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Gristmill: Head Games

Wed, 01/03/2024 - 16:48
A theatrical poster from early in the 20th century.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

I don’t know when I started biting my nails. Maybe it was about the time I became a coffee drinker late in high school. But come the new year, a resolution to stop doing so is a perennial mention as we go around the kitchen table staking out vows.

Straightforward, concrete, and comprehensible, as goals go, but far from easy. Not with all this time spent at the laptop, thinking, rethinking, worrying, screen-staring.

The jittery coffee allusion may be apt, if in fact it isn’t a contributor to the problem. Yet even that jones is one whose bonds I was able to slip, one summer in my 20s, simply because I didn’t like the idea of being beholden to the stuff. After a day of blinding headaches, I was free.

Only to shrug and once more pick up a cup when the weather took on a chill, but that’s okay, imbibing has its benefits.

With nails, they say if you could only see a video of yourself biting them, you’d stop. Otherwise, there’s Bite No More, that clear, foul-tasting liquid you paint on. I tried it once years ago. All I have to do is look at my chewed fingers to know it didn’t take.

Hypnosis, now that’s another matter. I had a sense of its efficacy because my father once worked as a counselor for a 10-year smoking-cessation study out of Boston University and it was one of the tools. 

My own experience? It flat worked. Going under, as it were, here in town almost 20 years ago, was a strangely intense experience — supine, the hushed and measured tones of the therapist, the loosened emotions rising to the surface like toxins to the epidermis in a deep-body cleanse. The stirring of the recesses of your lizard brain is close to disturbing, as your gray matter feels scooped, cradled, and then gently replaced.

And the stoned aftereffect is enough to make you question the wisdom of getting behind the wheel for the trip home. For that reason alone, I’m amazed hypnosis never caught on more than it did. It certainly beats self-medication.  

The only downside was that the staying power was measured in months, not years. But in all that time, I didn’t gnaw on so much as a raised pinkie. That I never sought it out again has to be attributed to fear. Who knows what might get conjured?

It’s like the secret to a successful marriage — as the World War II generation knew, some things just don’t need to be brought up.

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