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Ouch! Why do I do that?!

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By Cindy Leyland

I bite my nails.  This is a habit I acquired before my first memory; it’s something I’ve always done.  Admittedly, I didn’t start this nasty habit in infancy or even toddlerhood.  Teeth are required, as is hand/eye coordination.  Actually, perhaps nail biting helped with my hand/eye coordination?  Interesting thought. 
I’ve tried many, many times to stop this nasty habit. Nasty, you ask?  Imagine all the things your hands touch throughout the day.  No matter how many times I wash my hands, undoubtedly some gross germ escaped my attempt at cleanliness.  

  • I’ve painted disgusting tasting stuff on my nails. 
    Didn’t work. 

  • I’ve made bargains with myself – go just one week without biting them and you can buy a new pair of shoes! 
    Didn’t work.  

  • Think about how much more professional you will look and be received. 
    Didn’t work. 

Have you ever experienced the sublime satisfaction of capturing an exceedingly small bit of fingernail between your teeth and pulling it oh so gently until – voila – it is released!  You promise yourself just one.  Okay, well, this other nail feels jagged; I need to straighten it out.  Voila!  Another one.  And so it goes.  Until you have ten throbbing stubs and you want to poke yourself in the eye for your own stupidity.  But you can’t – you’re bleeding. 
About twenty years ago, I discovered that I could go to a nail salon and have plastic tips glued to my nail-less nubs, onto which acrylic powder could be applied, dried and then painted.  I could have beautiful nails!  Nails that evaded my attempts to bite them!  For a sum of money and about an hour of my time every other week, I could keep these nice, professional looking nails. 
That is until I started picking at the cuticles.  And then biting them.  The cuticles and the skin back to my knuckles weren’t covered with glue and acrylic.  There were simply sitting there waiting for me to discover – and release – them. 
So I picked.  And bit.  The artificial nails stayed on – most of the time – but the cuticles and skin around the nails looked like a bad time had been had by all. 
I found the satisfaction of picking almost identical to the satisfaction of biting.  So what drives that satisfaction?  More importantly, what drives my NEED for that satisfaction?
Is it stress?  A bad experience?  A past life?  What can it be?
A quick Google search reveals that while there are many theories about why someone bites their nails, the consensus is that it’s an activity started as a child and/or it may be a reaction to stress. Since I could write a book about bad experiences causing many stressful situations in this current life, I’ll skip exploration of a past life. 
Which moves me to explore the stress.  Certainly, I have stress in my life – I am a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a sibling. I have intellectually stimulating work, I live with pain, climate change is real, Elvis is truly dead…need I go on?  Of course, I have stress.  But the reality is I bite my nails when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m hungry, when I’m full, when I’m awake … okay, I won’t say that I bite my nails when I’m asleep – because I don’t know if I do! 
Which leads me to conclude that my nail biting is … a nasty habit. 
And just as bad habits can be formed, so can good habits be formed. 
So, dear reader, you may be wondering what does nail biting have to do with fibromyalgia?  Nothing.  Yet everything.  Given the paucity of true medical treatments for our condition, we often have to rely upon ourselves and fellow fibromites to help us find new ways to live a life of meaning and purpose with joy thrown in the mix.  And sometimes that means releasing old habits and adopting new ones. 
For example, many of us (read:  me, your author) know the value of diet and exercise in lessening the symptoms of fibromyalgia, particularly the pain and fatigue.  Yet, we (I) find it difficult to stick to a specific plan of diet and exercise.  No gluten?  Are you serious?  I love bread and pasta and pie crust and cookies – YUM!  Do I love the pain of fibromyalgia more? Not necessarily, but until I can convince myself to go 21 days without eating gluten so it becomes my habit, I won’t know for sure. 
I took my artificial nails off two weeks ago, bought some nail strengthening potion and invested in a biotin supplement – all in hopes of winning this battle with nail biting.  I was more than half-way to the new habit formation.  But… you guessed it.  I fell off the wagon tonight.  One nail had a jag in it that screamed to be repaired.  The emery board was in the other room.  My teeth?  Right there in my mouth!  In less than thirty minutes, every nail was bitten down to the quick.  Yes, it’s ugly.  Not to mention painful.  One of them even bled.  Ewww, gross!
So tomorrow morning, I am back on the quest of no more nail biting.  I may carry a couple of rubber bands around with me to keep my hands occupied.  I may try the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).  Maybe I’ll try a bottle of that nasty tasting stuff to paint on my nubs again.  The one sure thing I will do is TRY.  I’ll let you know in another 21 days how this trip turns out.
And with success in putting nail biting behind me, maybe I’ll move on to thinking about trying a gluten-free lifestyle.  We’ll see. 

Cindy Leyland is ProHealth's Fibromyalgia Editor.  Cindy also serves as the Director of Program Operations at the Center for Practical Bioethics and the PAINS Project Director. She lives in Kansas City with her husband, enjoys hiking, reading, volunteering with Synergy Services and being Gramma Cindy.

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