You ever have a really nasty habit that you wish you didn’t? It could be anything; smoking, popping your gum, caffeine, clenching your teeth, biting your nails. Things you have probably been doing years, maybe even decades, and you just don’t know how to quit. Just thinking about quitting causes you to dive right into those habits with a vengeance; you don’t know how to quit, which causes more stress, so you light up that cigarette to calm the nerves. Vicious cycle, right?
Maybe your habit disgusts you. You see other people do it and you think STOP IT! That’s so gross! But then you turn around and do the same thing, even when people close to you tell you to stop, tell you it’s gross. Hell, you’ve been doing so long you barely notice you even do it.
Alright, Ashley, it’s time to come clean. What is this bad habit of yours that you’re dancing around? Well, doctor’s call it dermotillomania, a scientific word that I didn’t know existed until I read this article by NPR over the weekend. I pick at the skin around my cuticles. I am a pathological groomer, despite the fact that there is nothing particularly “grooming” about this habit.
It started when I was eight years old. Actually, it started well before that. I remember being very young and always clenching my hands. I don’t know if my parents remember this, but I do. I would clench and unclench my hands. Especially if I was deep in thought. (Or as deep in thought as a child can get.) But at eight I transferred the clenching to picking. I don’t know what triggered it, I don’t know why I started it, I don’t know if I saw someone else doing it. I certainly didn’t have any anxiety (that I know of)– I was only eight! But I started picking at my cuticles.
In High School my parents took me to a dermatologist to try to help me with this bad habit. Now, here is the problem: there are ways to help people who bite their nails. So the doctor gave me something to put on my nails that tasted bad so when the offender went to bite their nails, they were disgusted by the taste and stopped.Except that I do not put my fingers in my mouth. Ever. I know the doctor meant well but I wondered two things: how that would help me given that my fingers couldn’t taste anything and how this guy was practicing any sort of medicine if he thought my fingers could taste.
Needless to say, that didn’t work out for me.
So the years have passed and it exists mainly as a subconscious act, not anxiety driven (although it does get worse when I am stressed) and more often than not, turned to when bored. In high school I would try to hide the fact that my cuticles were ripped apart. My skin is always slightly swollen and red around my nails and if outright asked–as teens are more likely to do than adults–why my nails were all red, I would claim I had just taken off red nail polish the night before. They were stained. I’m sure everyone could see right through my lies but I was embarrassed by it. But yet, I couldn’t stop. No one, including myself, could understand why I couldn’t stop.
The first time it was ever brought to my attention that this was not just a habit, but something more mental, was by a college psychology professor. She mentioned that it would seem that I had an OCD. An Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. How could I have that? I don’t wash my hands obsessively, I don’t fear that things are going to go wrong if I don’t pick my nails. Yet, it made sense. I am obsessive about my nails and will not leave them alone. When I really get started, it’s hard to drag me out of my fixation.
I don’t know how to stop. I’m at a complete loss. This is as much of an addiction as smoking or drinking or using drugs. Only there aren’t any patches available, there are no support groups (that I know of), there are no rehab centers that hypnotize me into forgetting this mental tick. My brain is wired differently, that I do know, and I am not sure how to get the circuitry back to normal so I can not care so much about my nails. I am rarely ever not aware of my fingers, I always have to be doing something with my hands and to have them just rest at my side is a pretty foreign concept for me.
It’s frustrating. I want to stop, I want to be able to show off my fingers without having to explain why they look the way they do. I find the habit just as disgusting as you do (if not more since I witness it first hand). It would seem as easy as willpower, as easy as wearing gloves over my hands or wearing bandaids on my fingers. The problem is, they can be removed. Those are not the mental blockades that will make me forget my fingers. I’ve been doing it for 22 years and I know like these all seem like excuses, but I’ve tried it all. I need my brain to stop remembering that my fingers and their cuticles exist.
So, since I’m out here being all vulnerable about my nasty habit, what are some of your bad habits?