Bites In the Night

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 10, 2018

I went through much of my life without being aware of this simple fact: One major problem faced by people all over the world is that of getting bitten in the night. And among the chief culprits, besides insects, or even vampires, are ordinary humans. And the humans are ourselves.

Biting and grinding our teeth in the night is one of the many delightful behaviors over which we have no control – because we are asleep. It may not be as annoying to others as snoring, or as potentially hazardous as sleep-walking. But over time, it can do us great damage – which is why dentists and drugstores purvey a variety of “Night-Guards,” designed to balk the bite.

Other kinds of mouth-protectors are worn by people engaged in “contact sports” – but those are for activities when the wearer is awake. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing any such device on June 8, 1944. I was 10 years old and playing catch with my best friend, Nathan Mensh, in the alley between our two houses in Washington, D C. One of us had thrown the ball way up high, and we both ran to catch it, looking up and crying, “I got it! I got it!” 

Alas! Our heads collided. Nathan suffered a minor forehead injury, which soon healed. But my two new front teeth were badly damaged and eventually had to be extracted. And – because I was still growing, they were replaced, over the years, by a long series of dental devices. That accident was the worst thing, physically, that ever happened to me – until 67 years later, when I got hit by a car.

But, getting back to the bite problem – there is a word for this unhealthy gnashing. It’s called Bruxism. But grinding our teeth is only one of many ways in which some of us do damage to ourselves. I myself, quite apart from my tooth troubles, had, for about 30 years, a nasty habit of picking and biting the skin in a certain area on the back of both hands. This somehow began when I was a child, and, as thumb-sucking does for some people, it must have given me a certain satisfaction, It went on, into my 20s and early 30s, and the abused areas looked so raw that people sometimes commented on it. (Seeing me sometimes actually eat the skin, my mother, who had a gift for invective, called me a “cannibal.”) But I still didn’t stop. 

What finally cured me of this curse was the happy coinciding, in the late 1960s, of two factors: (1) my discovery of marihuana. Although I never drank alcohol, pot had a similar effect on me, relaxing my inhibitions, and loosening my tongue; and (2) the opportunity I gave myself to speak regularly in public by setting up a kind of “soap-box” (actually a milk crate) in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, near which I was then living. It was the height of the Hippie Era, and I was in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury district, which for a brief time, was truly a place for all kinds of free expression. I acquired a portable microphone and utilized the chance to talk on a wide variety of sometimes very personal subjects.

So, for the first time, I now told the world in general – not just counselors or psychiatrists, who’d never been of any help anyway – about this terrible problem of picking and biting my hands. And it may or may not surprise you to know that, for me at least, that was the answer! After such a public confession, the habit soon disappeared completely and has never even threatened to come back. 

There may nowadays be websites or other forums at which you can reveal your own disgraceful secrets – but probably anonymously. This may work sometimes – but I think the really curative power (so long as other people aren’t affected by your disclosure) lies in the voluntary shame of letting it be known who you are.

We’ve wandered far from night-bites, but I’d be remiss not to mention, (in a careful way) the undeniable connection between biting and loving. This, of course, can extend all the way from saying that a particularly appealing baby looks “good enough to eat,” to the bite marks which are sometimes considered a desirable souvenir of passionate love-making.

I can only hope that, in taking on this whole subject, I was not really biting off more than I could chew. 


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