At my fingertips? Nails.

Of all the sweet nothings that have been whispered into my ear, none can compare with the following: “Your fingernails are the most disgusting things I have ever seen in my life.”
Such was the observation of a nice woman who once worked in publicity for my publisher. She murmured this endearment as I was signing books on a sunny afternoon in Chicago. Apparently, her eyes had moved from my signature to the jagged, occasionally bloody strips of nail and cuticle at the tips of my fingers. And while I could have named a lot of things for her that in my opinion were far more grotesque than my fingernails — I have five cats, any one of whom is capable of producing a hairball on demand — I held my tongue. She was, alas, on to something.
For years I have gnawed at my fingernails, sometimes with the fervor of a wolf in a leghold trap. Nail-biting is probably not the most repellent thing a person can do in public: Nose-picking is certainly worse. But it’s not appetizing to watch, especially if you’re using a thumbnail as floss.
Over the years, I’ve tried to break the habit, but my willpower — which is excellent when it comes to things like ice cream and OxyContin — is helpless when it comes to the satisfyingly crunchy enticements at the tips of my fingers. Consequently, late last month I decided to see if I could break the habit as a sort of Almost-the-New-Year’s-Resolution. I called upon Kerry Skiffington, a clinical hypnotherapist with offices in Middlebury and Burlington. Skiffington has more degrees and letters after her last name than people find ways to mispronounce mine. She is also very patient, but it is worth noting that one of the first things she said to me was, “I like to handle medical issues. You know, blood pressure — not just fingernails.” This, of course, made me (ITAL)really(END ITAL) to want to bite my nails.
I had never been hypnotized before. My only familiarity with hypnosis was watching hypnotists make people do the Chicken Dance at the Champlain Valley Fair. Nonetheless, I wasn’t concerned that Skiffington was going to have me clucking like a game bird, and that I would discover the footage someday on Instead, I feared that I would be difficult to hypnotize. (Like many of my worries, this one was completely unfounded. “You were a piece of cake,” Skiffington would tell me when the session was over.)
The two of us chatted about my nails — when I snack on them, why I prefer them to pretzels — and then she had me recline in my chair and close my eyes. She talked to me in a calm and steady voice about habits and control and those tasty SnackWells at the ends of my fingers, and the next thing I knew she was counting slowly from one to five. A half-hour had elapsed. I hadn’t exactly fallen asleep, but the 30 minutes had passed in a blink. When I sat up, I felt as if I had just had a massage. I was sleepy and relaxed and very content.
People come to see Skiffington for a variety of reasons. Some hope to quit smoking, others to lower their blood pressure. She has helped clients lessen their allergies, and improve their study habits. Many people have come to her to shed weight. (Skiffington makes a distinction between losing and shedding. “You lose things you want back,” she explained. “You lose keys. You shed weight.”)
It’s been four weeks since I was hypnotized, and many of the times I’ve had the urge to munch on my nails I’ve restrained myself. My nails aren’t perfect, but let’s face it: A sequoia doesn’t grow in a day. My sense is Skiffington accomplished something, and someday I might not appall the people whose books I am signing — at least until they start reading them, anyway. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, I am very excited about one of the presents I found in my Christmas stocking: A folding nail file and fingernail clippers.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 30th, 2007.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “At my fingertips? Nails.

  1. Lucille Zimmerman says:

    Oh Chris, You and I share the same fingernail history. For me, it took going to school to become a counselor, assuming my life was just “fine,” emotionally unraveling, and going through two years of therapy! Hypnotherapy sounds much easier. Here’s hoping your new nail-look sticks.

  2. Are You A Past-Life Nail Biter, Too? says:

    Very interesting! I think you should now try some past-life regression hypnotherapy. I’m serious! Please believe that there is *not* an iota of sarcasm in what I write. Of course, I, myself, have Never tried hypnotism of Any sort. But I would….if I had the nerve, the bucks and also the honestly-and-truly *sincere* desire to lessen my consumption of sugary snacks. (For all I know, my deep love of cookies might very well be related to a prior lifetime I had, when I was burned as a witch….I mean, it Is *possible* that I was so traumatized by that wretched lifetime – and the even worse ending of it – that I now must eat all the cookies I dutifully stored in my freezer to compensate for eons of past-life pain). Anyway, it’s a theory. Best wishes to you on continuing to not bite your nails and – Happy New Year!

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