Content warnings: self-harm, anxiety, dermatillomania (skin picking) disorder
dear past self,
you’ve bitten your nails since the first grade. you try to quit many times; with bitter-tasting nail polish, with nail clippers, with fidget toys. in the end, they never work. in the end, you’ll always bring your nails to your teeth again, tearing them to pieces. tearing yourself to pieces. when you’re six, it doesn’t occur to you how morbid it is that you can’t ignore that little voice in your head demanding you consume yourself piece by piece. as you get older, the realization sinks in, slowly, but it’s not enough to stop you. that little voice grows as you do, loud enough to drown out the misgivings.
six years old is pretty young to start biting your nails. your mom bites her nails, too. you take after your mom in a lot of ways besides nail-biting–you both have blonde hair. you both laugh at your dad’s jokes. you both worry too much and work too hard. she is the breadwinner of the family, and especially when you’re little, you don’t see her much. she leaves early and comes home late, still talking on the phone. when your family has movie night, she has her computer out, sending emails. even on vacation, she can’t completely cut herself off from her colleagues.
you don’t think it’s because she doesn’t want to, or can’t–she doesn’t know how. she doesn’t know how to stop. you pick up on it early, earlier than maybe you realize. you work hard and follow the rules, hoping to perform just as well as she does. you take it out on your nails just like she does. the stress pushes you to start consuming yourself, just like it does to her. and as you venture beyond the first grade, it’s only going to worsen. the stakes will get higher, and by the time you’re in middle school, you’re tearing into the skin of your fingertips and cuticles. by high school, you’ve stopped flinching at the sting of hand sanitizer every time you use it from the cuts on your fingers. after all, it does not compare to the stress you’re enduring. it is simply a physical manifestation of it.
i’m not writing this letter to tell you to stop biting your fingernails. i know you want to. i know you’re trying. i’m going to keep trying, too. but here’s the heads-up that i didn’t have when i was your age: it’s not about the nails. you can’t stop biting your nails without acknowledging why you’re doing it. and i don’t think that’s something you’ll understand for a long time. you’ll get there, though.
so keep trying. and in the meantime, give mom a hug for me. i’ll do the same for you. we both know she could use it.
your future self