Seven years ago, I thought I was living the dream. I was pursuing a career in comedy and building a name for myself on one of Manhattan’s most prestigious comedy stages. I was in a relationship with a generous man who showered me with gifts. I had a supportive community of likeminded women and really, not a worry in the world.
Life was great! Or was it? (Spoiler alert: It was not.)
My wakeup call came in the form of a comedy video. There I stood in the background, literally feasting on my fingers in hi-def.
I wasn’t fabulous, I wasn’t confident, and I certainly wasn’t the Glamorous Glennis I had been named for; I was a ravenous cannibal and certified hot mess, and the sight was horrifying.
Nail biting is as unsightly as it is disgusting. Not only are you definitely swallowing bits of your own fingers, nail biting leaves you far more susceptible to illness. The area underneath your fingernails is one of the dirtiest places on your body. Even with frequent hand washing, germs can thrive under your nails.
I was living in New York City--no wonder I was always sick!
Nail biting, or onychophagia, is an Impulse Control Disorder. Along the ICD spectrum you’ll also find ADHD, substance-related disorders, schizophrenia and mood disorders, kleptomania, pyromania, trichotillomania (the compulsion to pull one’s hair), and dermatillomania (compulsive skin picking), from which I also suffered (I picked at zits).
Every time I felt stress, it would cause me to go through the five stages of ICD in finger form:
- Growing tension
- Relief from acting and from the urge to act
Personally, I’d add “pain” onto stage five. I would gnaw at my nails until they were throbbing, bloody nubs. Oh, the shame! My life revolved around hiding my unsightly hands from the public.
Did I mention I also held a degree in doing nails? Shame was my middle name and my full-time job.
Looking back, it’s clear I was in deep denial. The fact is, you can say your life is great until you’re blue in the face, but sometimes your mind writes checks your body can’t cash; how you treat yourself on the outside mirrors how you feel inside and there’s no denying the telltale marks of acne scars and bloody fingernails.
So I went to therapy.
The original intent was not to cure my onychophagia--that was just a wonderful side effect. I went because I was crying. A lot. Like, all the time.
While in therapy, I tried all the suggested forms to get myself to stop biting: that disgusting nail-biter’s serum (I grew to love the taste--I know), gloves, chewing gum, stress balls, playing with rubber bands, severe self-scolding, and forced rational thinking. Nothing worked.
And while my flight mechanisms were triggered by therapy--I left every session vowing it was my last--I just kept showing up. Week after week, 45-minute session after 45-minute session, check after check, I showed up. I guess the only way I can explain my commitment in the face of fear is that I recognized the tiniest spark of something good starting to form way deep down in my gut, and I wanted more.
Eventually, I was strong enough to end toxic relationships, and soon after that I started saying things out loud in therapy that had only ever rattled around in my brain. After seven years of showing up and making that commitment to myself, the tears dried up. I was all cried out, Lisa Lisa, and I emerged healthier of both body and mind.
It might not seem worth spending hundreds or even the thousands of dollars I spent in therapy for nice nails or smooth skin, but if you feel that faint spark in your gut and think it’s worth a shot, then I say Go! Go! Go!
And if you have negative notions about therapy, just think of it as an hour a week to spend talking about your life with an unbiased third party. Everyone deserves that!
I haven’t bitten my nails in three years, I haven’t picked on my face in five, and I haven’t smoked cigarettes since January 1. Seven years ago, I thought I was happy; today I know I’m happy.
But I’m not naïve enough to think I’m done growing. There’s always room to grow, just like those nails.