My mom suspended her college education in order to have kids, and so I was five years old when she finally received her bachelor's degree. We drove down to her school for a tasteful graduation luncheon. I remember they had free soda. At some point, while my mom was mingling with her classmates, I took a bite of the side of my thumbnail and began to tear it away, but I bit too close to the cuticle and so, to my horror, about half the nail began to rip off. I couldn't alter the path of the tear. There is, at times, a point in ripping off a nail where pain ensues, and I had reached it.
I tried to pull the nail upward but that only made things worse. Blood began spurting out. I got it on my shirt and soaked the little cocktail napkin they give you whenever you go somewhere classy. I couldn't stop the bleeding and my thumb hurt like a bitch, so eventually I did the sensible thing and dunked my thumb in my Coke and kept it there for the rest of the afternoon. And yes, I kept drinking the Coke, because I was a little fat kid and a little blood ain't gonna stop a fat kid from drinking Coke. By the end of day, I had a wrinkled, puffy thumb that wouldn't stop bleeding. It looked like a corpse thumb.
I have many bad habits: booze, swearing, overeating, excessive onanism, etc. But biting my nails is the bad habit I have had the longest and the one that causes me the greatest amount of shame. It's a repulsive, disgusting habit. There's nothing good about it. At least when you smoke, you look kinda cool. No one looks cool biting their nails. No one's hands are improved by nibbling on their fingertips. There's no buzz. There's no high. You don't lose inhibitions when you bite your nails. There are no wild biting orgies to reminisce about with your friends. It's just you abusing yourself for reasons you have long since forgotten. Here is a picture of my hand as it stands today, and this is on a good day:
Sometimes there will be one nail on that hand that's been torn off past the point of comfort. A seasoned nail biter eventually gets bored with just the nail and begins searching for bigger game. I bite the fingertip skin. I bite the skin on the side of my thumb knuckle. I bite the cuticles. And if I get a hangnail? Oh, I'm going right at that shit. I pull it off like it's an artichoke leaf. Then it bleeds and I have to grab some toilet paper to sop up the mess and my wife will ask me why my hand is bleeding and I have to stand there like a fool and try to lie my way out of admitting that I did it to myself.
There's no camaraderie in this habit. Nail biters don't get together for parties; they don't have support groups. I don't feel better when I learn that someone I know bites their nails. I'm disgusted. Like boogers or bowel movements, a chewed up hand is tolerable to its owner and exactly no one else. I remember watching The Fellowship of the Ring and seeing Elijah Wood slip Sauron's ring onto his nibbled index finger, and I did not feel any less alone in the world. I felt like, "How could they hire a fucker who bites his nails for a movie about a ring?" One time I went on a business trip with a lady who was a severe nail-biter—we're talking every fingernail all but gone—and I wanted to throw up.
I stopped once for a bit, when I was in college. I wasn't even trying. One day I realized that I hadn't bitten my nails for a bit, and it turned into a stretch of a few months. It felt great to have presentable hands, to not tuck my thumb into my palm because there were patches of raw skin surrounding it. I even bought a clipper, which I don't think I had ever used in my life. But then, at some point, I ripped off a nail, and since the whole thing was ruined now, I figured I may as well bite them all.
There are ways of quitting this habit. You can buy that stuff to put on your nails that makes them taste nasty. You can cover your bitten nails with acrylic nails. You can get hypnotized. But as with any other addiction, you have to truly WANT to quit in order to succeed, and there is a terminal laziness in me that keeps that desire at bay. If you bite your nails long enough, you develop a form of OCD in which you begin to go stir crazy if you just leave your nails be, especially if you think there's an uneven part that needs to be edged out or a piece of loose skin that needs to be addressed.
This will sound like bullshit, but I often bite my nails in the hopes of IMPROVING them. Like, if I just strip that little part off, it'll look okay! And then it tears wrong and I realize I've eaten myself into a corner. Either I keep ripping or I leave the nail alone and I can NEVER leave it alone. I can't leave it hanging off my finger and I cant clip it so that it looks like my nail has a cliff face. Those are not options in my world.
And I think that my brain is now hard-wired to derive pleasure—the barest, lamest of pleasures—from chewing off a particularly nice flap of skin. Look at that piece! Lemme add it to my collection! I have bitten my nails for so long that my hands could qualify as partially deformed. On a good pair of hands, the nail bed reaches close to the end of the fingertip. Mine stop well short of that. If I grow a nail out, it curves up and creates the dreaded Frito Nail, which is ugly in its own right. And then I clip the fucker down so that I feel like less of a freak. I mute my hands, and they stay all fucked up.
But I have kids now and kids will imitate every bad thing you do. They imitate NONE of the good things, mind you—healthy eating, common courtesy, wearing underwear, etc. But if you swear or yell or bite your nails, they hop right on board. I don't want them to have these hands. We live in age where your hands are probably more important than your mouth. You need them to text and email and search for naked people, and it's harder to do that when you got two Band-Aids on them at any given moment. I'm gonna quit. I'm gonna do better. But how? How do make it so I never do this again?
/chews on index finger
Oh, god damn it.
Illustration by Jim Cooke