A real nail biter

Posted by David Smerdon on Dec 1, 2012 in Non-chess |

I have an addiction.  A destructive, nasty addiction that is unhealthy, unsightly and, apparently, incurable.

It’s a little unusual.  It’s not a food, or drink, or any other substance.  It’s not, contrary to what some of my snotty-nosed friends might claim, a debilitating dependence on fruit smoothies, or the Twilight series, or even internet chess – these are nothing but intrinsic desires to which, to be fair, I acquiesce quite regularly.

(Incidentally, a chess friend’s wife recently lamented to me that, while she’d never had any fears about her husband casting his eyes towards other women, she genuinely felt cheated on due to his internet chess addiction.  “Every other night I’ll wake up at some point to find the spot next to me empty,” she complained.  “Sure enough, he’ll be in the study playing that damn chess on the internet.  He sneaks out!”
Some people would call an internet chess craving immature, but I contend that such an addiction is rather the mark of sophistication and culture. On an unrelated note, can you imagine how irritatingly difficult it is to find a grown up companion in a PhD program willing to watch the last Twilight movie?)

No, my addiction is something quite different, and a little internet research even allows me to give it its proper name – apparently I’m not alone.

I’m a Dermatillomaniac.

Since as long as I can remember (at least from the age of four), I’ve been addicted to destroying my fingernails.  I used to be a compulsive biter (a victim of onychophagia, apparently), but my Dad quickly disciplined me out of that condition.  However, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish he’d gone a step further and banned me from touching my nails at all, because I’ve definitely substituted the biting craving with ripping, picking, and in every way compulsively destroying my cuticled clapperclaws.

It really is an addiction, by the way, even though I probably only realised it  as such last year.  I guess for a little kid forced to sit still playing six-hour chess games, it’s not too surprising that my fingers faced the brunt of my restlessness.  And even as an (albeit Twilight-loving) adult, the talons definitely don’t look their best at the end of a tournament.  So, at the start of this year, I included “Grow good nails” as perhaps the weirdest ever addition to my list of New Year resolutions (and regular readers will know how seriously I take the whole resolution thing).

But honestly, I’m at a bit of a loss with this one.  We’re into the final month of 2012 and the tips of my digits still look like I’ve attempted to hand-feed a pack of starved Tasmanian Devils.  I’ve tried everything – I think I’ve got nail files in every bag I own – but my inner dermo-demon always finds a way to thwart my plans.  I’ll try my best to consciously leave my hands alone, and then I’ll be in class, listening intently to the lecturer prattle on about evolutionary game theory or some such topic, and before you know it I’ll feel a little warm trickle roll down the side of my fingers.  And I’ll look down, and sure enough, while my mind has been intently focused on economics and math, my sneaky little tentacle terrorists will have ripped the cuticles to the point of pain, leaving a bloody, raw mess in their wake.

It’s amazing: I can play high level chess for weeks at a time and study complex mathematics 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but I don’t have the self dedication to stop playing with my hands.  And I really have tried everything I can think of.  Most recently, I’ve tried distracting myself in class by putting pens in each hand and forcing myself to practice pen-flipping tricks.  So concentrated was I in my last microeconometrics class to keep my focus on the pens and off the nails, that I accidentally flicked the pen onto the lecturer’s shoe.  I take these things seriously.

Fortunately, it turns out I’m not alone (although, with the advent of the internet, it’s hard to believe anyone really has a truly unique idiosyncrasy anymore).  There are even CSP support groups – that’s Compulsive Skin Picking, in case you were wondering, but I’m not sure if I want to be lumped together with the whole assortment of chest, arm and eyebrow pickers.  Those guys are crazy.

But apparently dermatillomania is a real, well, something, and from the internet reports I can find, “..often results in shame, guilt and remorse”, “…suggests the patient has a form of obsessive compulsive or impulse control disorder”, “…results from a psychological need for an individual to anchor themselves in the present”, and “…in the case of men, is often linked to eating disorders.”  Yikes.  Although, given how bad my nails taste, I’m not sure FingerFreak.com has got this exactly right.

(Note: Stay away from googling medical conditions online. It brings nothing but trouble.)

