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Last spring, I began an occasional series which I began to refer to as building my Soul Care Toolkit. I’ve never written an introduction or explained what I meant by it. Perhaps I will someday, but not today. Here’s my latest installment:

IMG_2551It’s called dermatophagia, a syndrome in which a person engages in repetitive biting, chewing, and picking of one’s cuticles. You’ve probably seen these people sitting in meetings, churches and other public places, mindlessly gnawing away at their fingertips until they bleed. Sometimes their fingers are covered in Band-Aids in an effort to conceal the evidence of their habit. I feel sorry for those who sit next to them in a classroom or place of worship. While these people seem completely unaware of what they’re doing, those surrounding them are subjected to their disgusting behavior.

I could post pictures showing what dermatophagia looks like, but they’re revolting. Photos are available on Wikipedia if you’re really curious. Or I could simply show you my hands.

Because I am one of these people.

I have no idea how, when, or where I began gnawing away at my fingertips, nor have I ever been officially diagnosed. The condition is described as being one of impulse control, possibly related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. The behavior is typically triggered by anxiety or stress, and I can attest to this being the case. During the seasons in which Jack Bauer was racing the clock to save civilization from imminent terrorist attack, my fingertips routinely resembled raw hamburger. Without my knowing it or even being aware, my fingers always seem to find their way back to my mouth until they became cracked, bloody, and raw.


When my nails are long, neatly filed, and I am wearing nail polish, I leave my cuticles alone. They begin to heal. For me, nail polish is a kind of mercy—one I need to keep packed in my soul care toolkit.

“Now wait a minute, Nancy,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t things like nail polish and makeup shallow and vain? After all, every kid who’s ever sat in front of a Sunday school flannel graph board has heard about evil Queen Jezebel, renowned for painting her eyes and adorning her hair. The makeup was emblematic of her caring about vain and worldly things instead of the things of God, right?”

Maybe. I am certainly no stranger to shallowness and vanity.

Here’s the thing, though: nobody told me if painted my fingernails, I would stop nibbling away at them. I discovered this by myself by happy accident. I noticed, time and again, when my nails began to grow and I began to care for them, my cuticles began to heal. Fortunately I happen to be one of those people born with strong fingernails, and I’ve always been able to grow a healthy set. Sometimes I pain them blue. Or yellow. I don’t know why this is the case; all I know is–when my nails are long and painted, I stop descending into one of the very worst versions of myself.

A number of my friends rely, similarly, on other things of this earth to check their own descents into places they’d rather not return. For some, it’s a sponsor who’s available anytime, day or night. Others are grateful for medications targeted toward a fearfully, wonderfully complex brain which, for whatever reasons, isn’t operating the way it was designed. King Solomon found relief in David’s music. Christ applied his spit to the eyes of a blind man and restored his sight. Some rely on the training and expertise of a pastor, therapist, or spiritual director, and many of us need a combination of these things.

These are not substitutes for God and His abundant mercy; I believe they are evidence of it. Because what but God and his elaborate love and mercy could stop me–could stop any of us–from descending into the worst possible versions of ourselves?

Around Thanksgiving, as the weather turned cold, my nails began to crack and split. I would be horrified to reveal a picture of my hands at present. The other day, however, I picked up a file and began reshaping the ragged ends of my nails, and applying a light coat of polish to them. The cycle of healing begins for me again, and I am grateful.

Other posts in the Soul Care Toolkit series:

#1: Yellow

#2: Lilacs

#3: Beach

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And, why not share my disgusting personal habits in community? With these folks: