Healing My Left Thumb
My left thumb is healing. Slowly.
I pick at the cuticle.
I pick compulsively at the cuticle even though I know I should stop. Any rough edges of the cuticle become fodder for a picking session. I will create a rough edge in order to have an excuse to pick at it. The slightly painful sensation is a pleasurable distraction from anxiety.
I pick when I am sitting at my desk looking at my computer wondering which project to tackle or which decision to make – the one that makes someone happy or the one I believe to be the right one for the business. So, more to the point, I pick while postponing confronting a person or situation that makes my stomach lurch.
I pick when I am driving. Yikes! Two hands on the wheel! I stopped when the kids were in the car, mainly because my son would point it out: “Mommy, stop picking!” I started wearing gloves when I drove. That was annoying. Now I place two hands on the wheel and breathe – commanding myself to focus on driving and not the incessant chatter in my head. It works for about a minute. And then I try again.
I pick when I am sitting still, because I can’t sit still. My mind races through my to-do/to-worry list as my hands fidget and pick.
I pick when I am standing in the kitchen, ostensibly preparing a meal, felled by some anxious thought until I shake myself back into the task at hand.
When my cuticles are smooth, I will find a rough spot somewhere else on my skin to pick at. Usually around my right ear. My hair covers my ear so you can’t see the damage. It is better than it was. The cuticle of my right middle finger is also a target. At its worst, my left thumbnail was so damaged and ridged that it throbbed in the middle of the night and I was afraid it would get seriously infected. I wore band-aids. This was effective if I didn’t use my hands or wash my hands. The best bandage was Band-Aid Ultra-Strips. They stayed put – so well that it hurt to remove them from the nail. Keeping my cuticles and rough skin patches moisturized helps. The best moisturizer for this task is ChapStick, neither too light nor too greasy. I got manicures. The manicurist would tut-tut and scold me for picking and try to fill my left thumbnail with ridge-filler. Manicures helped for the first few days after I got my nails done and are a recurring tactic for weaning myself from this ocd, addictive, self-injurious behavior, which apparently has a name: Dermatillomania. I made this discovery after reading Alexandra Heather Foss’ post about Trichotillomania in the NYT superb anxiety blog.
But manicures don’t fix the underlying cause of obsessive, ruminative, anxious thought and behavior patterns. Is it genetic? Definitely. I do not need any scientific proof to know this is true at the core of my being. My parents are anxious, risk-averse, cerebral introverts. My mother rubs her cuticles and cuts them with cuticle nippers all the time, resulting in thick, ridged 90-year-old nails. My father, who is arguably borderline Asperger’s, has a ritual for many activities and a well-thought-out explanation for each routine. My son picks his nails and my daughter likes the sound and feeling of her hair ends pricking her skin. What have I done to my children! How can I help them?! The tendency toward anxiety is genetic and the response to the anxiety in the form of nail-picking is modeled in the family.
Nail-picking must correlate with thumb-sucking. I was a thumb-sucker until age 11. My daughter was a thumb-sucker until the orthodontist forced her to quit cold turkey at 7. My son sucked a pacifier until he started biting them and they became a choke hazard. When I called to order a case of pacifiers, the telephone customer service rep asked me why I needed a case of them. I told her. She refused to sell them to me. Kudos to her. Cold turkey for him at age 2. One year, I created a chart and goals for us. After all, I optimistically announced, it only takes 21 days to change a behavior, to break a bad habit. We decided on what incentive we wanted when we achieved our goal of unpicked healthy nails: A Playstation for my son; a bed frame for my daughter; a Prada bag for me. They got their prizes. That was about 4 or 5 years ago. I am still waiting for my Prada bag. I don’t need the bag. I would be happy with unpicked healthy nails.
I don’t pick at yoga. It is perhaps the only place where I am able to still my mind and my picking. Here is how yoga works for me:
- I move inward, closing my eyes, paying attention to how my body feels. Usually, I tell my body what it should feel. With yoga, I listen to what my body tells me.
- I breathe. Slowly counting my breath gives my mind something to do besides dither, helping me to relax and to focus. Breathing and meditation have helped my perimenopausal insomnia, a profound relief.
- I enjoy being in a yoga community with other people who are contemplative and supportive. I have friends! (A big deal for an only child.)
- I listen to the teacher and her many directions. Concentrating on the poses and her voice gives my mind and my body something to do besides think and fidget.
- I learn that I am not my mind’s obsessive thoughts. I can observe my thoughts and begin to change them. I can observe my anxiety and choose a different, happier and more optimistic way of being.
- I become aware of habitual ways that I hold my body. I question why my right shoulder rolls forward chronically to protect my right breast and the tense pain in my neck that results. I stand straighter, more sure of who I am and that I am all right.
- I realize that I am not what I wear. I stop shopping compulsively.
- I savor the taste of food and eat mindfully. I eat less and enjoy food more.
- I learn that every step in the process is crucial and can’t be skipped. I slow down and stop grasping at achievement. The pose never ends.
- I make an intention on the mat to be more loving, honest and authentic off the mat. I do it.