Many years ago, I met a friend for lunch in New York. This was in the days before cellphones, so we made a plan to find each other at the 96th Street subway station. When I arrived, it was windy and rainy, so I huddled under an awning with my hood up. I was worried that my friend wouldn’t find me, but more worried that I would get soaked, so I stayed there, searching all the drab raincoats exiting the subway for a familiar form.
After a few minutes, a body separated from the masses on the other side of Broadway, crossed the street, and approached me. It was my friend. “I knew it was you from over there,” he said, “because I could see you biting your nails.”
I was appalled. Until that moment I had never thought of myself as a nail-biter—or rather, I had never realized that a nail-biter was what everyone thought of me as. But of course they did, because that was what I was. It was what I had been for decades before, and it was what I would be for decades after. But somehow, this year, of all years, that changed.
The year 2020 was a year of feeling out of control. We were helpless to change the maps that showed the pandemic blooming across the country, as the reds that once represented the top of the scale were supplanted by new, hotter, more terrible reds. We could do nothing to stop the Trump administration from careening through its final year, doing immense damage both by actively doing evil and by not doing anything. We could try to protect ourselves and our families, and in doing so contribute in our small way to the health of our community, but even that felt far from safe or reliable enough.
It was a year where achievements were modest. Yes, there were those who accomplished new personal records or built new decks, but the real achievements of 2020, if the year went as well as it could, were the things we avoided. I managed not to get sick or get anyone else sick. I canceled the trips I had so eagerly anticipated. I wasn’t overwhelmed by depression or panic or apocalyptic thinking, though I flirted with them all.
And so it’s fitting that the personal achievement I’m most proud of in 2020 is a thing I stopped doing: I stopped biting my fingernails. In a year of helplessness, I exerted this tiny bit of control over myself, over my body. In this most stressful of years, I managed to break a stress-related habit that has bedeviled me for my entire life. As this awful year came to a close, I wanted to understand how I did it.
My mother says she has a memory of me sitting at our kitchen table in the sunshine, “gnawing away while you were deep into a book.” She thinks I was in second or third grade. I bit my nails as a teenager, nibbling in world lit while Ms. Gutschow discussed the Green Knight. I bit my nails in college, waiting backstage for my entrance in a Pinter play. I bit my nails in my first jobs in publishing; I bit my nails at my wedding and during the births of my children; I bit my nails as I became, in most other respects, a grown man with responsibilities and credentials. And each New Year’s I would think, well, this is ridiculous. I am 25/35/40 years old, I am a graduate student/professional journalist/father of teenagers, and yet my cuticles are bleeding and my nails are ragged and torn.
But I never quit. For our entire marriage, my wife had had standing permission to smack me on the arm whenever she saw my hands go to my mouth, but I didn’t quit. I painted my nails with that foul-tasting clear nail polish, but I didn’t quit. I let go of any number of other harmful habits picked up in the 1980s and ’90s—cigarettes, “ironic” homophobia, Piers Anthony novels—but kept right on biting my nails.
As a character note, nail-biting is what I think of as an indicator: a behavior that telegraphs a certain emotional state, whether you want it to or not. If you are biting your nails, people believe you are nervous. It’s a bit obvious, as a signifier of anxiety and is, unsurprisingly, common in animation: Goofy wood-chips his nails when he’s on a diet, Pegasus chews his hooves as Hercules makes his way through an obstacle course. There’s a whole SpongeBob SquarePants episode about SpongeBob’s nail-biting habit; thwarted from chewing his own, he resorts to biting the nails of his friends.
Yet I’ve never really thought of myself as a particularly anxious person. For me, nail-biting was a habit for bad times and good. I bit my nails unconsciously, indiscriminately—that is, I would be doing something else, lost in thought, and then I would come to at the pleasant, decisive clack of my teeth, the delectable tug of the nail away from my finger. My hand was at my mouth and I had no idea how it had gotten there. But now that it was there—now that the nail was uneven, its tiny point waiting to snag a sweater or simply bother me—I might as well finish the job. And it made no sense to have one very short nail and other, longer nails, and I’d already fallen prey to the habit, so why not just work my way through the fingers, cutting every nail down to size?
God! Even typing these words I curl my fingertips in delight. My neural pathways still recall the sensation, and crave it. I have quit biting my nails, but I haven’t quit wanting to bite them.
Nail-biting is a body-focused repetitive behavior, in the same family as hair-pulling, skin-picking, and cheek-chewing. As with all such behaviors, it can be triggered by stress or anxiety but is not necessarily in and of itself a sign of stress of anxiety. “These are all grooming behaviors in the animal kingdom,” said John Piacentini, professor of psychiatry and director of UCLA’s CARES Center for childhood anxiety. “Grooming behaviors are very, very strong instincts and patterns. We believe that these disorders are grooming instincts that have gone a bit awry.”
The behavior is particularly hard to curb. “There’s no medication, really,” said Piacentini. “It’s hard to monitor, and hard to prevent. Oftentimes, it’s done automatically. We catch ourselves only after we start it. So even if you are trying to stop, the horse is out of the barn before you realize it.”
