Today is a very significant anniversary for me. It’s been one year since I stopped biting my nails.
To put this in perspective, I began biting my nails when I was five years old. I nibbled my way through every year of school and more than ten years of being in the workforce. Then on November 16, 2012, I hit a low point and decided enough was enough. I was going to quit, and quit for good.
My low point looked like this (warning–graphic images ahead):
I call this my low point because I was biting my nails when there was practically nothing left and yet I still wanted to bite. I couldn’t remember a time when I’d allowed the habit to get this extreme and wanted to put a stop to things before it got even more disgusting.
I’d tried to quit several times in the past, using techniques like this:
- Painting my nails with clear polish that tasted bad
- Painting my nails with any polish, to cover them up (which was not great because I was drawing attention to super short nails I was ashamed of)
- Reminding myself of how filthy fingernails get and no matter how many times I washed my hands I was likely depositing that filth directly into my mouth
- Reminding myself how much better my nails look when they exist, as opposed to being stubs
- Reminding myself that the biting was likely wearing away my tooth enamel and I didn’t want to do any more damage to my teeth than what’s already been done. (My dentist asked if I ate a lot of citrus or threw up a lot because of the lack of enamel on my teeth. I rarely throw up and I eat a reasonable amount of citrus so I’m sure the nail-biting is the culprit.)
I never lasted more than a month. Once my nails got long enough that I could feel them tapping things I became constantly reminded that they were there and found the urge to bite overwhelming. I’m not a smoker but the pull I felt to do the thing I didn’t want to reminded me of that type of addiction. I was powerless.
I knew if I wanted this change to last I couldn’t just hope things would work out differently than in the past; I’d have to make the choice to do things differently than I did before and stick to it. So I did some reading online and found an article where someone suggested taking photos of your nails each week you don’t bite. That way you’ll have a clear representation of your progress that will encourage you to stick with it. As an accountant and a runner I love measurable things, so I decided to do this.
I decided to quit biting during the most stressful time of the year. Right before Thanksgiving is a really busy time for me at work and it continues until after Christmas. We’re all trying to get the same amount of work done in less time due to the holidays. Plus, holiday stress! Shopping and fighting traffic, ugh. But I decided to quit then anyway, knowing if I could get through the toughest part of the year, the rest of the time wouldn’t seem so hard. Kind of like how I get through hills while running–conquer the hard part, then enjoy the flatness. I could have quit as a New Year’s Resolution. But why? There’s no reason to postpone improving yourself to some arbitrary date. Do it now.
Early on, it was hard. I was used to biting in a variety of situations and having that taken away from me after 27 years was a major transition. (I haven’t done anything else in life for 27 years!) In keeping with my “do things differently to make the change last” philosophy, I decided to think about why I was wanting to bite when I felt the urge, rather than just tell myself no. Here’s what I came up with:
Anxiety is a pretty common reason people bite their nails. For those times I determined anxiety was the reason for the urge, I took a moment to relax and focus on my breathing (again, like running). I acknowledged the anxiety and tried to pinpoint the reason for it. If there was a reason for it, I tried to be rational with myself about it–this is something that will pass soon (i.e., holiday stress), this is something I’ve successfully dealt with before, this is something that feels like a big deal now but isn’t when compared to all possible problems in the world. Sometimes I wasn’t sure of a reason for the anxiety, but either way, as I thought about it I took slow, deep breaths instead of biting my nails. Eventually I would feel myself calming down and the urge would pass.
A lot of times I was just bored and stuck my hand in my mouth as something to do to pass the time. I’ve done this with food too; also not a great solution for boredom. When I recognized boredom as the reason for wanting to bite, I told myself “Nora, you are bored. You need to find something else to do with your time because biting your nails is not an acceptable way to deal with this.” I think just calling out the boredom for what it is helped because then I could focus on what I wanted to use my time for and do that rather than mindlessly bite my nails.
I wasn’t using my nails as a food source but I do think that sometimes when I was hungry I just wanted something to chew on, and my nails became an easy target since they’re always there. If I determined I was hungry, I’d eat. When I’m at work I’m eating every couple of hours, but stuff like yogurt, carrots, celery, fruit, etc. So it was pretty easy to substitute a carrot for a fingernail.
That said, a lot of times I think I’m hungry but I am actually just thirsty. I drink water all day and have plenty before I begin eating at any point to make sure I’m addressing the right need. And it turned out a lot of times taking drinks of water worked as an alternative to nail-biting.
I was just used to it
Like I said, I bit my nails longer than I did anything else in life. It became part of my identity and removing that part of me took some adjustment. A lot of times I had to tell myself “you’re used to biting your nails, but you’re going to become used to not biting them as well”. It was hard, but it’s supposed to feel hard. That’s how you know you’re changing.
(continue to page 2 for photos of my progress and how I’m doing today)