The Dislocated Jaw of America

So back in October, I was rough-housing with the family dog when he decided to spring up from beneath me, knocking his thick skull against my jaw. It stunned me for a little bit, but there seemed no obvious injury. Then I realized the next day or so that my teeth didn’t quite line up like they should have. They were just slightly off, so that I couldn’t quite bring them together in a satisfying bite, but it didn’t impede my eating or hurt, and I figured that it was probably related to swelling and would self-correct. Then, one day, my jaw popped back into place. Probably because I was at a bar already imbibing something with analgesic properties, I didn’t fully appreciate the experience. But the next morning, while trying to eat a bagel, the jaw kept slipping in and out of joint rather painfully, leading the wife to drive me to the doctor for an emergency visit.

The doctor was able to diagnose just a dislocated jaw–no breaks–and prescribed me six weeks of morning and night naproxen sodium to cut down on inflammation, as well as a nighttime muscle relaxer, given that I have a bit of teeth-grinding going on while asleep. And I was told to take it easy, to eat softer foods for the next six weeks. Fortunately, traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas meals aren’t real jaw stretchers. I did what I was told, slowly working my way up from soups to curries to salads and thin sandwiches as my jaw became more and more stable. But at the end of the year, I was stable but didn’t have much of a range of motion for my mouth, not being able to open it more widely than two fingers. So now it was on to physical therapy.

You think of physical therapy being for people who are recovering from traumatic events like surgeries and car accidents, not for people who were playing with the dog a bit energetically. You don’t think of physical therapy being mouth-related. But it’s what I needed. Not only did my therapist first explore my facial muscles to see which ones were the tightest, but she has also worked muscles in my upper back and neck, given that tension in these can have a cascade effect upon those muscles around the jaw. I have had regular homework to do, which is why, sitting at my desk at work, I occasionally have my mouth open, stretching my jaw this way and that like an anaconda getting ready for a really big dinner. And now I’m up to three fingers wide and ready to start eating apples again.

It’s interesting for me to be undergoing this processes of recovering from a physical trauma when the object of my particular studies is social trauma. But are there parallels? Well, I do know some people who have suffered injuries but never bothered with physical therapy because they went once or twice, didn’t do their exercises at home, and claimed no real benefit from it, just as I know some people who insist that the best way to recover from a social trauma (say, our legacies of lynching and genocide) is just to forget about it all and move one. As with physical trauma, recovering from social trauma first entails identifying the source of the injury, but one cannot simply stop at the immediate context, because just as with my jaw and its interconnectedness to other muscle groups, so much social, economic, and cultural factors beyond the event itself be adjusted in order to facilitate healing.

But more than anything else, recovering from trauma depends upon doing your goddamned homework. You don’t just visit with an expert for two thirty-minute sessions a week and call it done. You have to do these exercises at home and take a large role in your own healing, for healing is not a passive thing that your body does automatically. And neither is being healed is a static state–it’s an ongoing process. Because I have had this injury, I will be more prone to such injuries in the future, despite the success of my recovery. I will have to make a concerted effort not to re-injure my jaw again. Likewise do social traumas, even after successful recovery, leave behind a perpetual tender spot, because those identities that were activated for the perpetration of atrocity, having once been engaged, now possess the potential to be revived, and so a society that wants to prevent atrocity in the future will have to labor consciously in that direction.

We are never healed. But if we work hard, we can always be healing.

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