As long as I can remember, I've pulled/picked/bitten my nails. Until recently my style involved picking, then biting - using the pitiful remnants of one nail (generally on a thumb or middle finger) to cut into another, then taking the now-broken sliver of dead nail and biting it off. I recognize that this is a disgusting habit from the biter's perspective as well as the observer's; what's under your fingernails is one of the vilest microbial stews on the body, and to trump nail-biting for pure grossness you'd have to go around licking the eyebrows of lepers, at the very least.
I've never used biting as a primary attack method until last week, because for the last 20 years, with only a single exception, my fingernails have never been long enough to be bitten directly. You need a lot of space to get your teeth in there and I've never allowed more than, say, a quarter-centimeter of white to remain visible at the ends of my nails.
Until last week.
A couple of weeks ago, the GF suggested a moratorium on nervous picking/biting habits. She pulls at her lower lip; I've got the same addiction, but I have an additional addiction to lip balm, apparently, so I'm unlikely to have anything to pick at on my lips. No, it's nails for me. (Note: I've never ever bitten my toenails. I find the idea vile, irrationally so. Only once in my life have I ever bitten at dead skin on my feet. Weirdly, that was last month. Is this a confession? I confess that it is.)
Well, I took her up on it, and here we are: as of this weekend my nails were longer than I can remember them being, ever. This is a big deal, emotionally and practically. I picked up a dime yesterday off a table using my nails, realizing only afterward that I'd been unable to do so for an entire generation; just now I flipped open my cell phone's power-adapter socket cover, and nearly wept: a task that literally used to take me fifteen to thirty seconds now took a fraction of a second, as it should, as it does for the average American. (Perhaps you see where this is going.) Think about that: a reasonably healthy twenty-nine-year-old fumbling at the plastic cover of his cell phone for half a minute.
One of my greatest fears is mental retardation.
Maybe that's a strange thing to say. Certainly it's a clumsy one. I don't know more polite language. It's not that I'm afraid of people with developmental disabilities; it's that I fear the idea of being trapped in a brain that doesn't fall in a normal ability range. This makes sense if you know me: I was forbidden from playing American football as a kid (a game in which I had only a passing interest, but every able-bodied kid in my middle/high school played it) because, to slightly paraphrase my parents, my brain is the only thing that's going to get me ahead in this world. A direct quote: 'You're sure not going to get by on your looks.' (I actually appreciated hearing that from my Dad, and I don't disagree, though I recognize that it's somewhat callous.) American football posed too great a danger of accident, and I was a pretty delicate kid in grade school, and the naked, simpleminded aggression of football would perhaps have altered my personality in ways my parents (and I?) might have had trouble accepting.
I was also forbidden from going to parties where drinking would go on. After a while, I had no interest in going, and if that shaded on occasion into general misanthropy, the benefits (I read, wrote, drew, sang, and played a lot back then, while gaining a pretty solid cinematic education on the side) hopefully outweighed the costs (I never learned what I had in common with the kids in my high school; I never learned how to balance social life and school). You trade one sort of growth for another - though that's also the theory behind foot-binding, isn't it? But this was nothing close to that.
In any case, I clung and continue to cling to the message that my identity is my intellect. That's maybe why I take so strongly to this medium, but don't actually enjoy commenting on blogs (and why I need/forget to apologise over and over for not responding to comments from Em and Sherv and others). And to an extent, that's why I've resisted ever smoking marijuana: by all appearances it makes people temporarily stupid, relaxed where vigilance is called for. If I get glaucoma I'll be the first to fill a prescription for weed, but in the meantime, my paranoia about limited faculties outweighs my interest in that form of externalization/relaxation. I would rather climb up to the sense that Things Are Beautiful And Everything Is Connected. (Wasn't until age 27 that I relented and took an illegal substance for the first and only time.) That's maybe not a terribly enlightened stance, nor brave, nor inquisitive, but it means standing on principle and that's one thought-shape I can hide behind.
Movies and books about the 'mentally challenged' (what a strange phrase) drive me insane with grief and fear. But it's not just disability that scares me, it's difference that I perceive (perhaps wrongly) as damaging limitation: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a harrowing horror story to me, its charm outweighed by its desperate sadness; Forrest Gump's final scenes ('Is he...like me?') scarred me; Albert's final scene in The Corrections (as he succumbs to Parkinson's Disease) frightened and saddened me so much that I tear up just remembering it. I can't watch Rain Man again; all I can remember of it is the scene with the smoke alarm going off. It hurt me as much as it hurt the autistic character onscreen.
Part of the problem here is that a narcissistic solipsist - i.e. one who sees the inside of his skull as the scope of the world, and is convinced of his own grandness - tends to see the world as constantly crushing in on him. How could it not? If only my skull were big enough for my mind, that sort of thing. (When I was a child I read Harlan Ellison's short story 'The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,' from which came a line I was fond of quoting to friends and strangers up through high school: 'I am an unlimited man sadly living in a limited world.' The story ran in OMNI magazine, to which I got a subscription as a gift in elementary school. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve reading weird sci-fi in those pages.) Gives you a mix of self-pity and self-hatred to go with your self-love. As a smart guy not: 'not exactly the cheery crackling hearth of psychophilosophical orientations.'
