It’s 5:30pm, I’m lying flat on my back and Joe has a finger deep in the back of my mouth.
“And this? How does this feel?”
I stare into his light blue eyes, briefly glance over his Brad Pitt-esque face, swallow back saliva and mutter, “Yeah that hurts.” He gently cradles my head and massages deep, where my wisdom teeth used to be, exploring tiny muscles that I never knew existed. The pain is good and bad all at the same time. Before I know it, I hear the snap of latex gloves quickly being pulled off, a pat on the back and a “See you tomorrow.” One hour, $15 and plenty of soreness later, I feel like perhaps I’m the epitome of having insult added to injury.
Such is my first encounter with physical therapy.
I had been ignoring the spasming pain in the left side of my neck for about a year and, after finally dragging myself to the doctor for the umpteenth time in the past eleven months, she told me that my nightly jaw grinding, predominantly on my left side, had most likely caused this. I dabbled with the idea of asking her to run a sleep study on me but decided against it – all the jaw snapping, clenching and neck twisting probably would look like something straight out of The Exorcist or maybe a real life version of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Everything about my first experience in physical therapy seemed to go about backwards, beginning with me actually parking and entering through the back of the building which I swear the receptionist told me to do. I walked past “Employee Only” rooms and finally found myself in an open room full of old people. I took in my surroundings: Elderly people lifting three pound weights painfully slow, their Myrtle Beach t-shirts drenched in sweat, men and women looking almost corpse-like on tables, waiting for God knows what. It looked so much like a nursing home-turned Gymboree that I imaged for a split second that I smelled the sickly sweet odor of mildew, urine, and whatever else makes assisted living places reek in that most unforgettable way.
Joe took measurements of my neck and jaw movements only to find out, surprise surprise, that they were all extremely lower than average. He decided to start me on some exercises, right then and there.
I sat down on one of the tables and before I knew what was going on a large mirror was being rolled in my direction. Seriously, this mirror was ridiculous – it was like something you’d find in a Victorian mansion’s bedchamber, large and unforgiving. I was taught six different jaw exercises, including using my finger to stretch my top and bottom teeth as far apart as possible, sliding my jaw from left to right, and opening my mouth as wide as I could. I looked like what Edvard Munch’s painting would look like in physical therapy, to put it plainly. I opened my mouth widely for ten seconds at a time, silently screaming.
Staring at myself making these grotesque facial movements wasn’t enough, of course. Neither was the heat I felt on my cheeks as I noticed a few crotchety old men smirking in my direction. What, I thought, your wife can’t open wide either? Want to make an oral sex joke? Try me, I’ve thought about every single one under the sun as I was here gracefully doing my exercises, I thought. No, the icing on the cake was the young assistant I saw also watching me do my exercises and smiling. Smiling! And not in the kind way, either, but the sort of smile you’d give to a snotty cheerleader who happened to slip on black ice on her way to class. I gave him the stink eye and then realized my jaw was still awkwardly in one of my exercise positions. Whatever, that’ll scare the fucktard.
“Nate here went to John Carroll too!” Joe pointed over to the assistant, probably reading into my attempt to look like the old hag with the poisonous apple in Snow White . “Go Blue Streaks!” I yelled back, mentally kicking myself the moment I uttered the words. I had never even gone to one of my college sports games, and I certainly had never uttered that phrase before. What the fuck was I doing here? As someone who hates even sneezing in public, this whole experience was turning into a nightmare. I walked out of that place after an hour of torture and vowed to never go back.
And yet I did. Again, and again, and again.
Brad Pitt has done a great job with my mouth (wink), I’ve convinced the assistants that I don’t need their damn mirror to see just how fucked up my mouth is, I’ve had to ask for weights to be increased because my arms started getting so strong from exercises, and I even do my mouth-widening exercises on my way to work as I listen to Howard Stern. I feel like he’d approve of that.
As I get older, I constantly am convincing myself that there’s only so many experiences I’ll have that will be uncomfortable and embarrassing. Certainly, I thought before I had entered physical therapy for the first time, I was nearing my cap. I was mistaken. I’m never going to stop experiencing new, embarrassing things, but I’m glad that I’ve at least learned to laugh about them. Regardless, I’m always going to be the largest pain in my neck.