November 20, 2001


I cut my fingernails as short as possible and have done so since childhood. I don’t know why I started doing this, other than that I liked how it felt, particularly a day or so after cutting. At a certain point I realized that I could cut the hardened skin under the nail, which made it possible to cut the nail further. Then I discovered that the hot water of a shower made the skin under the nail soft and puffy, which allowed me to cut further still.

I’ve cut my fingernails this way for so long that they’ve become freakishly short, perhaps a quarter the length of normal fingernails. They’re also oddly shaped, growing at the ends but not in the middle, which means that if I ever stopped cutting them, the corners would grow into the skin.

As a kid I had an overwhelming fear, a phobia, that one of my nails would be bent back. I don’t know where this came from. No doubt it concerned control, or the lack thereof, but beyond this I’m stumped. From my earliest memory I’ve cut my nails as short as possible, and for reasons that have always felt self-evident.

I’m often asked if it hurts. It doesn’t, because I’m careful. Once in a while (this is rare now), I go too far in one of the corners – invariably with a middle or ring finger – and draw a speck of blood.

Twice such cuts have become infected. The first time this happened I went to a doctor. After examining me, the doctor said that she needed to lance the infection, and offered two options: a local anesthetic via a needle, or no anesthetic at all. Both would hurt quite a bit, she added.

Bluntness, I feel, is a winning quality in a physician. I told her to skip the needle. She immediately pulled out a scalpel and made a steady incision halfway around the fingertip.

Earlier, as she examined me, she turned to the nurse and said, “Chronic such-and-such.” That hit home. I was doing something chronic to myself.

Having watched the doctor, I lanced the second infection myself, using a sterilized razor blade. It took some time to gather the courage to cut that deep. I would cut a little and stop, cut a little and stop.

The other thing I’m often asked is how I feel about it. I feel sad. Sometimes I look at my fingernails in disbelief. Why did I do this to myself? It’s not the worst thing I could have done – my fingers are perfectly functional, not counting the difficulty I have when opening pull-top beer cans or picking up coins from the floor – but it’s a stupid waste and an ongoing humiliation. An ugly part of me is forever exposed, right there at the tips of my fingers.