[on-i-koh-fey-juh or on-i-kho-fey-jee-uh]
His blue gaze met mine across the narrow expanse of the cafeteria table. Potential boyfriend? Or, older lecher? How much older? Twenty-five? Thirty-five? With some men age is indeterminate. By fate or by choice adolescence never abandons them. At eighteen, I still clung to mine.
“You’re a perfect lady,” he crooned. “Except for your fingernails.”
I looked down. My eyes by-passed my hands which had been impossible to hide while eating a hamburger. I set down the now unappetizing food and slid my offending fingertips under the ugly brown laminate slab.
I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t bite my nails. Psychology Today reported that thirty per cent of children between the ages of seven and ten, and forty-five percent of teenagers are nail biters. Did the habit begin when I was seven? It felt much older. And, even though I knew I chewed on my nails when I felt anxious, the article further stated that the practice relieved “nervousness, stress, tension, boredom and loneliness”. Perhaps those other feelings were mine as well.
Although the distinction is not clear-cut, there is a difference between an ordinary nail biter and a pathological one. I lived on the border. At times the biting was savage. My teeth ripped off the fragment of a nail in minute segments. Then attacked the cuticle. The tiniest bit of skin was torn from its bed. Every nail was treated to equal violence. When I was very little, and much more flexible, I chewed my toenails as well. Later, despite being a cheerleader, I could not longer get my feet into my mouth. At least, not literally.
The bleeding was minor but the pain was hot and angry. I sometimes fell asleep with the fingers of both hands plunged into a jar of Noxema. The hurt never abated. It transformed into an intense cold throbbing. I often cried.
After Mister Lecher’s cruel observation, I began to pay attention to those times when I bit my nails. I was not striving to be a “perfect lady”, but, never again did I want to feel humiliated by a stranger. Especially a handsome-older-man stranger.
The worst stimulant was television–any program. Even comedies. I seldom found them amusing. People were demeaned, demoralized and mortified. Maybe when the talent for appreciating humour was doled out, the funniness fairy skipped me. I stopped watching television. I didn’t know it at the time, but the strategy is one of several for breaking a habit. Remove the stimulus.
At some point I realized that when I was away from home for a sufficient period of time, two months or more usually did it, I stopped attacking the ends of my fingers. Even essays, exams or nerve-wracking summer jobs did not call forth the practice. So, I removed that stimulus as well. I left home permanently at twenty.
Earlier, I had painted my nails with a bitter-tasting chemical compound. I bit it off. Had Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, especially reversal training, been in vogue in 1966, I probably would have tried that too.
At some point, not long after the university hamburger incident, I stopped biting my nails. Painful lessons sometimes produce potent results. Fifty-three years have elapsed since that pivotal summer. I would like to say that, except to floss, I never put my fingers into my mouth. But that would be a lie. Oh, I don’t bite my fingernails but, in times of crisis, hangnails beckon–particularly those on my thumbs. Instead of cutting them, I use my teeth to tear them back. Sometimes they bleed. Always they hurt. It doesn’t happen often and when it does, I pause to examine my life. It is usually a case of too much inactivity and not enough exercise. Or, too much busyness and not enough mindfulness.
Recently, my husband commented, “You look much younger than your years”. A pause. “Except for your hands”. At the time of the remark I don’t believe I was eating a hamburger. Gilles was not referring to my fingernails but to the dark multitude of large, medium and small liver spots that painted the backs of my hands. I booked an appointment with my dermatologist. Would I never learn? The doctor prescribed an expensive, paid-in-advance, custom-made cream. I used it for one week. My skin began to burn. I remembered the Noxema. Abandoned the treatment. Disposed of the container–in an environmentally-friendly way. Then I inhaled–a deep rich totally satisfying breath. And exhaled it very, very slowly. In those stilled moments I knew that I loved myself a little more. Warts and all. Or, shall I say, liver spots and all.
By the way onychophagia is just a fancy word for nail-biting. I doubt I’ll ever use the term again.