One afternoon during my freshman year of high school, I decided I would start biting my nails and see where it took me.
It was an adventure, if you will. I was a girl at a private school in Seoul, clad in a navy blue and beige uniform, dress shoes and pantyhose, who had little to worry about but her future. She didn't even have to think twice about what to wear to school each day.
Each day was regimented. With classes beginning and ending at the precise times they had been slotted to begin and end on; carpools lined up for when we all got out of school at 10 p.m. and needed to be taken to SAT prep somewhere in Gangnam afterward; school cliques formed not only based on common interests, but also academic and extracurricular performance. Goals and achievements formed my life. What's more, I was reminded more than once each day of how important poise was to society's receptiveness of a person. Composure. I don't know if it was the immense pressure we all were suffering under at Daewon or the Korean culture as a whole, but if you completely lost your shit at school, peers and faculty were less likely to try and understand. Instead, they were quick to spread rumors, criticize, hurt, shame, burn, ostracize. That person is fucked up, but not me, and not my friends. Just that person is fucked.
All that aside, during this time I began, innocently enough, to bite my nails. I didn't think much of it. I was a girl just as filled with ideals and fantasies as anyone else. I sat in class as I began what was to be a seven-year-long procedure. First came the pointing finger. I discovered it to be an art form. Getting the angles right was going to take practice. Then it was the middle. Then the ring finger. Then the pinky, but the pinky was sensitive, so I skipped it sometimes. The thumb came last because it felt right that way. Sunlight poured into the classroom.
Maybe this would later develop into a habit, perhaps shape me into a more interesting mold? Sure enough, soon I had no more nails to chew on. I had tackled them all. I began to weigh my options. Feet were out of the question. Friends' fingers would be overstepping many boundaries. I wished they would grow back quicker. I discovered many of my teeth weren't sharp enough to gnaw. I moved onto my cuticles. Hey, this isn't so bad. I liked the way the bits of skin felt, wedged between my teeth. I could easily stop this if I wanted. Why, you ask? I could easily retort back, why shouldn't I? It has nothing to do with you.
Reality is, I cannot begin to explain why I do this still. Sometimes, I'm at it for hours at a time, at work, on a train, before sleep. Bags of unused nail polish sit in my vanity cabinet. I pretend not to notice.
On Feb. 10, 2014, after seven years of nibbling, I sat, now an intern at a satire publication, at my office desk in downtown Chicago. Ten minutes before a meeting. Or was it 30 minutes after a meeting? I remember Google.com staring back. I decided to ask some questions. My raw fingers typed "biting skin around nails." My raw fingers wondered if anything out there would commiserate. My mind flashed back to the times I’d been given strange looks at airports, especially at Immigration. Or at the DMV, when I needed to renew my identification. I noticed spots of dried blood stuck to the keyboard.
I learned that I had something called Neurotic Excoriation, also known as Compulsive Skin Picking. That’s funny, I thought. Looking this up had also been a compulsive decision. It was proven to be a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Other people had it. Many people had it. I looked at photographs of hands that at one point looked exactly like mine. Blotchy, varying shades of red colored the tips of their digits.