Sunday, January 8, 2012

Madly Magenta

One of the challenges I have confronted many a new year.
Here I am in my fifties, still plagued by the same bad habits of my teens. My habits are not particularly harmful to anyone else; certainly not in a direct way, but I know they are destructive to me.

Despite many attempts, I have not been able fully break the habit of biting my nails.

Over the years, I've put a lot of effort into conquering this vice.  I've succeeded in curbing it, but usually not for long. When I worked in Manhattan, and had the discretionary income to spend on manicures, my nails often looked great. After my nails were filed and polished by a professional, I no longer sought to chew them away. It was as if they had a protective coating that spared them from attack.

During those times, my nails would be beautifully dressed in "Misty Plum," or "Cherries in the Snow," or once-in-awhile, "Madly Magenta." 
These are not the colors of my 20s...these are today.
I would find myself leaving my hands perched atop a stack of manuscripts or posed on a desktop in someone's office, as if a camera would soon zoom in over my shoulder to catch their beauty.

It was a great fantasy. But then one moment when least expected, a critical nail would break. The rest of that day the ragged edge would call to me. Even if I resisted the temptation to bite, using an Emery board proved no better. My skill at filing was so inept, that soon the nail would be lopsided and reduced to nothing. It would look awkward among the beauty of the others and one by one, I would be forced to decimate the other nine. This would begin another cycle of biting that would take extreme efforts to overcome, more than a few months down the road.

There was a precedence for all this nail-biting. Somewhere around the time when I finally gave up sucking my thumb when I was ten, eleven, or twelve. Giving up the thumb proved a feat of true grit for me. I so enjoyed my thumb! Whenever I needed it, it was always there. It comforted me so. I had a way of sucking my thumb that allowed me to crook my index finger and use it to stroke the lashes of my left eye in a continual upward motion. Whenever I was alone as a child, this was how you'd find me. Thumb-in-mouth. Maintaining this soothing habit proved increasingly difficult as the years went by.

Everyone tried everything to get me to stop. The usual deterrents of soap under the nail or some iodine-like polish called "Thumb-suck" or something equally awful, didn't deter me. I washed off the soap and grew accustomed to the taste of the iodine. My parents kept saying how awful it was to see such a "big girl with a thumb in her mouth," because "big girls don't do that." They wanted me to stop, but I don't remember them harping on me about it. I do remember that job was taken on by my Uncle Johnny.

For whatever reason, my Uncle Johnny (whom I loved dearly) tried to scare, shame, or terrify me out of sucking my thumb. At first, he started a long campaign about my teeth:

I would have buckteeth pushing out the front of my lips.
I would stunt the growth of my bottom teeth and they would never come in all the way.
I would have to have braces and wires attached to my teeth and I would be in pain  
          the whole time they were getting straightened out.

"You don't wanna have buck teeth, do you?" he'd question me, but my teeth seemed fine, so I just didn't see it happening.

When the appeals to my vanity about how my teeth would turn out didn't succeed, he went on a barrage of name-calling. "Baby — that's what you are, sucking your thumb like that," he'd taunt. "I'll just have to call you ‘baby’ from now on." Though it hurt my feelings, the name-calling didn't stop me. I felt that really bothered him. I didn't suck my thumb at school, maybe because I feared that the kids would call me a 'baby.' But with family, I endured the ridicule because my sucking meant too much to me to give up.

The next line of attack was the worst as far as I was concerned and struck me with fear. My thumb, from all this sucking, was going to blow up and explode one night. At first, I couldn't think of how skin could explode, so I wasn't too worried. But then President Kennedy was assassinated and it seemed like 'explosion' of the skin was possible. I tried to avoid thinking about what he had said, but at night when the dark began to envelop my room, I tried to hide my thumb by curling it under my pillow. I worried if my thumb would be there in the morning. 

