4 Unexpected (& Humbling) Lessons From Navigating My Early 20s With Adult Braces

At the ripe old age of 22, fresh out of college and six months into my first real full-time job, I had to get braces for the second time in my life. I had to wear them for almost two years, plus a complicated jaw surgery thrown in the mix. This experience taught me valuable lessons about personal finance, conducting myself professionally in the workplace while looking like a middle-schooler in a suit, and how to navigate the healthcare system as a new adult. Here’s what I learned:

1. No one cares about your health more than you do

While on the conveyor belt of specialists, waiting rooms, x-rays, and billing departments, I quickly realized that if I didn’t pipe up, advocate for myself, and ask questions, no one was going to volunteer the information I wanted and needed to hear. No one cared more about my healthcare and my specific case than I did, for obvious reasons. From the perspective of the people who worked in my oral surgeon’s office, I was just one of many patients they saw each day. From my perspective, this was by far the biggest medical procedure I’d ever encountered. Because we were coming at this from two different vantage points, I had to advocate for myself and make sure I understood everything that was going to happen during the procedure, what the pile of forms I was signing meant, what my insurance covered and what I would be responsible for, and how to best prepare myself for and recover from the surgery. I learned that in situations where there is an information asymmetry, speaking up is up to you.

2. Mastering the art of “Fake it ‘til you make it”

In addition to having just graduated college, living on my own, learning to budget, and generally trying to function as a real adult, I was also brand new to working full-time. I was ten years younger than everyone else in my office and also wearing a mouth full of metal. It was not ideal. I decided early on that I was not going to spend two years without opening my mouth in meetings or only smiling with my lips closed in pictures. I would grin — mouth open — and bear it, not making too much of the fact that I was a dead ringer for a 12-year-old. I figured that if I didn’t make a huge deal out of it, other people would follow suit and treat it like a non-issue. The few times that someone did ask, I would simply say, “Yep, I have a jaw issue that’s going to require surgery in a few months and I have to wear braces until that’s over” and then I’d move on. What I wanted to do was immediately launch into how UNFAIR it was and how I didn’t WANT braces and this felt like the worst thing to EVER happen to me. What I did instead was pretend to be much more mature and confident than I actually felt. After a few months and with a little perspective, the confident version began to feel more like the real me than an act.

3. How to ask for what you deserve

When it came time to schedule my surgery and I had to talk to our human resources department about the amount of time I would need off work to recover, my people-pleaser instinct was to volunteer to come back to work as soon as humanly possible so I didn’t inconvenience anyone, even if it meant I was going to be in agony, on a liquid diet and unable to smile. I was eligible to use the weeks of sick leave I’d been accruing, so I gave myself a pep talk to ask for all the time off I needed and deserved. My two-week request was immediately approved, but I’m sure that if I had asked for less time, that’s what I would have gotten instead. If you ask for what you deserve and what you really need, you might actually get it. If you ask for part of what you want and hope for the rest, you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. No one can read your mind, so speak up. Wishing and hoping won’t get the job done.

4. Being sick is expensive

Many people don’t have the luxury of good health. Unfortunately, in the United States the healthcare system is costly, complicated, and seemingly set up to screw over anyone who has the misfortune of getting sick or hurt, or anyone who is born with a preexisting condition or health issue. When I had to spend two nights in the hospital recovering from a surgery I chose to have, I saw so many people who were in much worse shape than I was. At the risk of overstating the obvious, being sick is really expensive and stressful. I decided right there that anything I could do to avoid being hospitalized again, I was going to do, and with vigor. Obviously, you can’t control when health-related issues or accidents crop up unexpectedly. However, taking care of your body, eating right, and generally staying on top of routine things like preventative check ups and dental care is way easier, cheaper, and less painful than dealing with the physical and monetary aftermath of years of neglect.

*****

Despite what I thought when I was a little kid, being an adult isn’t only about working in an office every day and getting to decide on your own bedtime, but approaching difficult situations with maturity and perspective, advocating for yourself when no one else will, and assuming responsibility for your health and well-being. And yes, sometimes it’s grinning your way through adult orthodontia. The braces eventually came off, but what I learned from the experience will stay with me forever.

A grant writer by day and personal finance fanatic by night, Marisa is an avid traveler who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. When she’s not reading or writing for work or play, she enjoys running, thrifting, and searching for the most authentic Mexican food in the city.

Image via Unsplash

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