Ashley Virgin
Ashley Virgin
Israel/Palestine 2016
Merhaba! My name is Ashley Virgin, and I am going to live in beautiful Bethlehem, Israel for six months. While in Bethlehem, I will work with WI’AM Conflict Resolution and Transformation Center where I will teach English and arts classes to children. I will also take part in other areas of community development in the city through WI’AM. I am excited to participate in the city and culture of Bethlehem and learn more about the nonviolent conflict resolution and social justice programs that WI’AM sponsors. Read More About Ashley →

Through the Wire

Tomorrow is the day! My wires come off at 9:30 AM and I’ll be able to open my mouth for the first time in four weeks. I probably won’t be able to open more than a few centimeters at first, but I will be grateful for those few centimeters.  My biggest goal tomorrow is to open my mouth wide enough to brush my teeth and eat scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, and pancakes.

It is only fitting that I take the time to reflect on the the past month of being wired shut. Having your jaw wired shut makes you appreciate food and the complexity of chewing. Unfortunately for most, you don’t know how much you love a body part until it stops working.

*Click play and read on*

As you guys may have been able to tell from a post a few weeks ago covering the food in Bethlehem, I really love food. I love to cook, but I probably love eating even more. Before I broke my jaw, I would go about my day in Bethlehem, chewing pita, shawerma, chicken, kebab, figs, dates, burgers, and so on, without thought for my teeth, jaws, or the sheer miracle that is chewing. In other words, I took my jaw for granted, and I would come to see just how important my jaw had been to me when it was immobilized for the next four weeks.

First, I’ve learned that chewing your food plays an important role in taste. Texture affects taste and subsequently, appetite. When you get your jaw wired shut, you cannot open your mouth, much less chew your food, so everything you eat must be in a liquid form in order for you to consume it. There are only so many liquid things that are actually worth tasting, and thus, worth eating. Some blogs advised me to blend up food (pasta, meats, vegetables, etc) and thin it with chicken or vegetable stock. While this method may work for some people, I quickly found that it did not work for me. One day during week one of my journey, I decided that blending sushi with chicken stock sounded like a good idea. (The painkillers made me do it.) The soupy-yet-lumpy, rice-chunk textured, fish and chicken mush I created was the stuff of nightmares. When you have to rely on something else to “chew” your food for you, you quickly lose your love for food and your appetite.

Food is fuel, we all know this. But until you can’t eat, you take this adage for granted. Over the past month, I have gone through periods of physical and mental exhaustion that tied directly to my all-liquid diet. After my failed foray into blended-food-land, I stuck to smoothies, protein shakes, soups, and juices almost exclusively. (In the last week and a half, I also found that I could suck guacamole and hummus through a gap in my teeth, provided that it’s well-blended. This discovery saved my life and sanity. ) I’ve depended heavily on Carnation Instant Breakfast’s and Boost’s to supplement my diet. Even still, I have struggled to get enough iron and B vitamins, and I have lost about 10 pounds. It took two weeks for my body to finally adjust to this diet and for the hunger pangs to subside. My brain didn’t realize my mouth was wired shut, and so it kept telling me to eat. As punishment for not complying, I was lethargic, weak, and suffered headaches. Still, I pushed myself to be as active as possible, which ended poorly most days. One day, I went to a show with a friend but leaned against the wall for most of it, envying those around me who were standing and dancing. Around the two week mark, my brain finally gave up and I started to function on liquids.

Weeks 3 – 4 have been better in some ways but worse in others. I finally got used to the liquid diet and my energy was back at a stable level, so naturally I wanted to return to normal activities. I started doing yoga again, taking walks and bike rides, and I went out with my friends. But while I had started to look and feel normal again, the outside world had a way of reminding me that I was not normal. For one, when you can’t eat, you suddenly become acutely aware of the omnipresence of food in the US. My sense of smell grew akin to a bloodhound. If I am within a half-mile radius of food, I can smell the intricacies of each ingredient it contains. I can separate the smells of baking bread, meat, seasonings, and other spices like some sort of sad, hungry superhero. (I doubt that this will last after I get to eat again, but it would be cool if it did!)

Eating is also a very social act, such that when you try to avoid food, you limit your options for social activities as well. I’ve gone back and forth between forcing myself to be around food and avoiding it like a virulent disease. I’ve excused myself from friends’ houses because a pizza or Chinese food delivery was expected. I’ve avoided going to parties when I anticipated food would be part of the festivities. My boyfriend told me that I had “starving puppy eyes,” while I watched him eat a chicken wrap. I’ve concluded that it is one-part enjoyable, one-part torturous to watch someone else eat when your jaw is wired shut.

After today, I will probably never drink another smoothie as long as I live. I will never crave a milkshake again, and the taste of chocolate milk will forever remind me of the “Rich Chocolate” flavor of Boost I have drank daily for a month. Although I get unwired tomorrow, my arch bars will not come off for another few weeks. They will replace the wires with rubber bands to hold my mouth closed when I’m not eating or brushing my teeth. During the next few weeks, I’ll have to stick to “soft foods” that don’t require chewing. It’s going to take time and work to rebuild my jaw muscle and the full ability to open my mouth. My teeth also need serious work. When the arch bars come off, I’ll need a cleaning, at least two root canals, and three crowns. I’ll eventually get an implant for the molar they had to pull. I’m experiencing pain in a few other teeth and it’s a possibility that I will lose more teeth. The arch bars have caused my teeth to shift a little to where they aren’t as straight as they were before (so much for the two years of orthodontia work I had as a pre-teen). Finally, I won’t be able to chew “hard foods” (pizza, crusty bread, steak, apples, raw vegetables, chips) for nearly two more months.

It has been so long since I have had solid food that I have practically forgotten what it feels like to chew. (I’m told that this is common, not only do your jaw muscles weaken, but you actually have to relearn how to chew properly.) I encourage you to be mindful during your next meal, take the time to feel yourself chew and notice how well your mouth mixes and separates tastes and textures. A working jaw is a precious commodity. Appreciate your jaws and teeth, as I will for the rest of my life, beginning tomorrow.

And although I have been through a lot of pain and hunger, I have not starved. Right now, 795 million people are starving or are at risk of starvation worldwide (World Hunger Education Service 2016). We should all take the time to think about these people and support programs that work to combat poverty and provide access to food.

World Hunger Education Service

WFP UN World Food Programme

Second Harvest Food Bank

Until next time, habibi’s <3

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