When I still didn't quit, the taunts escalated. "You'd better watch out," he'd caution, "somebody's gonna come in when you're asleep and cut off that thumb and you won't have it anymore!" Now this I took seriously. It wasn't that I imagined some stranger breaking in to do this terrible deed, it was that I could imagine Uncle Johnny doing it. And my fears of that happening were reinforced when assorted adults tried to intervene by saying, "Oh, Johnny, cut that out!" "Stop scaring her...that's enough!" It was precisely their speaking up that led me to believe that he was capable of such an act. I did the only thing I could to protect my thumb; I slept with it sucked tightly in my mouth, the one place it might be safe from harm. On the nights our family would sleep over at Uncle Johnny's house, this threat became very real to me. It was one thing to protect my thumb in my own room. It was quite another when I was asleep on the couch downstairs in Uncle Johnny's den.

I don't want you to think that this was all I remember of my Uncle John.

Despite the reign-of-terror regarding my thumbsucking, he was always good to me and my brother and sister. He'd pull pennies from behind our heads, blow smoke out of his ears, and sneak us tastes of the shish-kebab, hot off the grill. He always encouraged my schoolwork and praised my poetry. When I finally married at 33, he was no longer alive to see it. At our reception, I made a speech about how much I missed his being there and how much he loved us as kids. I don't think I mentioned anything about the thumb. Everyone reassured me back then that he only said those things because he loved me. I knew he loved me, but I grew up wishing he hadn't loved me quite so much.

When our twins were born, I tried not to project about the sucking issue. 

They were completely opposite in most everything. My son sucked his thumb briefly but soon found that almost anything else was more interesting in his mouth...pebbles, grass, lint, paper, screws, plastic playing pieces...these all gave me quite a scare. Sucking a thumb was much safer because it was attached. No matter what I said, he continued to put things in his mouth and I continued to worry. Even though he NEVER swallowed anything he shouldn't have, still it was a concern. One summer (when he was six or seven or eight) the driver of his camp van called me over at the pick-up to let me know that on the drive home she noticed something in his mouth. When she asked him to take it out, she watched in the rear-view mirror while he produced a marble that he'd been rolling around inside his mouth. And then another and another!  I thanked her for alerting me and congratulated her on spotting it, but laughingly assured her that this was something he'd always done, and so far, so good.

My daughter went through a brief period of sucking a pacifier. Most of my relatives urged, "Don't get them started with that pacifier-stuff," but I felt (from experience) that if they wanted to suck or needed to, I wasn't going to deprive them of it.

Though it was offered to both, only my daughter latched on to a 'passy' and then not for very long. When she gave it up, I was secretly relieved that I wouldn't have to worry about the likelihood of her having buckteeth.

Over the years, I've had some success with a nail-polish product that has that red GhostBusters stop signal superimposed over the words, 'Don't Bite It.' This stuff is so bad that it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth for hours. Perfect for me. It was my only hope of succeeding. At one point, I went into a panic because I couldn't find this product in North Carolina. I alerted my sister and girlfriends all over. Finally, my friend Lynnie in northern California, found the vile stuff. She sent two bottles and I as long as I kept using it, I would be able to grow some nails, get some polish on them, and look like a grown-up. When I fell off the wagon, I'd start the process all over again.

As had been done by other friends in other years past, for my birthday, my good friend, Michelle, gave me a certificate for a manicure and a pedicure. It took me two months to stop biting my nails and to redeem that certificate. For a few blissful weeks, I enjoyed the adult beauty of my nails ("Hibiscus Rose Creme") and left them lingeringly on display, every opportunity I could. But a stressful week stressed my nails...a chip here, a split there, soon signaled the end.

As I slide my thumbs over the ragged edges of these bitten nails, I'm once-again disheartened: about this nasty old habit that keeps haunting me and about my inability to control this vice. My only consolation is the knowledge that vanity has taken hold in at least one generation. As my daughter proudly boasts that her nails are longer than mine, I sigh with relief that for a moment, the insecurities of the mother are not yet visited on the child.


  1. I especially like the last sentence.

  2. This is an especially brave post. . . .

  3. Thank you Jules and MariaJennie...I did not think of this one as brave. In fact I've written pieces that I'm afraid to post. Perhaps in time...

    Thanks for the feedback!