When I was unemployed, freshly let go after three days in a sales job, I spent your taxes on a copy of Marie Claire magazine. I think it was the one with Lena Dunham on the cover. Her eye make-up was lovely. Inside there was a short article on career tips. Women with very good jobs in London were asked what did they look for when hiring a young woman. One said she always checked the state of a prospective employee’s nails. If they were sloppily painted, chipped or bitten, she was unlikely to hire the interviewee.
I have bitten my nails for as long as I remember. My fingertips are a state. These stubs won’t score frenzied red tracks down your back. They can barely feel anymore. I think I’ve eaten the very nerves, like vermin cutting through encased wire.
It might be an inherited trait. My father bites his nails when watching television or reading the paper. It might be a nasty habit I developed out of necessity, being dragged to mass in the nineties as a child until all the evilness was common knowledge and social pressure cooled. It wasn’t the build up to Jesus’ murder repeated year on year that drove me to my nails, that’s a good story, but the monotonous drone of the priest. Irish sermons rarely have brimstone. They keep the shaming to religion classes in school. I would’ve been somewhat captivated hearing a man explain from a pulpit how we were going to play a game deciding who wouldn’t get a place on a hypothetical lifeboat. (Spoiler alert: the girls in the Ursuline, Thurles chose to throw to the sea the engaged woman who cheated on her Irish fiancé with a black man while on her holidays and was considering aborting the baby who was a result of that affair.)
My tendency for excavation has lead to some standout moments. There was the informal exit interview with the start-up where I had completed an internship aged 23. In the middle of a glass room, where the walls were decorated with endorsement quotes from tech blogs I haven’t read since, the finance guy snapped. Stop biting your nails, he nearly shouted. Out of character for him, a routine tic for me. The aftermath of the tense scene was a geyser. He was a ginger and literally cooled down in front of me. I had said absolutely nothing critical during the conversation because anyone who uses an exit interview to grind an axe or effect change is wasting time on earth.
Then there was this incident when I was about twelve. How you behave at a funeral says everything about you. You’re taking time to see if someone is okay. Queuing, waiting, shaking a grieving soul’s hand as you look them in the eye. The language of condolence is throwaway and trotted out but I believe it to be an actual comfort, a universal code, an acknowledgement of another’s person pain. Participating in ritual is good manners. If you end up in the pub the night before or the evening after, you do not argue about politics. You discuss the Dublin renting situation with aunts until the conversation is looping white noise. You let lonely old men talk to you about whatever they want to talk about.
And when a relative by marriage stalks up to you in the outskirts of a stony graveyard by the sea in County Kerry and slaps your face – or rather the hand attached to your mouth - you don’t cry or let shock translate into how-fucking-dare-you indignation. When she tells you nail biting is a disgusting habit and then turns back to follow the corpse, you get on with it. You tell your parents what happened and years later you recount the story to friends, but the anecdote is tied to the tragic funeral of a father, so it doesn’t matter.
You got slapped, as Big tells Carrie in Paris.
In recent years, my habit has worsened and evolved into skin picking. It’s a veritable condition: Excoriation disorder. Sometimes I’m slicing myself with my own teeth, stripping away cuticles and tasting metal. Most times my fingers inflict damage on other fingers. I peel away flakes of recovering flesh and expose raw slivers to the elements. One study says nail biting’s a good way to build up one’s immune system. You’re ingesting pollen and bacteria on the sly. One news report compared it to a natural vaccine. It’s related to hygiene theory, apparently. We’re raising children in too clean environments. But then other studies says you’re more likely to pick up colds and gum infections as a nail biter. There’s also the chemicals in nail varnish.
Last December my boyfriend watched as I painted my nails and asked why I bothered. I scrape off the lacquer in sheets under boardroom tables when bored, scoring white marks across the nail plate. I haven’t coated my nails in colour since January 1st. This is my Year of Reading Women. This decision has done nothing to stop me self-harming, because that’s what skin picking is. It’s a public admission and all the fingers point back at you.
Apparently the elastic band around the wrist is effective. Although I wonder how a hissing hangover pain combats a pulsing one. And as someone pointed out to me: “Everyone will assume you’ve been abused.” I’ve googled hypnosis, legitimate practitioners. It’s expensive with sessions climbing into the hundreds. As I grow older I should worry about what I’m doing to myself. I read one listicle of advice from older women where one participant said she regretted her habit as it meant her nails were chalk when she hit her thirties. Over two decades I’ve been attacking my fingertips. At the moment it feels like an ecosystem almost impenetrable to desertification. When will the nail bed stand up for itself and give up?
I work in lifestyle media and it’s a regular thing at launches to be offered a manicure from a popular city centre salon. I always shrink my naked hands away and apologise. I bite my nails, I admit, and the technician invariably insists that if I got my nails done I’d stop as I’d value them more. I’d apologise again and walk away. Because this is the truth, I’ve no genuine desire to help myself. I’m a hopeless case. Nails can trap germs, the DNA of victims, the scent of garlic. Mine say this: I don’t care.