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I suffer from Onychophagia.

It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Honestly, suffer isn’t even the right word. I make the people around me suffer more from it than I do myself. It doesn’t really bother me at all. It used to bother me from the standpoint of my own vanity, but if I’m going to worry about how I look, there are far more noticeable things. Or is there?

Onychophagia is just a fancy scientific term for the obsessive picking and biting of your finger nails and cuticles. Nail biting seems to be quite common, lots of guys I know and some females have stubs for fingernails and though people cringe, it’s common enough. I mess with my fingernails plenty but never have I bitten them down to the point where they bleed, I’ve left that to my cuticles.

I don’t know when it started. I know I was doing it in 4th or 5th grade, perhaps earlier. It started out as a nervous habit I think. When I stressed or just plain antsy. Now though, it’s almost constant. As I’m typing this I find myself realizing that after every sentence I unconsciously stop and run a fingertip over another finger’s cuticles or run a nail under another nail.  Teasing parts of my body that I’m surprised even have any feeling left at this point.

They used to bleed a lot, they rarely do so anymore. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve done something to the circulation or if I really don’t tear them up as deep. Maybe my subconscious has kicked in and told me that bleeding fingertips are not the greatest thing for an archivist to have…

I drove teachers crazy asking for band-aids. But they bled so often that I gave up. The thumbs bled most often so I’d simply wrap my middle finger around it and apply pressure. I’d look down at my fingers during a class and notice a red spot creeping up and non-nonchalantly pop the finger in my mouth until it stopped. My friends joked I was a vampire, or a cannibal or worse yet, a self-cannibalistic vampire.

Therapists tried to explain it away as a by-product of my PTSD but I was doing it long before the triggering trauma entered my life. A friend’s mother told me it was just like cutting and that I was a “disturbed” person but no, it was not like cutting. It was done automatically, absentmindedly, without any real feeling or goal. I’ve purposefully made myself bleed but never via my cuticles. Though it has become almost a comfort if only because trying to stop is so stressful.

When I was younger I tried everything to stop it. I wanted beautiful hands. I wanted the beautiful painted, long nails that I could wave around when I talked and drum on the desk while I waited impatiently for something. The years of picking at my finger tips had left them a shade darker than the rest of my finger, a red of perpetual irritation.

I tried foul tasting creams meant for nail biters, but i pick with my nails as much as with my teeth. I tried fake nails but I pulled them off too. I tried band-aids on each finger but they got nasty looking and got in the way, I tried gloves but that only worked for the winter and I had to take them off in gym class, which being my least favorite class was probably where I picked at them the most.

Why do I do it? It’s disgusting. The skin has no resistance anymore, it comes off in ribbons. No matter how short my nails are, they still look long because the skin is pushed back so far.  I sit on the train and cock my head to place the finger in my mouth as my boyfriend swats my hand to stop me.

I know he means well but sometimes I just want to tell him to fuck off and let me do what I want with my own body. Yet I know it grosses him out at times, just like it grosses me out to see him bite his toenails, though they are similar actions.

But what I find most strange of all is that I find myself messing with my cuticles and nails, tearing them apart almost, while telling myself, well if I can just push this piece back, my nails will look so much better.

I am the bringer of my own destruction, telling myself I’m bringing beauty.

Ten years of being a vegetarian who wasn’t very good at getting the proper amounts of protein left most of my nails bumpy and pitted as well. They would tear off in layers no matter how many times I put some special “hard as diamonds” strengthening nail polish on them. Six months back eating meat and they still aren’t great. The nail polish gets stuck in the pits.

I look at them and see the slight difference in color that marks where the nail has split, like an air bubble and I cannot rest until I tear it apart, until that mismatched part is gone, until they are uniform in color once again even though it means I have just torn off part of my body.

I have no other such compulsions.

Why? Why can I not get them as rounded as I would like despite wearing the nail file down to nothing. Why is the skin attached more on one side of the nail and yet not the other?

Do you begin to see how much I must look at them, stare at them, mess with them? I don’t do it in a critical way, I don’t think to myself “God, I’m so ugly. These nails are atrocious.” Somewhere in my sub-conscious mind maybe that is the thought but consciously its just determination to get it right.

As if the day I have enough control over the small little things that are my finger nails is the day the rest of my life falls into place.

But why? Why do I care so much about how my nails and fingers look? One of my professors, who had recently stopped working in the archival profession in order to teach told us how happy she was when she realized she could finally grow out her nails. That they didn’t have to be confined to the short practical style better suited for rustling in dusty boxes of all papers. Why are they so important to us? This little piece of cartilage that covers the part of fingers? Why are our fingers even soft right there anyway? Why did the first person in Ancient Egypt or Ancient China think that part of the body would look cool with color on it?

And why have I chosen it to be the one part of my body that I obsess over?

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