Not surprisingly, nothing online seems to offer any sensible remedies.  (Note: Stay away from Yahoo Answers as well, unless you really need to be entertained.  Some of the more precious questions from users discussed there include, “Why doesn’t the earth fall down?”, “How can I make 2+2 equal 5?” and “HOW DO I TURN OFF CAPSLOCK?”.)

In fact, probably the most useful piece of advice I’ve found to date is a blog post from some random dermatillomaniac (I just like using that word, really), stating that she finally cured her addiction when she bought a smart phone.  In short, my fellow anonymous sufferer sums up her inspiring story with:

“Anyway the upshot is because my fingers are always tap tap tapping and swipe swipe swiping, I now have unchewed normal looking nails.”

Somehow, this seems like an unnecessarily abstract (not to mention expensive) solution.  And yet, with 30 days to go until my resolutions are to be held to account, desperate measures are required to meet my day of reckoning.  It’s going to be – oh yes – a nail-biting finish.


Dec 2, 2012 at 3:07 am

Wear gloves.

Peter (not that Peter, the other one)
Dec 2, 2012 at 5:06 am

Maybe Ricky might have some advice?

Rick Ponting
Worst habit: Biting fingernails

We might be in for a nail-biter here in the cricket vs Sth Africa. And it’s Ricky’s final innings, so doubt, he’ll be fighting tooth and nail!

Peter (not that Peter, the other one)
Dec 2, 2012 at 5:07 am

*no doubt

Peter (not that Peter, the other one)
Dec 5, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Following on from anonymous’s suggestion

Dec 16, 2012 at 5:55 am

Entertainingly annoying stuff. (Or is it annoyingly entertaining?)

Biting the nails is a lot easier, cayenne pepper on the fingertips cured that one as a kid.

I really do think coming up with an alternative distractor is the key, like the smartphone lady.

Also, anytime your mind is calm and centered, that helps. Of course, work/school usually disrupts that.

Gloves aren’t a good option if it’s not winter and will also make you look weird if you never take them off, regardless.

Robert (Manhattan)
Dec 20, 2012 at 4:15 pm

CNS Spectr. 2009;14(7):357-360

Nail-Biting Stuff? The Effect of N-acetyl Cysteine on Nail-Biting

“Many findings in psychopharmacology are a result of clinical observation of serendipitous findings; this pattern is repeated in this case series. Pathological nail biting is a disorder that begins in adolescence and is regarded as a disruption of normal grooming behavior.

This case series describes a reduction in nail biting reported spontaneously in the context of a clinical trial of add-on NAC for the treatment of bipolar disorder. It is noteworthy that nail-biting was not a target of intervention in this trial and no behavioural suggestions were given that nail-biting, or related behaviors, may be impacted by NAC treatment, reducing the likelihood of the observations being a halo effect….”


Professor Michael Berk, MBBCh, MMed(Psych), FF(Psych) — I guess all those extra letters can matter — is probably the greatest expert in the world on N-Acetylcysteine…and he lives in Austraila!


The study cited above was published in 2009. Since then many more studies have been published that establish N-Acetylcysteine — sold in the USA as an over-the-counter nutritional supplement — as a very promising intervention for a wide range of issues reflecting oxidative stress and diminished levels of the body’s principal antioxident, glutathione.

See: http://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?term=n-acetylcysteine&Search=Search
…for examples.

IMO, the stuff is very likely more effective when taken with the methylcobalamin form of Vitamin B-12…as there is the suggestion that B12 is not well absorbed into tissue in the presence of oxidative stress and inflammation.

Indeed, here’s a case of OCD (with low levels of B12) that was refractory to methylcobalamin by itself.

Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2012 Sep;34(5):578.e7-8
Cobalamin deficiency presenting as obsessive compulsive disorder: case report.

If, like many chess players, you’re a night owl, there have been variable reports of benefit (mainly in Japan) for circadian rhythm issues. However, there were reports that it at least made subjects feel better on awakening, along the lines of this German study:

Neuropsychopharmacology. 1996 Nov;15(5):456-64.
Effects of vitamin B12 on performance and circadian rhythm in normal subjects.

Good luck.


(Who still carts around a mid-level USCF chess rating (around 2100), but that was back in 1972 before the rating inflation)



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