There is a photograph of my extended family from 1993, celebrating my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. I am four years old, sitting in the front, fingers shoved into my mouth. If photos could move, there would be flecks of nail grinding between my teeth, spitting towards the lens like brittle fireworks.
My mother painted my nails to make them taste sour, bitter, hot, hoping that would quell my desire to tear the cuticles from their neat little beds with my fangs like a wild dog, blood streaming down my chin and fingers. All it meant was that I stopped biting and started picking, looking for sharp objects to aid me. The compass that helped me draw perfect circles in maths class moonlighted as a weapon of self-destruction. I pushed it underneath my nails and watched small specks of blood pool around its point, and then began to excavate.
When I was seven, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which mostly manifested in traumatic visions that made me scared to close my eyes, and steered my fascination with systematically destroying my body. I picked and bit my fingernails and my toenails and I was not content until there was nothing left. I ripped the skin away to see what was underneath. I let my nails grow and then I tore them to pieces. I built just so I could feel the sick satisfaction of breaking.
Once, I went to a science museum in Edinburgh. A large microscope sat in the middle of the room, promising to blow anything up to hundreds of times its size. I gingerly placed my hand underneath the microscope, and looked up and saw what I had been creating all my life: a hideous mess, all dried blood and half-masticated skin barely hanging on by a thread. “That is so fucking gross,” I said to my best friend as we both stared at the screen. I thought maybe the shock of seeing the mutilated hell I had spawned up close would help me kick the habit. It didn’t.
Once, a manager pulled me aside at work. “I’ve noticed you bite your nails a lot,” she said. “It’s not very professional when you do that in meetings, and it is very distracting.” From then on, I was acutely aware of her disapproving gaze whenever my hands went anywhere near my mouth. It was easier to sit on them so I couldn’t do anything at all, or discreetly chip away underneath the table where no one could see. I got fired from that job.
Once, I dug at a nail that looked like it was coming apart. I picked at it in the cinema and squeezed my finger when it started bleeding, shoved it into my mouth so my friends wouldn’t know. Afterwards, we went to the convenience store and I paid four dollars for a pack of Band-Aids so I could hide the evening’s work before we caught the tram home. Alone in my room, I burrowed deep into the skin underneath until the entire front eroded and I was left with blackness. The nail never grew back, not properly anyway.
I write in the past tense as if this is not an affliction that continues to plague me, as if my annual resolution to stop biting and picking my nails has ever been successful. I am twenty-seven years old and still I cling to this habit like my oldest friend, one I love and hate at once. I clench my fingers to my palms so people can’t see them. I don’t let lovers look at my hands. I envy people who can paint their nails in pretty colours. I rarely wear open-toed shoes. I carry the secret around with me like a weight.
It is only lately that I have come to recognise this hypnotic, meticulous destruction as a manifestation of self-loathing, a desire to make myself invisible by erasing the physical. It is the strange space between obsessively controlling what happens to my body, while being unable to control the compulsion that makes me do it. It tells the story of a girl who thinks that she is, at once, too much and not enough.
I pick and scratch and tear until the fatty tissue on the skin around my nails begins to bulge, fetid yellows and pinks and reds, and then I hold a tissue against it until it stops weeping, and I say I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, and I wish I was a better friend to myself.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer based in Melbourne. She writes a regular column for Daily Life and has had her writing featured in publications including Rookie, frankie, The Lifted Brow and i-D.