“Look, Dana.” Lili, my twenty-four year old niece, holds up her hands. “I've stopped biting my nails!” I see purple polish on finely manicured nails. On this day, we are on vacation in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. Don't all things feel possible when you're on vacation?
“Wow! How did you do it?” I ask.
“My Mom's sister took me for a manicure and I got temporary nails put on. It has stopped me from biting them.”
At age 24, Lili has begun to kick the habit, one which I've been stuck on for fifty years. I envy her in this moment.
I return home from the mountains, determined to try out a manicure and end the nail-biting. I've become more bothered and conscious in the past year of this habit, one that is so unconscious and deep. Was it at the dinner table growing up when I became anxious by family arguments that I began the habit? Or was it becoming an adolescent? Was it self-soothing? Whatever its origin, Lili has inspired me to stop.
There's something so insular about biting one's nails. A friend - another nail biter - tells me, “Maybe the drive to bite is unconscious and very deep, perhaps energy that is tied up with fear or individuating or sexuality or death – that kind of big thing.”
I recognize the truth in these words. Nail-biting is so private and personal. I'm in my own world - in the car or at my desk, where no-one can look.
Either I'm less anxious or more conscious in my life, or both, but motivation holds me. I feel empowered by possibility. Maybe the physical therapy I began this summer to address my gimpy walking motivates me to take charge of the nail-biting as well. I had adapted to my awkward gait and assumed I couldn't do anything about it. I figured the walk and poor posture was all due to living with multiple sclerosis for thirty years, and I'm sure that's most of it. But my new neurologist ordered physical therapy and I've been working on core strength, balance, and posture for three months now. I still have the MS in my body but I can compensate some. I learn what I now call conscious walking. If I've become more aware of how I move – there's nothing more ingrained than that - then maybe I can tackle the nail-biting. If I don't try to conquer this now, I may never.
It's been a few weeks since Lili inspired me, but no manicure yet. On the day before the Jewish New Year - an auspicious day to bring in the new and leave behind the old – I call a neighbor, Linsey, who knows about style and self-care.
“I've never been to a manicurist. Can you recommend one to me?” I ask her.
“I know just the one,” she replies and sends me to Sandra in a neighboring town.
But I still delay and first read about this habit. I learn things I already know – that nail-biting is multi-causal. It's an unconscious act in both children and adults and may be on the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorders. What - me, obsessive? Ronald Bronow, professor of medicine at UCLA, explains that nail-biting is often a coping mechanism to relieve anxiety. Or nail biters may have a poor self-image. Well, I've struggled with self-image and anxiety during my time.
I know that I have to become more conscious here. I work as a psychotherapist, helping to make the unconscious conscious for my clients; I again need to do more of that for myself.
A few days later, I make an appointment. I walk into Sandra's salon, a bit abashed. I've never thought to care for my hands. I'm not a particularly stylish person. Clothing is comfortable. Make-up is minimal. As a child, I recoiled from make-up when someone tried to paint my face for a children's play or a dance recital.
“Hi. Are you Sandra?” I say to the woman behind the salon counter. “That's me,” she replies in a friendly voice. “You must be Dana.” She walks around her counter - she's wearing a long skirt and her make-up is modest. She leads me to a small table and chair. It looks just like the manicure tables I've seen in movies with a frilly, checkered cloth and a small bowl in which I will soak my hands.
“This is a first for me,” I say. “I have bitten my nails for at least forty years.”
“Hey, I'm a nail-biter, too,” she replies and holds out her hands for me to see stubbled fingers. I'm surprised. I expected to see rounded or oval, painted fingernails on a manicurist. Can she really help me? Yes, she can and does. Thirty minutes later, I walk out of the salon slowly and consciously.
A month later, I look at my unbitten nails...and am filled with a dizzying sense of possibility.