Since I’m calling this the Real Sarah C. Experiment, why don’t we get real? Ok, here it goes:
Yeah, I know. That’s fuckin’ gross. I’m sorry.
That’s my left thumb. And I did that to myself. And it’s not just one poor digit, either. All the fingers on both my hands look like that.
Because I am one sick puppy.
My nail biting habit began innocently enough as a kid. I was high-strung and anxious and, well, my mom bit her nails, so I probably learned it from her. (From you! I learned it from watching you!) But since my anxiety was likely linked to the stress in my household, as things on the home front got worse, I internalized them more and acted out accordingly. I found that after biting my nails down to the quick, I could really get in there and tear out those rough skin tags with some stainless steel tweezers and nail clippers. And hey, if you’re going to do that to your fingernails, your toes could probably use some grooming, too. And since we’re quickly developing an obsessive compulsion to smooth out everything on our body, let’s start nibbling those pesky tastebuds off of our tongue because, ew, gross bumps.
By the time I was twelve and my parents were going through an ugly divorce, I could spend an hour each night in the mirror, biting my tongue and watching the blood and saliva drip from my mouth. If I found a rough edge on one of my fingers or toes, I’d spend another hour clipping, tearing, and biting until I was satisfied that there was no more work to be done. It was like shoving bamboo shoots up my own nails, a form of torture I’m pretty sure is only used by really bad people.
For all intents and purposes, I had gone from a nail biting habit to an eating-myself-alive habit, and to my eternal shame, it continues to this day.
I don’t even know that it’s still stress related, really, because nothing really seems to catapult me into these actions. I’m compelled to tear at myself for reasons that I can’t track down or source out, and I really don’t want to hurt myself, but I just can’t help it. It’s usually when I’m not occupied with a task that I find myself going for my implements of torture, because idle hands and all that. So I try to distract myself, keep my hands busy, but the need overwhelms my sense. I’ve tried a number of different preventative measures over the years — my grandmother’s favorite was Apple Bitter, that stuff that they use on dogs, on my fingertips. She also tried to bribe me with money, but that didn’t work either. When I was a teenager, I started using press-on nails, which served a dual function of keeping me from biting and making my hands look less nasty. I was a smoker for a while, which refocused my oral fixation on something other than my own tongue, but in the end, was a much more harmful alternative. These days, I do what I can, but I’m unsuccessful a lot of the time. Mostly, I just let myself go, and then wonder why I’m punishing myself this way.
Bringing other people into my little rituals helps, if only to shine a light my nonsense. There’s nothing like a look of disgust and incredulity from someone you respect to snap you out of a self-harming behavior. William is especially really good at redirection — he doesn’t preach or make me feel ashamed. He just reaches over and takes my hand and asks me to stop hurting myself. I can’t really say no to that kind of sincerity. Truthfully, it comes down to having a witness to my behavior that gets me to stop, think, and reassess. My hanai mom, Susan, and I were just talking about this the other day: an obsessive compulsive knows that their rituals are nonsensical and potentially harmful, and will likely keep them hidden from other people in order to protect their sanctity. An important step toward healing, then, is to make the ritual known to others who can, not police your behavior, but make you aware of it. I guess I’m testing that theory now by making the whole damn world (well, anyone who is listening) a witness to my illness. Let’s see how that pans out, shall we?