David Smerdon | December 01, 2012 12:16

A real nail biter


I have an addiction. A destructive, nasty addiction that is unhealthy, unsightly and, apparently, incurable.

It’s a little unusual. It’s not a food, or drink, or any other substance. It’s not, contrary to what some of my snotty-nosed friends might claim, a debilitating dependence on fruit smoothies, or the Twilight series, or even internet chess – these are nothing but intrinsic desires to which, to be fair, I acquiesce quite regularly.

(Incidentally, a chess friend’s wife recently lamented to me that, while she’d never had any fears about her husband casting his eyes towards other women, she genuinely felt cheated on due to his internet chess addiction. “Every other night I’ll wake up at some point to find the spot next to me empty,” she complained. “Sure enough, he’ll be in the study playing that damn chess on the internet. He sneaks out!”
Some people would call an internet chess craving immature, but I contend that such an addiction is rather the mark of sophistication and culture. On an unrelated note, can you imagine how irritatingly difficult it is to find a grown up companion in a PhD program willing to watch the last Twilight movie?)

No, my addiction is something quite different, and a little internet research even allows me to give it its proper name – apparently I’m not alone.

I’m a Dermatillomaniac.

Since as long as I can remember (at least from the age of four), I’ve been addicted to destroying my fingernails. I used to be a compulsive biter (a victim of onychophagia, apparently), but my Dad quickly disciplined me out of that condition. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish he’d gone a step further and banned me from touching my nails at all, because I’ve definitely substituted the biting craving with ripping, picking, and in every way compulsively destroying my cuticled clapperclaws.

It really is an addiction, by the way, even though I probably only realised it as such last year. I guess for a little kid forced to sit still playing six-hour chess games, it’s not too surprising that my fingers faced the brunt of my restlessness. And even as an (albeit Twilight-loving) adult, the talons definitely don’t look their best at the end of a tournament. So, at the start of this year, I included “Grow good nails” as perhaps the weirdest ever addition to my list of New Year resolutions (and regular readers will know how seriously I take the whole resolution thing).

But honestly, I’m at a bit of a loss with this one. We’re into the final month of 2012 and the tips of my digits still look like I’ve attempted to hand-feed a pack of starved Tasmanian Devils. I’ve tried everything – I think I’ve got nail files in every bag I own – but my inner dermo-demon always finds a way to thwart my plans. I’ll try my best to consciously leave my hands alone, and then I’ll be in class, listening intently to the lecturer prattle on about evolutionary game theory or some such topic, and before you know it I’ll feel a little warm trickle roll down the side of my fingers. And I’ll look down, and sure enough, while my mind has been intently focused on economics and math, my sneaky little tentacle terrorists will have ripped the cuticles to the point of pain, leaving a bloody, raw mess in their wake.

It’s amazing: I can play high level chess for weeks at a time and study complex mathematics 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but I don’t have the self dedication to stop playing with my hands. And I really have tried everything I can think of. Most recently, I’ve tried distracting myself in class by putting pens in each hand and forcing myself to practice pen-flipping tricks. So concentrated was I in my last microeconometrics class to keep my focus on the pens and off the nails, that I accidentally flicked the pen onto the lecturer’s shoe. I take these things seriously.

Fortunately, it turns out I’m not alone (although, with the advent of the internet, it’s hard to believe anyone really has a truly unique idiosyncrasy anymore). There are even CSP support groups – that’s Compulsive Skin Picking, in case you were wondering, but I’m not sure if I want to be lumped together with the whole assortment of chest, arm and eyebrow pickers. Those guys are crazy.

But apparently dermatillomania is a real, well, something, and from the internet reports I can find, “..often results in shame, guilt and remorse”, “…suggests the patient has a form of obsessive compulsive or impulse control disorder”, “…results from a psychological need for an individual to anchor themselves in the present”, and “…in the case of men, is often linked to eating disorders.” Yikes. Although, given how bad my nails taste, I’m not sure FingerFreak.com has got this exactly right.

(Note: Stay away from googling medical conditions online. It brings nothing but trouble.)

Not surprisingly, nothing online seems to offer any sensible remedies. (Note: Stay away from Yahoo Answers as well, unless you really need to be entertained. Some of the more precious questions from users discussed there include, “Why doesn’t the earth fall down?”, “How can I make 2+2 equal 5?” and “HOW DO I TURN OFF CAPSLOCK?”.)

In fact, probably the most useful piece of advice I’ve found to date is a blog post from some random dermatillomaniac (I just like using that word, really), stating that she finally cured her addiction when she bought a smart phone. In short, my fellow anonymous sufferer sums up her inspiring story with:

“Anyway the upshot is because my fingers are always tap tap tapping and swipe swipe swiping, I now have unchewed normal looking nails.”

Somehow, this seems like an unnecessarily abstract (not to mention expensive) solution. And yet, with 30 days to go until my resolutions are to be held to account, desperate measures are required to meet my day of reckoning. It’s going to be – oh yes – a nail-biting finish.

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David Smerdon's picture
Author: David Smerdon

David Smerdon is a chess grandmaster from Brisbane, Australia. David attended Anglican Church Grammar School and Melbourne University. To qualify for the title of Grandmaster, a player must achieve three Grandmaster norm performances, and a FIDE Elo rating over 2500. Late in 2007, Smerdon achieved his third and final Grandmaster norm. In the July 2009 FIDE rating list his rating passed 2500, so he qualified for the title of Grandmaster. He is the fourth Australian to become a Grandmaster, after Ian Rogers, Darryl Johansen and Zhao Zong-Yuan. In 2009, Smerdon won the Queenstown Chess Classic tournament.

Source: Wikipedia




AAR's picture

In India when a kid develops this habit, the mother punishes the kid to smell their finger. The smell is enough to put off the habit.

Anonymous's picture

Since you live in Holland, you should try a slice of "Nagelkaas". If that doesn't work...

Anonymous's picture

being a nail biter myself, also from about 4, with similar stories to tell, the one time I know things improve is when I'm somehow out and about working on something or travelling...basically, its being on the move and distracted. The improvement, albeit small, can on occasion motivate me to try harder, often with an imaginary deadline caused by some social occasion coming up for which I want to have presentable nails. All this has indeed resulted in several periods of months without real biting. But...those fingers still find their way to the mouth, but the biting decreased. Ok, I never keep it up, but the longest period has been 5 months "success". Bad smells or tastes make no difference! How about playing blitz all day :-)

Anonymous's picture

A friend of mine bites his nails all the time, and is very happy that he hasn't had to use nail clippers in his life ever !!
Why is nail biting a habit u wanna get rid of? Clipping nails is so boring, don't throw away a useful habit...

Doubleroo's picture

How about gloves?

Doubleroo's picture

How about gloves?

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