How I Finally Stopped Biting My Nails
One of my earliest memories is sitting in the clawed-to-bits (why were they so clawed? Our dog didn’t do it? The world may never know) seats of my mom’s Volkswagen van before preschool as she hunched over my impossibly small fingers. Her hair was spilling over her shoulders, which it always did because it was very long and beautiful and I’m still miffed that I didn’t get that hair from her. She painted each of my fingertips, somewhat recklessly, with the clear nail polish. It burned because I had shredded my nails again, taking bits of skin with them.
I was three years old. Maybe I was four. And it took me less than a half-day of playing, reading, singing, and drawing in preschool to learn that while the polish tasted terrible—that was the point—it could also be easily peeled off.
Have you ever seen a smug toddler? I have because I have a niece who looks like me a little bit and who is often smug. Anyway, I’m sure it was very charming and not at all extremely irritating to everyone around me when I found this excellent loophole!
There is not a time when I can remember not biting my fingernails. At exactly no point in my life have I passed a day without thinking numerous times about what is happening on the ends of my fingers.
Until! Recently! According to my DayCount app—which I started using because I am immensely competitive with myself and I realized that if I could do Duo Fucking Lingo for more than 100 days because I CAN’T LOSE THE STREAK, I could apply the same principles to my nails—I have not bitten for 56 days.
That’s 56 days longer than I’ve ever gone! How did I do it? Magic? Mysticism? Blood sacrifice? No. Will power? Fuck no, will power doesn’t really exist.
I did it with drugs. And therapy. And vitamins.
A little bit about nail-biting.
Biting your nails (the official term is “Onychophagia” so now you can thank me when you turn that into a super-clever trivia name!) isn’t just, like, a thing you do sometimes. It’s something that you all the time. And it’s gross. I acknowledge exactly how gross it is. My fingers have spent more than 30 years going in and out of my mouth and then touching things and then going back in and it’s…it’s just a miracle that I haven’t had a cold for my entire existence.
It’s also shameful, because having Nice Nails is a total status symbol, and having bleeding cuticles and nails that look the skin of a peanut are decidedly Low Status. I mean, just think about trying to be an Instagram Influencer but then you go to take a selfie in the mirror and instead of coffin-shaped nails with decals, you have some peeling mess that doesn’t look at all cute when curled around your mouth in that weird way that kids today do.
I notice the shape of nails all around me. I notice how men often have extremely perfectly-shaped nails and weirdly nice cuticles even though I am positive they have never once stared at the cuticle tools at a Sally Beauty thinking “which one of these will cure me of this fetid tic that I can’t shake?”
It’s possible that people who don’t bite their nails don’t think about them this often. It’s possible that the reason I am obsessed with comparing my hands—which, if I may describe them in an artful manner, look kind of like donuts with five Vienna sausages attached and then, where the nails might be, there are pennies stuck on the tops of the sausages—is because trying not to bite my nails has been a white-knuckle struggle.
Prior to this recent spate of success, I tried everything. And I mean everything! I tried accupuncture. I tried painting them (I remember an American Girl article telling me once that if they were pretty, I wouldn’t want to pick them! That was a huge lie, because peeling nail polish is one of the best feelings a person can have). I tried the bitter polish multiple times. I tried wearing a rubber-band and snapping it whenever I caught myself biting.
When I was like, 24, I discovered acrylic nails and that helped because, for a price, I could pay someone to plaster little helmets onto my fingers and guard them from me for about five to seven days. At that point, the fake nails would start to pull away from the real, papery nail underneath and then before I knew it, I’d be in the car or working or whatever and I’d have popped off all of the fake ones, leaving a pile of fingernails on my desk like some kind of serial killer.
The last time I had fake nails put on was for AWP 2019, because the idea of being alone in conference center with a bunch of writers and stubby nails was just too much to bear. Those fake nails made it less than I week; I think I’d pried them off by the time I’d come back to Seattle.
This is sort of the crux of nail-biting, though—it’s not just that you nibble at your nails. It’s that you have these perfectly pickable objects that grow right at the end of your fingers and if you are an anxious person or a fidgety person or a person with ADD/ADHD (**checks all of the above**), there are 10 little projects right there! Growing out of you! And you could just pick at them and it would feel so satisfying!
Plus, once you start, you really can’t stop. Because nail-biting isn’t just like, a habit. It’s a compulsion—according to science! Nail-biting falls under a category called “body-focused repetitive behaviors” (BFRBs), where it lives cozily next to such other compulsions like hair-pulling and skin-picking. It’s kind of like being compelled to groom yourself into non-existence.
Another extremely awful thing about nail-biting and other BFRBs, for some people anyway, is that your body, like, wants you to do it. In their Expert Consensus Treatment Guidelines, the TLC Foundation describes the following:
For some, there is a sensation that draws the fingers to the site of picking or pulling. These sensations can include itching, tingling, pain or other physical experiences.
