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Monday, September 3, 2012

Confessions of a nail biter

I bite my nails. I have done so for perhaps 50 of my nearly 53 years of life. This is assuming that I probably did not bite my nails in the fir year of my life, and allowing for those brief handsful of times when I found myself the surprised possessor of 10 fingernails long enough to get dirt underneath them.

First, let me explain what I mean by "biting nails". I don't mean a little nibble at the corner of a nail on occasion. I mean all-out war on that hardened adaptation of skin which protrudes from and near the end of one's fingers. I chew the nail till I reach the quick, peel back part of the nail once I've reached the quick, then attack the cuticle all around whatever may be left. Truly, it is not a sight one wants to behold.

However, as mentioned above, there have been a few times over the years - brief though they were - when my nails actually grew and looked quite presentable. I've looked back on those times, trying to figure out a common thread. I had thought I had figured out that common bond, until recently.

Each time I grew my nails back, it seemed I was under a tremenddous amount of stress. I was taking finals, getting married, starting a new job, making a speech, or performing some other stressful task or collection of tasks which - it seemed - simply kept me too busy to bother with my nails. It sounded too bizarre to be true, but at the time, I could think of no other explanation.

Let me pause here to explain why I believe I began this habit to begin with. I come from a large family. I am the youngest of several siblings. My father retired from the military, and my parents - while rarely if ever using corporal punishment - were strict disciplinarians. Putting all of these elements together meant that no matter what I did, no matter how minute the detail, someone was always at hand to tell me that I was doing it incorrectly, ever eager to tell me the "proper" way to do it.

Whether the task was string my shoes or making my bed or placing my toys in the toy box, it seemed that every element of my life had a "right" way to do it. I believe that biting my nails, no matter how many people told me to stop or what devices they used to force me to stop was the only element of my life I had any real control over, which is why to this day I am more likely to bite my nails the more someone asks me to stop doing so.

Recently, however, the stessors in my life have been dissolving away, for a variety of reasons. My children have grown up and moved away. My husband has retired. Our debts are manageable. Our pets are heathy, and my health and that of my husband are both under control. No one has recently died, married, had a baby, or had any serious medical conditions. Even the stressors I've had at work are dissipating. My nails are growing in just fine.

Obviously, I cannot claim that I have no time for nervous habits, as has been the case in the past. Therefore, what is the common thread between this time and the other times when I've grown fingernails, all of which have been after I begame an independent adult? I believe I have found the answer, and it relates strongly to the reason this habit began to begin with.

The reason is control. I currently feel I am in control of my life, or at last in as much control as one can reasonable be. During those stressful times in the past, when I was taking a final or changing my life in some other manner, I was also taking control of my life. Unfortunately in those instances, I quickly relinquished control back to whatever powers I had allowed to be in control of my life prior to that, or had permitted new forces to assume control. However, even though it often feels strange to me, I think this time, it is actually taking hold. Maybe the title of this post should have been, "Confessions of a Former Nail Biter."

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