces again?
Honestly, I was sick of eating pizza with a knife and fork. I wanted my familiar bite back.
I know several people who have open bites, to lesser degrees than mine was. Many people live perfectly fulfilling lives with their open bites. For me, it was frustrating and made me unhappy.
I had a nice amount saved in my HSA after about two years at my new job. I went to see my original orthodontist, who was happy to see me all grown up, but not happy to see the state of my teeth. She told me it was probably my bite splint that had caused my teeth to move, but she couldn’t be completely sure. If she had seen me regularly over the past five years, she may have been able to track the movement. My teeth might have moved regardless.
She referred me to an oral surgeon, who said who said he could easily fix my teeth by removing part of my upper jaw (WHAT!) and wearing braces all the while. Scary! My dentist referred me to a lovely TMJ specialist, who told me that surgery may not be necessary and that I should go ahead with braces. So far, the latter plan has been just fine.
Invisalign wasn’t an option for me. My only option was traditional braces (ceramic on top and metal on bottom), since my teeth needed to be brought back together by wearing rubber bands. At first, I felt like Bane from Batman, but now I’m more comfortable with them.
How long have you had these braces so far?
It’s been over 6 months and it hasn’t been so bad. My orthodontist estimated 18-20 months, but I’m tracking ahead, so about 12-14 months total!
Have they affected your life at all?
Yes! The first night, I was so hungry. I looked around my kitchen and couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. I burst into tears, wondering why I did this to myself. My mouth was full of sharp edges, so even swallowing soft foods hurt. I had completely forgotten that part of wearing braces.
In the first few weeks, I lost about ten pounds, which was a small benefit, but was the result of being SO HUNGRY ALL THE TIME and either being too self conscious to eat in public or in just too much pain from the sharp edges all over my mouth.
These days, I’m more selective about snacking because most of the time, I have to remove my rubber bands or go brush my teeth after eating. When you’re staring down a bowl of fun-size Snickers, these extra steps are wonderful inhibitors.
I’m told I look younger than I am and I’m usually carded in bars, which is ok.
I can’t speak much about dating with braces. I was in a relationship when I got them put on. The guy was great about them and very understanding if I was ever in pain. It didn’t work out in the end, but it had nothing to do with the braces.
How much do braces usually cost? Are yours covered by insurance?
The cost depends on what orthodontist you go with, what type you need, and what your insurance covers. Adult braces are rarely covered, unless you work in an ortho office or something. They’re generally $6,000-$10,000, depending on what you go with.
But you can have it all! Through my ortho, I took out a loan for my treatment and pay monthly though my HSA. I plan to have it paid off in less than 36 months.
About five years ago, I started to get serious about my finances. I knew I had to pay for braces myself and in order to do that, I had to get rid of the credit card debt I had been carrying around since college. So I did some down and dirty debt-snowballing, paid off the credit card, and then started throwing the money into my HSA.
To reward myself for turning 30 (and for being 30 with braces), I also saved enough cash to go vacation to Paris with my BFF Emily. It was a ton of fun! We ate, drank, walked around and saw the sites. I never felt inhibited by my braces (though I can’t say the same about my French skills…)
I’m sure a lot of us are self-conscious about our teeth but afraid to invest the money or we don’t want to have a mouth like a teenager.What advice would you give to someone who wants braces but is afraid to take the first step?
Your friends, family and coworkers care about you, but not your braces.
I was nervous about getting braces (and turning 30 while having braces) but Emily said, “Yes, of course people will notice. But it’ll only be a big deal if you make it one.” This is such good advice for so many things we’re self-conscious about. I’ve received lots of encouragement and congratulations (even from strangers) for taking this step. It’s an investment in myself.
You’re not the only grown up at the kids’ table!
At my ortho office, about a third of the patients are adults. I’m not the only one! I’ve seen moms getting their braces adjusted alongside their kids. An older lady who rides my bus got braces and has to have them for at least 3 years. She’s rocking them way better than I ever could.
I’m fortunate. These are temporary. I can already see my progress. I’m going to be fine. It’s going to be a glorious day when the braces come off. I’m going to eat a huge bowl of popcorn and then floss my teeth.
You’ve been through way worse!
How awkward were you in adolescence? I was SO AWKWARD. It took me years to be OK with who I am, find people who accepted me, and get my life to a place where I could be happy. Getting braces at this point was no sweat. My smile has character!
Thanks so much for sharing, Jess! Have any of you guys gotten braces as an adult? Or are you working up the nerve to do it?
Edited to add: Jess got her braces off! Loooook! (You’ll also note my NYE’s dress had chain epaulets. So.)