I opened a document and then started inspecting my nails.
I’ve never had great fingernails. I bit them as a kid… and as an adult.
I no longer chew them down to the nubs. But I catch myself biting them when I’m nervous, when I’m bored, when I’m both.
Or even if I don’t take a full bite, chewing on them a bit, rubbing them between my teeth.
When they get too long, which is to say when I can feel them when I type or play piano, my fingers almost start itching. Most of the time, I realize it’s a gross thing to do in public so I can stop myself. Most of the time. But I’ve caught myself in meetings, when a particularly uneven bit catches my attention, trying to surreptitiously even it out by sliding it between my teeth. My nails are thin enough, after years of mistreatment, to fit between the cracks of my teeth. It’s at first satisfying, then I berate myself for doing it and try to stop, but by then I’ve managed to make it even more uneven and ragged that I have to keep going. I’ve passed the point of no return. The perfectionist in me, which somehow shuts off when I first have the urge to bit, kicks in and I have to at least make it the same length all the way across.
I remember being 13 and visiting my grandma, which at the time was a big deal because I was living in Minnesota and she was still in Arizona, so I took my first solo plane trip to see her over my spring break. One day, she offered to “do my nails.” She always had manicured hands, a shiny pale pink lacquer, her nails that perfect shape that wasn’t quite square, wasn’t quite oval. She was old enough that her fingers seemed knobby and ancient to me, but her nails were always done. For some reason, I was very self-conscious and aware of my nail-biting habit—my nails looked nothing like hers—and took her invitation as a sort of a criticism. I’m sure at age 13 I was in prime nail-biting time, and I’m sure she wanted to slap a coat of something that tasted bad on there to quell my habit.
Or, maybe, she just wanted to do something to bond with her 13-year-old granddaughter.
That manicure session didn’t cure me of nail-biting.
Throughout high school, college, and even throughout my twenties, I’d paint my nails with clear polish, or wear a rubber band on my wrist to snap every time my hand found its way to my mouth. These tricks would last for a week, maybe two, and then some particularly stressful situation would arise and I’d bite them all off, polish and all (I did manage to stop before I hit the rubber band).
I’d like to think that I’ve gotten more mindful with age and so can catch myself before I even start, before I find myself halfway in and gnawing away. I hope that’s true. I do think I’ve grown to manage my stress better and be less frantic and anxious. But even as I’m typing this and noticing that most of my nails are actually looking pretty decent despite the lack of polish, I’m feeling a bit more of a “click” on the keyboard than I’d like. But my hand aren’t wandering to my mouth. They’re busy, of course, but I’m also focused on the words. Realizing it’s okay to have a mind that doesn’t know exactly where it wants to go but to sit with it instead of distracting myself away from it. That idleness isn’t a function of the devil, but a chance to collect my thoughts, check in with myself, and move forward. And realizing I have a damn emory board in the bathroom just steps away.