EUGH. You can see how much of a challenge this is—and why everyone who ever tells a nail-biter (or other person dealing with BFRB) to “just stop” can roll that advice up, lubricate it, and insert it wherever they so please. Because it’s not something you can just stop.
But! It is something you can slowly work your way down from. And like quitting anything—I think it’s probably an awful lot like quitting drinking, except the bar is your own human hands—you’ll probably fuck it up a few times. And like, this is just what worked for me. But when I went Googling to try and find any helpful resources that weren’t from a clinic or whatever, I couldn’t find any. So maybe this’ll help.
What I did.
The first thing you need to know is that I would still have bloody stumps were it not for the fact that I have been treating my anxiety steadily for several years. I think it’s probably impossible to stop biting your nails or doing whatever thing you want to stop doing if you don’t deal with the co-occurring issues. Maybe that’s OCD, maybe it’s anxiety, maybe it’s all of the things—but the nail-biting was, for me, so intimately linked with tmy anxiety that it couldn’t be unraveled in a vacuum.
The first time I even though I could possibly stop for good was after about six months of being on medication for my anxiety. I noticed that I was less compelled than I had previously been. Like, I could just let my fingers sit there for days at a time without going to town on them. Combined with the work I was doing in ~therapy~, I found I was better at stopping myself—I could see that I was picking out of boredom, anxiety, fear, or whatever.
Medicating also made it a lot easier to see my big triggers. Because it’s a lot easier to know what makes you afraid or anxious or angry when you don’t feel that way literally all of the time.
Like, I noticed that I could get through a couple of days with no picking or biting but, if I got drunk, I wouldn’t even notice I was doing it and the next morning, it was back to the beginning.
I also noticed that it was a lot easier to pick at ragged, ugly nails. So no matter how short they were, I started taking better care of them—filing, buffing, and oiling the cuticles to reduce the things I COULD pick at.
I also started painting them all the time, but not because of the American Girl advice. Painting them would give myself something to pick at (by the way, you’re going to want to pick up some polish that is less toxic for you than other stuff; I like the Pacifica line 7 Free because it gives a really full coverage and also doesn’t have what is basically embalming fluid) that wasn’t the nail itself. It’s like nail-biting methadone, I guess.
I’m still pretty bad about peeling off my polish, but I’ll take that as a step.
The other important thing is that, after a lifetime of biting, you’re probably not going to have the strongest nails. My nails grow very, very slowly—I feel like a lot of people say that, but it’s true. I’ve been taking progress photos of my nails as I’ve hit milestones and it’s pretty clear that they just take their sweet time.
This is part of what made it so hard to stop biting when I was younger—my mom would tell me to stop and, if I stopped, they’d grow! But then if I did stop, they still wouldn’t grow. I recently had one tear off the other day (I didn’t even bite it! I was so mad!) and it’s only just barely beginning to show any kind of progress.
For this reason, I started taking vitamins and increasing my protein intake. I don’t eat meat, which means basically all collagen is out of the question, and I’ve found that biotin is basically a zit pill. That meant a lot of reading up on what I COULD take and basically I just began gulping down quantities of spirulina, which tastes like swamp juice but has actually helped me out a lot.
I also have taken to lovingly rubbing Vitamin E oil (which I buy at Grocery Outlet like the frugal gal I am) into my nails and cuticles almost daily. This is 100% because I saw a girl on Instagram doing it and she said it really worked and she had bitchin’ nails so I believed it. I just do it while I like, wait for the pasta to boil. By making my nails stronger, I’ve made it was more challenging to peel or pick at them.
Finally, I called in the cavalry—I told my boyfriend to tell me when I’m biting and point it out to me. And hooooo, have I been great about it and not at all bratty!
Kidding, he’s a saint. Every time he tells me to stop I compulsively say “I’M NOT BITING, I’M JUST FIXING A LITTLE BIT” and he goes “ok but get your finger out of your mouth.” Relationship goals, am I right? Having him catch me on it has actually made it a lot easier to notice when I’m doing it. It doesn’t take the urge away, but it does break the compulsion spell, so to speak.
And of course, there’s the app. Making myself actually tally the days has been helpful, because it gives me something to work toward. I don’t want to reset my streak just because I lost myself in the joy (?) of eating myself alive. Sometimes, even just thinking about letting the app (???) down is enough to get me to go do something else.
This is not, of course, a perfect list. I bought a massive bag of lollipops at Whole Foods a while back and have kept them in my car. They keep my mouth occupied when I’m driving, which is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds. I constantly leave little trails of nail polish peelings behind me because the peeling is the final step, I think. And I’m pretty sure there’s a day in my future where something snaps and I go right back to it and I’m just sort of staving it off with a sharp stick at this point.
But I’m making progress. I think I pass for someone with Nice Nails a lot of days, which is a way bigger honor or point of pride or whatever than it should be. It’s what it is—I think we have to take our wins where we can get them, and mine come in the form of millimeters these days.