On New Year’s Day 2020, I once again set myself the resolution of minimizing, and eventually eliminating, this embarrassing habit. It might be tough in an election year, I thought, but I’m now 45 years old and I have got to find a way. I tried a different technique: For the first few weeks of January I restricted my biting to one hand, my left, letting the fingernails on my right hand grow unmolested. This worked, basically, allowing me on the one hand to continue my habit while, on the other, seeing the positive effects of restraint. In February, I attempted a kind of gentle withdrawal practice: I allowed myself to put my hands near my mouth, even to put my fingernails on my teeth, but I did not bite down. I just kept my hand there until the desire passed. When my wife smacked me, I ineffectually protested, “I’m not biting!” She was right that it was still gross, but I was right that I wasn’t biting. Those moments of tapping my ever-longer fingernails against my teeth were, it seemed, what I needed to curtail my desire.
Right around the time of the year that I would typically relapse, the pandemic came. In those first months of the novel coronavirus, we were all obsessed with fomite transfer: the notion that the virus might travel from a surface to your hand and from your hand to a mucous membrane. We sang “Happy Birthday” twice while washing our hands. And we were suddenly hideously conscious of how often our hands touched our face. This was frightening but also, for a person in his third month of trying to stop biting his nails, very helpful. Specialists working to help a patient stop biting nails use a technique called “habit reversal,” which requires increasing awareness of the offending behavior. “You might wear a wrist weight, or a jangly bracelet,” Piacentini said, to alert you when your hand approaches your mouth. Now I had something even more effective than a jangly bracelet: a worldwide public health crisis and the fear of death. Plus, I was often wearing a mask.
As my fingernails got longer I rediscovered the little sensations and annoyances familiar, I suppose, to normal people with normal fingers. I kept stubbing my new fingernails painfully into things. Once, hands wet from their hourly washing, I tried to turn the bathroom doorknob and my nails dug into my own palm, leaving four bright red crescents in my hand. But I could also open a can of Diet Coke without asking my wife for help. “Your nails look good,” she said one day in April, after I—what was this devilry?—clipped them.
Perhaps because of nail-biting’s cartoonishness, it’s not that common a character trait in literature. F. Scott Fitzgerald made glamorous Gloria Gilbert an unlikely nail-biter in The Beautiful and Damned—she takes Anthony to the drugstore to buy gumballs in order to give herself something else to do with her hands. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph, the island’s last exemplar of civilization, looks in a moment of despair down at his nails: “They were bitten down to the quick though he could not remember when he had restarted this habit nor any time when he indulged it.” The implication is that Ralph had once bit his nails, shed the habit, and now—trapped by a plane crash, forced into a position of leadership—he’s returned to it. He hates it.
Over the past four decades I, too, could often not remember when I restarted the habit after deliberate attempts to wean. I would go long weeks without touching my fingernails and then, in an unconscious frenzy while reading a particularly engrossing book, mow my fingers short. And then I would berate myself at my inattention, my lack of self-control, and then shrug: If my fingers look terrible again, why not soothe myself by biting some more? “We see some of the same patterns we see in drug addiction,” Piacentini told me. “You feel those negative consequences, and then you use drugs to make those consequences go away.”
But as spring 2020 moved into summer, I was able to avoid relapse. I realize now that the very unconsciousness of the habit is what doomed it in 2020. The thoughtless absorption in a book or a TV show or my own writing that was the harbor for the habit in the before times was a rarity now, so occupied was I with the various ways that the pandemic was changing our lives. Finally, I was as inescapably anxious as my habit had always telegraphed, and in the midst of this upheaval, I found gentle comfort in the one tiny bit of continued control I was exerting over my life. Even during the stress of the election and the continuing stress of the postelection, I found it easier to not bite my nails than to bite them. “We are creatures of habit,” said Piacentini. “And we can start building the habit of not biting.”
I have reached the end of 2020, this accursed year, with fingernails that are serviceable. They bear the scars of years gone by—I will never have the dewy nail beds of a Jergens model—but they look … OK. And I’m not the only one to have shed the practice. Piacentini revealed bashfully that he had been a nail-biter for 50 years before he went “cold turkey” in March. “I think that, perversely, this was a good year to quit,” he said. He still thinks about it, still desires the habit—he sounded almost wistful as we bonded over the simple pleasures of worrying at a thumbnail—but he hasn’t bitten a nail since the pandemic took over life in America.
In a way, I am writing this essay for the boost of accountability I hope it will provide. I can see, at some future date, the likely possibility that I will bite a nail. At that moment I will have a choice: I can give in to the illicit rapture and relapse. Or I can find it within myself to stop at one finger, to wear that bitten nail like a warning, and let myself go no further. If you see me out in public—at the theater, I hope, or at dinner together indoors—please ask me about my nails, and call me on it if they look bad.
I don’t mean to brag about this achievement, exactly. But I am proud of myself. 2020 was not the year to measure yourself against your childhood dreams. This is not the New Year’s to bemoan the novel you didn’t write or the race you didn’t run. 2020 was a year to find triumph in unlikely places. Day by day, hour by hour, I succeeded at something in this awful year. You did too, even if it was just seeing it to its end without doing too much damage to yourself.
It was a nail-biter, but you made it.