But part of the problem is that I'm often short of sympathy but I seem to be afflicted with paralyzing empathy, in short bursts perhaps but inescapable nonetheless. (I'm not trying to pay myself unearned compliments here; I know that I prize 'empathy' as an aesthetic characteristic over 'sympathy,' but that isn't meant to bear on this.) Empathy - particularly for those who are prisoner to their feelings, which seem enormous, and unable to articulate them in ways that Everybody Else will understand. That's not just the 'I'm a sucker for children' evolutionary mechanism either; for whatever reason, I watch or read stories about people with Down's Syndrome or Parkinson's Disease or Alzheimer's or (Christ almighty) quadriplegia, and I die slowly inside. I don't know why I'd know that feeling, but I vibrate to it. It tears at me.
I went twice to the National Spelling Bee in middle school - 7th and 8th grade. It's a very arbitrary thing and I take no great pride in it, but it wasn't nothing - I felt so free in Washington, even under the ridiculous pressure of the competition, and I loved being around nerdy kids. (The next thing that reminded me of it was a trip to Johns Hopkins for the summer after sophomore year in high school.) I thought of it because of my fingernails: my younger brother got angry, back then, because my mom excused my nail-pulling to my dad as 'nerves because of the Spelling Bee.' For weeks I skated by on that. Otherwise my dad would have been on my back about it; he found it an 'untidy' habit. He's always been attuned to small matters of personal grooming and presentation - but then one would expect a poor kid from the north of England, having worked in high-class service jobs for a long time before making a living (back then) cleaning the homes of nouveau riche suburban boors, to be status-conscious to a fault. And it may well have been. A fault, I mean. Maybe not just that though.
I'm pulling them now, you know. Not like I used to; it's new and scary. Too much skin, too much white at the tips, it'll break, I don't want it to break. Just a tiiiiny bit, just off the top. Just to smooth the edges. Just to even them out. Just to correct for pulling too much from one side before. Just a tiny bit more. I can get away with a tiny bit more.
My dad was so proud of my fingernails when we met in Chicago this weekend. He said so. 'That's wonderful, son. It's a hard thing to do, you know,' he said. I didn't expect him to put it in those terms and I was glad to have made him happy. I wonder if perhaps he never cared one way or the other about my nails themselves - if, maybe, he had wanted me to achieve victory over some aspect of myself. Maybe he never knew how to teach me not to damage my own body in that way; such a small thing but I can see why it would hurt him (more than me). Maybe he never figured out a way to let me know what it meant to him - never had a language in which to speak to his son about something so small.
I remember him saying to my brother and me that if he ever ended up in the hospital on life support, reliant on machines to live, that we should unplug him immediately and not dawdle or dwell. Just thinking of him in that state - trapped, mind and body unable to find one another - scares and saddens me. But if you took so much as a step toward the machine without me there I'd kill you barehanded and no mistake.
I write those words and it isn't until after I've picked at my right middle fingernail that I realize what I'm doing. I think about it in emotional shorthand, of course, rather than actual words, but what passes through my head comes down to something like this: There's plenty of nail left. A little pull won't hurt. It's not like it won't grow back.
I think of how disappointed she'd be, how proud he was. It seems not worth it to keep picking my nails, so I stop, for the moment. I'm amazed at my capacity for self-pity and hopeful about my other capacities. And scared as I am of empathy, I desperately wish to find more of it. I've unplugged the phone and plugged it back in four or five times today; that's maybe two minutes of my life I've gotten back. So simple a thing.
In two minutes I could demolish these nails. You have no idea how good it would feel. I can not even begin to communicate to you how much I would enjoy it, the depth of the disgust I would feel.
I think of all this, and write it, and every once in a while catch myself picking at a tough thumbnail, or the too-thick pinky nail, or the irritatingly rough middle nail on my right hand, which is visibly shorter now than it was when I began writing. For whatever reason my right thumbnail grows much more slowly than my left, and the difference infuriates me. I walk around with that feeling rattling inside my head. My hands always hurt. I clench my jaw, waking and sleeping. Crack my neck compulsively, my knuckles. Nostrils flared.
I am so, so very lucky to be as free as I am. Maybe I'll walk upstairs and find the nail clippers and trim them. I can't remember ever doing so. I write those sentences, look up at the window. My right hand goes to my left pinky fingernail, and I remember to stop, no harm done. As someone once said: My mind's got a mind of its own. But I'm here too, and she called a moratorium, which might in the end be enough, or at least the beginning of enough.
So I stop, for the moment.
Wish you well, Reader(s).