I have a confession to make: I still wear my retainer.
I haven't had braces since eighth grade, but each night, I dutifully pop that nasty plastic pink device onto the roof of my mouth before I climb into bed.
I'm probably the only person in her 20s who has actually listened to her dentist or who hasn't lost the damn thing yet.
Throughout college, I was always the sole wearer of the retainer, and at night, I feared walking down my dorm hallway to the communal bathrooms.
What if I bumped into a cute guy or a group of people I knew who were coming back from a party?
What if they said hi to me, and my response was just an unintelligible mash-up of lisps and saliva?
Forget fearing being seen without makeup; I feared being seen wearing my retainer.
And, God forbid, if I forget to put my retainer in for a mere two or three days, my two front teeth begin to separate, revealing the terrible SpongeBob-esque space that had plagued me during my pre-braces era.
I always dreaded sleeping over guys' apartments because I didn't want to know what would happen to my two front teeth the next morning. I didn't want Spongebob to reappear.
In fact, I once ran into my ex-boyfriend from high school after I hadn't worn my retainer for a few nights, and he asked me when the last time I put my retainer in was.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how noticeable it is when I don't wear it.
Obviously, I rely on my retainer for a lot of tooth-related things. But in my adulthood, I've realized my retainer actually means more to me than I thought it did.
Because while it's been a wonderful support system for my mouth, it's also been a wonderful support system for my life, holding together my fragile existence.
My retainer is the perfect metaphor for how my sh*t gets kept together.
It straightens me out.
My retainer keeps me in line.
With its sturdy plastic frame and metal bar, it smooths out all the cracks in my life and straightens all my crooked thoughts, preventing everything from going out of control.
Wearing my retainer reminds me I can't live recklessly forever -- something will eventually force me to grow the hell up. It helps me get on track towards at least trying to get my act together.
It keeps me smiling.
When my life is in shambles, sometimes there's only one way to hide it: smile.
My retainer perfects my teeth and makes me feel confident enough to smile, no matter what's happening to me behind the scenes.
Smiling allows me to keep all my negativity to myself, to maintain a private existence and not broadcast my troubles to the world, all while putting on a good face for those who care about me.
It forces me to purge my life of all the sh*t.
I can't just let my retainer fester on the counter; I have to clean it. If I don't, it starts to crust over, and it tastes disgusting when I put it back in my mouth (TMI? Yeah, probably).
Taking the time to clean my retainer each day reminds me of how I have to take the time to purge my life of all the bullsh*t, to get rid of the toxic people in my life, to stop doing things just because someone else wants me to, to work on improving my low self-esteem.
If I don't take the time to clean my act up, who will?
It helps me maintain a routine.
Each night, along with brushing my teeth, washing my face and taking a shower, cleaning my retainer and putting it in my mouth has become a staple part of my routine.
My retainer is one of the few constants in my day-to-day life of inconsistencies.
It forces me to establish some semblance of stability and security, reminding me that I can't live an unstable life forever and that I eventually have to settle down and do something practical.
It gets rid of the empty spaces in my life.
When I wear my retainer, it works to close -- and keep closed -- those awful spaces between my teeth that I had as a tween.
Even more than that, though, my retainer gets rid of the empty voids in my life.
In its process of closing gaps in my mouth, it reminds me that I have to spend my days engaging with people, events and ideas that fulfill me.
I can't allow emptiness to plague my existence; I have to make sure I find something that satisfies me every single day.
It doesn't let me forget where I've come from and where I've been.
My retainer is a ticket into my past.
I was about 14 when my retainer was first molded to fit my mouth. Using something that takes the exact shape of something from my past constantly reminds me that, deep down inside, I haven't really changed that much.
My retainer never lets me forget where I came from, and where I've been and how all of that has brought me to the place I’m at today.
When I pop my retainer in my mouth, I'm reminded of exactly what I was like when I was 14 and how that girl blossomed into a strong 20-something-year-old woman.
It fits only me.
Nobody else can wear my retainer. It's specifically molded to fit every crevice, every space, every nook in my mouth only.
My retainer reminds me that when it comes to solving problems in my life, there isn't one perfect answer.
What works for me -- what fits in my mouth -- might not work for someone else.
All in all, my life might be f*cked up, but, like my retainer, it fits me -- and only me -- perfectly.