I was five years old the first time it happened. I remember exactly what I was wearing: it was a pretty yellow swiss-dot dress. I was at Sunday School at our new church in our new town.
I was supposed to be doing a craft, something with cotton balls and gluing them onto a paper to make it look like sheep. Everyone else was almost done–but me, I sat there unmoving, holding a palm full of cotton balls in my lap under the table, hoping no one would notice me and what I had done.
There was blood everywhere: on my paper, on the table, on the cotton balls, and most indelibly, on my dress.
This was the first time I remember experiencing social anxiety, and it would not be the last time over the next forty years that I would make my fingers bleed.
If you do this, you know that it isn’t just a habit.
It is a compulsion. It might start with a legitimate cause: a dry cuticle to remove, or a hangnail. But from there, there is no stopping. There is something about the self-destructive act of picking at the skin around our fingernails that feels productive.
I can’t explain it, although I would love to be able. Why, when social anxiety strikes, do I suddenly become interested in my hands? Why, from there, can I not stop myself from destroying my hands?
There are seasons where the compulsion is less urgent, during which the skin grows back smooth and pretty, and there is no urge at all to pick.
Then, there are seasons in which I have literally lost my fingerprints, so much I have picked at my fingers. All the band-aids in the world could not stop me.
When I was very little, I used to bite my nails. I don’t remember when I stopped doing that, but I do remember my mother offering to take me for a manicure when I was maybe ten, if all of my fingernails showed a little bit of white growing. Maybe I stopped because the carrot of having someone else paint my nails was just that valuable to me, or maybe the habit itself just became too gross for me. It doesn’t matter. I did manage to stop biting my nails.
But I have never been able to stop picking at my fingers, even though my husband has been pestering me to stop doing this for the last twenty-five years.
When I finally had health insurance with my first real job, I went to a dermatologist for a weird mole, entirely unrelated to my hands. He didn’t think the mole was that weird, and I felt silly for even asking. But I did, for the first time, show someone my nearly fingerprint-less fingers and ask if there was anything that could be done.
He said, “It’s just a bad habit you need to break.” Thank you, Captain Obvious.
Of psychological origin
I have never intentionally sought help on the matter since that ill-fated question to a dermatologist, although people who care about me have brought it up, usually to a definitive “bristle” on my part.
My eldest scalawag has scolded me about it, about which I typically tell him to kindly mind his own p’s & q’s. My indulgent husband, as I mentioned, can tell when my anxiety is triggered by the state of my fingers. He has long expressed frustration that he can’t help me with this.
The problem is that no one else can help. No person can crawl into my brain when the anxiety starts and tell me that I will not be able to control the situation by destroying my hands. Because, let’s be honest, that’s what the problem is. It is a feeling of loss of control that triggers my anxiety. A fear of not being able to set proper limits and boundaries in the situation, and losing my ability to chose.
But it doesn’t matter if someone tells a socially anxious person that their coping mechanism is harmful and certainly not helpful. It feels helpful and productive in the moment, and it is in the moment that the socially anxious person needs relief and a feeling of control.
I know that there are people who have far more harmful coping mechanisms than simple finger picking. Far, far more harmful. But this one has always been mine.
When I started going to therapy in 2013, Georges, my counselor, asked me if this was how I was planning on destroying myself. What kind of question was that, anyway? He had noticed, when questions and topics would start getting too close for comfort, that I would start to study my hands. Then touch them. Then pick.
But he wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t brave enough to destroy myself for real, although I have had serious thoughts about it. But this, making myself bleed and erasing my fingerprints: literally, erasing the thing that made me unique on this planet, was a next best thing.
Putting words on the self-destructive impulse didn’t help me stop, although knowledge is power. I came to notice the surrounding context in which the impulse would take hold, and I could at least be aware.
Being aware meant that I could re-affirm my need for boundaries, and sometimes, simply re-affirm for myself that it was my right as a human being to establish limits and boundaries. This might not have stopped the bad habit, either, but it was an extraordinarily healthy step for my mental health.
A miracle cure?
No matter how hard I would try: sit on my hands, paint my nails, slather them with lotion, I just couldn’t give up the picking. It was, as Captain Obvious had said, a bad habit that I needed to break. This went on for years, a cycle of trying to stop, starting again, trying to stop.
That was when I came across, naturally, a social media ad. Now, you know how I feel about those. They are like cockroaches, like back when that same, temptress of a rainbow dress kept appearing across all my feeds.
But this one was different. This one was a testimonial, and it had, in capital letters, the words,
MY FINGERS HAVE NEVER LOOKED SO GOOD. wow.–eye-catching first sentence to a testimonial
I didn’t even really look at what the product was. I just read more of the intriguing testimonial:
I’ve been wearing this ring for a few months now and my fingers have completely healed up.
There was no way that this could have been one of the internet cockroaches. I had never, not ever once, Googled ways to stop picking my fingers, and had definitely not been looking at jewelry online. I’m not really a jewelry kinda girl. The internet cockroaches hit me with rainbow dresses and green dresses and zebra dresses, because they know me too well.
I showed the ad to my indulgent husband. He asked if I wanted to give it a try. It could be my Christmas gift.
What is it?
It is a ring. An anxiety relief ring. A little itty bitty silver ring with ten itty bitty teeny tiny little silver balls which move freely around the ring. It’s actually quite pretty, and that, coming from a girl who doesn’t love jewelry, is as good a compliment as I can give.
The ring arrived well before Christmas, but I was so excited by the prospect of perhaps finding the silver bullet that would give me my fingerprints back, that with my indulgent husband’s permission, I started wearing it immediately.
Those are my silly little fingers playing with the ring in the video. I have had it for almost a month now, and believe it or not, I have not picked at my fingers once in a month.
Now, when I feel that urge to fidget and pick, I just play with the ring.
How many times over the Christmas visit to my in-laws did I find myself anxiously spinning, spinning, spinning that ring and the little silver balls around my finger? My husband would catch my eye when he’d notice me playing with the ring and give me a knowing smirk.
But do you know what I never did have to do? Run urgently to the bathroom to get a band-aid because I had freshly made my fingers bleed, or discreetly try to clean the stain I had left on the tablecloth.
Me, doing what I never do
You know that I have just come off one whole year of not buying any clothes, and that I am absolutely philosophically opposed to encouraging people to buy what they do not need. I hate accumulation.
This is different. This has literally changed my life, and no one is paying me to say that. My husband bought me this ring, we paid our money for it, and it is among best thirty bucks we’ve ever spent.
If you, or someone you love experiences social anxiety, and if one of the symptoms is a low-grade self-destructive impulse like nail biting or finger picking, may I humbly recommend the LEVITAYT line of stress relief jewelry.
It may not take away the anxiety, but it can redirect the destructive impulse. For the first time in years I have all my fingerprints back at the same time, which, in and of itself is a miracle.
Update January 12 2022: By some immense twist of fate, the people at LEVITAYT got in contact with me after I published this article. They are offering readers a 15% discount on anything and everything in their collection with the promo code LILY15 until the end of February 2021! Try this!!!
In the Sing With Your Feet podcast, Lily is your Fairy Godmother and she takes you under her wing to show you all the ways you sparkle and make the world a better place. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts and don’t miss a bit of fairy dust!