Who knew that a fingernail clipper could be a symbol of mental health?
Late last week, I broke a fingernail.
On the surface, that appears to be the weakest lede of any story I’ve ever written. But before you scroll on by, understand that the breaking of that fingernail, on my pinky finger of my right hand, was a major event. It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever broken one.
That finger, along with the nine other digits that accompany it, had never grown nails. Well, to be accurate, they’ve grown, but I used to tear or bite the nails off before they ever got close to extending past my fingertips or run the risk of breaking.
In fact, I used to bite my fingernails almost down to the cuticle, ’til those aforementioned fingertips bled. That’s what anxiety can do to a kid. And my nail-biting habit persisted well into adulthood.
When that fingernail broke last week, I realized that I had not been chewing for weeks prior to that. For the first time in my life, my nails were extending past my fingertips.
As it turns out, I’d not bitten that nail or any of the others since mid-summer, when I finally decided to draw a line in the sand and set boundaries with members of my family of birth who have been unintentional (I hope) yet relentless sources of stress and anxiety. I’d travelled back to my native Detroit, and realized in interacting with some of the fam face-to-face that I’ve outgrown said fam members and said fam member’s DRAMA. So the breaking of that single, small fingernail was a sign that I’d freed myself of the shackles of other people’s stuff and the resulting stress and anxiety that it had caused me for decades.
I’d learned to practice, as Mariah Carey beautifully sang a few years ago, “the art of letting go.” It’s not easy to do, but if I know anything for sure, I know that nothing worth doing is easy. And you owe it to yourself to do it — whatever your “it” is.
My former nail biting has a clinical term: onychophagia. It is common among people who manage stress and anxiety, and can be associated with mental health conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), major depressive disorder (MDD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), oppositional defiant disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and Tourette syndrome.
That kind of stuff has become almost like small talk for me over the last year, as I’ve begun work helping to develop a phenomenal virtual platform called Brother Be Well, where “we aim to reduce disparities, remove stigma, heal trauma, and end prolonged suffering. We deliver Prevention and Early Intervention (PEI) education while increasing mental health awareness toward healing, treatment, and linkages to care.”
The new platform is funded by Sutter Health, Blue Shield of California, and the Sacramento County Division of Behavioral Health Services, and is a service of Mental Health California‘s.
Brother Be Well supports the behavioral health of boys and men of color: African American, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander, or Native American / Indigenous, and the LGBTQIA+ people who fall within one of those communities.
If you fit into one of those categories, sign up on Brother Be Well’s blog. If you love someone from one of those groups, share the site with him.
While I’ve learned how to manage anxiety and not bite my nails, my hypertension is no longer quite so…hyper. At my last reading, at the dentist’s office last week, my blood pressure was 109 / 74. (Normal is 120 / 80. My doc told me he’d be thrilled if I could get the top number down to 130 from a high of 188, when I was almost hospitalized.) I’ve lost a handful of pounds along the way, too.
Now let me get back to what I was doing: learning to use my new fingernail clipper, the first I’ve ever owned. I’ve never had to use one, so clipping the nails on my right hand, since I’m right-handed, might be touch and go.
But even if I accidentally pinch a fingertip with my shiny new nail clippers, it’ll be nothing like the gnawing I used to do on my fingernails. That was the old me.
The new one, this brother, is working on wellness.
This feature was first published with the Sac Cultural Hub.