Ever since my childhood, I've bitten my nails. I can almost remember the exact age I was – four years old. Studies show that obsessive-compulsive behaviors like nail-biting and hair-pulling occur not just out of boredom, but also instability and stress. We start the behavior to comfort ourselves.
Nail-biting, hair pulling, and picking scabs fall into the OCD/anxiety spectrum of mental illness. Some people don't consider it a mental illness because it is a physical preoccupation. But it is how and when it arises that makes it mental.
When I was four, my mom and dad were on the fringes of separation. Eventually, he moved back to Chicago and we stayed in Florida. As the oldest in my family, I guess I had this intuition that my family was falling apart and that I couldn't do anything about it. So I bit my nails and cuticles for comfort until they bled.
It would get so bad that I would develop pus in my left thumb at six years old. I remember this because I had to go to the doctor and have the nurse extract it with a needle. This was my first encounter with a needle that wasn't a standard flu shot. I fainted not only because of the action but because I saw the whole thing transpire, the brackish fluid extracted.
You would think that would inspire me to stop. But I didn't. If anything, it made it worse.
As an adult, I would be so ashamed by the act of shaking someone's hand. I felt even more embarrassed if it was for an interview or networking. I could just see them asking themselves, what professional woman bites her nails?
Honestly, it was really bad. So bad that eventually, the one fingernail I would constantly gnaw at barely existed. Although my grandpa would be sarcastically loving about how frequently I bit my nails and their short length, it would aid my shame about them.
If they ever got long enough, I went to the nail salon and got acrylics. This proved to be an expensive endeavor though. I would take them off and admire how long my nails had gotten underneath the acrylic. But often, I would forget to ask them to clean up the beds or do a simple manicure. And I would be back to square one.
It wasn't until I researched trauma and nail-biting to find a technique called movement decoupling. This therapy consists of touching the area that you inflict your obsessive behaviors on with a soft touch, then diverting that touch to a less obvious place (like the ear) and doing another action to counter that soft touch.
The first time I did this, I'll admit, I almost cried.
I almost cried because I guess part of me thought that I didn't receive love and attention as a child. That the soft touches I gave myself both before and after my diversion were touches that I didn't receive back then.
I still have horribly pink, sharp cuticles. But instead of biting them, I apply lotion and try to keep up with those soft touches. I wash my hands and lovingly put on pink nail polish frequently. I know my mom did these things back when I was younger, but I was too upset by the separation to think that it was done out of love.
I've not bitten my nails in two months as a result. Because nails grow about one-tenth of an inch per month, they're slowly growing to look like hands that are appreciated and loved. Every once in a while, I apply hand lotion to calm the redness and irritation of the cuticles.
I don't mean to invalidate your need to bite your nails. But if you have been/are obsessive about biting your nails like me, then I'm sure that you have experienced the same levels of shame as I have.
I want you to love your entire body, even your nails, because they are wonderfully made. There is nothing to worry about, to be shameful about, in your hands. And if you say to me, "But I would still have ugly hands," I would still tell you to do the opposite and touch them as though you love them.
Chances are, you'll learn to appreciate what your hands look like and can do. It's a small act to love your hands, but it'll then trickle to other areas of your body that you've normally hated and you will start to recognize that you are a beautiful, mystical creature that deserves love in all forms.