Oh My, I Have Onychophagia!


Recently, our niece’s four-year-old asked me, rather innocently, what was wrong with my finger? Although I had no injury, she pointed to the index finger on my left hand, which was raw and red. I immediately understood what her concern was. You see, I bite my fingernails.

I guess I never gave it a second thought, just something I’ve always done. I can go long periods without biting them (I do own nail clippers, you know), but to be honest with you, I don’t pay that much attention to it. Of all the terrible things you could do to your body, this is probably way down on the list.

An “oral parafunctional habit” is defined as using the mouth for a purpose other than speaking, eating or drinking. This includes grinding your teeth, sucking your fingers, pencil chewing or mouth breathing—Geeze, I’m guilty of all those things from time to time. I’m still opening bags of chips with my teeth. According to medical journals, it starts during childhood, increases during adolescence and declines with age.

Except, mine never went away. As a child, I never had a pacifier, although both my kids had “nookies,” and I never sucked my thumb. But I can’t ever remember not biting my nails. It’s one thing to exhibit a specific behavior, it’s quite another to find out there is an actual name for it.

“Nail biting” is considered temporary and non-destructive, but after 50 years, it’s considered a “pathological oral habit and grooming disorder.” That doesn’t sound good at all. As a matter of fact, it even has a name: Onychophagia. Oh my, I’m not even sure I can pronounce that.

Here, I thought it was just a disgusting habit, like smoking, except it doesn’t lead to lung cancer. Now I find out I’ve been categorized, along with other body-focused repetitive behavior disorders (BFRBDs). You know, when you’re categorized and assigned a “definition,” that’s heavy stuff. Now there are symptoms, causes and even treatments.
In the old days, they coated kid’s fingers in a bitter tasting substance to prevent nail biting. I’ve never tried that, but then again, I never knew I had an actual medical condition.

I had no idea it was considered obsessive compulsive behavior. People mostly bite their nails during stressful times. Sports announcers call tight games “nail biters.” Biters usually do it because they are bored, nervous, lonely or hungry. I’m not sure what category I fall into, but ever since I heard of Onychophagia, I noticed how often I bite my nails.

Quite frankly, it’s frightening!

Like anyone, I’ve had instances where a nail broke and I had to do a quick oral “repair”—who hasn’t? You’re not allowed to bring nail clippers on an airplane anymore, you know. What more stressful situation are you going to get than that?

My wife has reprimanded me a few times when catching me biting my nails, mostly while I’m driving. Again, I seem to find myself doing it while watching television or at my desk, most of the times I’m not even paying attention.

I’ve never pulled my own hair or purposely cut my skin or done any other of those BFRBD type of behaviors, so I don’t see a strait jacket in my future, I just have a bad habit of biting my nails. I wonder if they have group therapy sessions for people with Onychophagia, you know, like Onychophagia Anonymous? They might meet in some church basement twice a month, serving coffee and doughnuts. “My name is Paul DiSclafani, and I have Ahh-Ne-Ko-Fay-Gee-Ahh…”

If you see me in a work meeting, or on a plane absentmindedly chomping on a cuticle, have mercy on me. I guess I’ll be alright, I just hope I don’t find out there’s a medical condition for picking your nose…

Paul DiSclafani, a Massapequa resident, is a 2018 Press Club of Long Island award-winning columnist and an Anton Media Group contributor since 2016.

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