After seven years of eating minimal meat, my teeth and tongue have tasted more of my own skin than that of any animal. The moment my mother ceased using her clippers to cut my nails, I began to gnaw at them. Chronic nail-biting has a name: onychophagia. Beginning at the loose edge, I pick and tear until I strike the tender skin just beneath. The folds of skin around the nail-sides come next. These are the most prone to bleeding, and often become inflamed; red with discomfort, I then pick at my cuticles, ripping imperfect skin from its roots and leaving only open wounds remaining. There’s a thin layer atop the base nail, too—this feels the best in the mouth, half the thickness of paper but less pliable. Each nail is swished with the tongue, a literal toothpick. I typically try to bite each nail into halves or quarters, for ease of swallowing; if they are too large, too thick, I can almost taste the jaggedness scraping against the side of my esophagus. It used to be every time my teeth and skin collided, I recoiled. Not from a physical disgust—I knew it was bad, I knew it was unhealthy, I knew I needed to stop, and I could not. I was consumed by it, awash with both the practice and the guilt.
My onychophagia often seems to fall dormant once I cannot physically bite my nails any shorter, or once another obsession takes its sooth-giving place. Recently, the latter has occurred most frequently. I can slot these superseding forces, my phasic obsessions, into an endless mental Rolodex to be sifted through and added to perhaps every week, or month, or day, depending. To write this sentence, I ticked through the index: the tens of thousands of baseball cards I reorganized every weekend; the pack of gum I chew in an afternoon; the hours and hours I spent on a wood-block sorting game until I sorted wood squares in my sleep.
Oh, the rustle of those cards. There’s a shiver—perhaps it’s just the wind, or a slight anemia due to the blood dripping out from my finger.
It’s dripping not from a bit nail, though, but a paper cut. Many of these cards—particularly those of authors, of Poe and Didion and Stoppard and Hayes and—have been mangled over the years. Some are fraying, from decades of use; others are torn from being too-often flipped-through; the ink is smudged on many, perhaps from rewrites. Over many cards I have reprinted my own writing, for that too is consuming. During any given project, my eyes become myopic; I begin to shape my life, make decisions in accordance with my written arguments. Every experience becomes thus a hangnail, torn off and observed for research as implications ooze. This gnawing and observation fills the same role as the onychophagia; once, amidst the most extended of these monomanias, I think I even clipped my nails. But once the current obsession wanes, all its cards stacked neatly in the index, I know I could fall back upon my nails to consume me for a moment, until the next author or project may take its place once more. They form the structure of the Rolodex, really, what holds it all together. This habit of mine, this nailbiting, underlies all else, and will remain regardless.
In previous drafts of this piece, I continued with the indexing metaphor. Trees and wind and catastrophe and Atlas were all evoked too, to varying poetic success. But those won’t do, will they? They all functioned as a veil of bilayered symbolism I may hide behind—just as that turn of phrase does as well. So, at the behest of my so-understanding editors, let me provide you earnestness, in plain English. I bite my nails as a means of coping with some compulsiveness I have always contained. I sorted my baseball cards before I thought of chewing off my nails; once I began to, the act of sorting occurred once every month, perhaps, then two, then never again. I carried a lot of guilt about this compulsion, though—I was told it was disgusting, and unhealthy, and unappealing, all of which I now realize are entirely true. But the guilt has since dissipated after perhaps a decade of looming over me, for I have accepted nailbiting as a necessity. Somehow, by whatever amalgamation of genetics and experiences, nature and nurture, my brain has wired itself to obsess. I cannot help it—I do not think I would like to, either. This essay was written in a state of phasic obsession, and I am proud of it. But I need some way to transition out of it. When my writerly or readerly or organizational brain is not fanatical, something must be.
Thus, my nail-biting is the adaptive constant, a structure to the overwhelm, because it has to be. Isn’t that nice? A hopeful ending. My self-destructive habit of germs and blood reseen as an inevitable, a stalwart against entropy. I cannot stop myself from gnawing at nails or ideas until they bleed, and in this absolution there is comfort.
Oh, how I love the rustle of those cards.