Sitting here, facing a blinking cursor on a blank page, the nail of my ring finger robotically picks at the nail fold of my thumb like a metronome. After I get a bit of traction in the flesh, I switch to the sharper tool of my first finger, which is slightly serrated thanks to a sloppy bite a few hours back, or perhaps yesterday. I don't need to look at my hands to work an itch; I know exactly when I've cut too deep or pulled too hard. I know what it feels like to bite into a nerve. My first memories of pain came from these fingertips; I can trace the valleys of a cuticle blind.
Chewing on my fingernails is my oldest vice, the first habit I could never break. My parents naturally tried to intervene, making me wear gloves, covering my nails in foul-tasting gunk, and warning me that I'd break my teeth if I didn't quit. Nothing stopped me then, and I see no realistic end in sight. My cuticles are a wasteland, my nail beds exhausted from the endless cycle of self-destruction and regrowth. I have left a thousand tiny bloodstains scattered across the world. The satisfaction of yanking a ragged hangnail free is simply too great; that sharp pain of loss and the vacuum of release was my very first drug.
My fingernails were only the beginning, of course. My nicotine receptors have now been howling mad for hours. I have holes in my soles and sometimes spend more money on gas than rent. The memory of a joint I smoked in the parking lot is still clouding my mind and clinging to my hair. My iPhone sits silent beside my MacBook, the screen black as a mamba coiled to attack and distract. I've been amplifying my heart rate with coffee all day, but I'm nearly due for the switch to wine. My habits are stepping stones in the river of time.
I have grown into my addictions like skin, and wear them as such, not with pride, but indifference. I no longer hide my halo of smoke, and have watched, dumbly detached, as my teeth incrementally yellow. I lean into my caffeine jitters and walk the streets with bloodshot, hungover eyes. Hiding my habits isn't an option, as I commit crimes against my own good health in public view, stupidly defiant, shouting into the void with Vonnegutian cynicism. In a world gone shallow, there is some honesty to be found in our self-inflicted scars.
There are parts we show and things we hide, but that line is drawn differently by everyone. Of course, there are also those things we can't reveal even if we tried. You may see me whiskey lounging, cigarette in hand, carelessly calm, but you will never see my ashen lungs or pockmarked liver. I can see the $200 jeans and the newest phone model bulging in someone's pocket, but I won't see the empty bank account or inexplicable sense of dissatisfaction. You might envy the photos from a mountaintop, but not the calloused pacing behind closed doors, the sleepless sweat of long nights that make hiking more of a fight-or-flight response than a seasonal hobby. You will hear the anonymous ding of a notification, but not the silent drop of dopamine as someone slides their phone obediently into view.
Witnessing addiction in its variegated forms, and experiencing it in ourselves, involves (and conflates) more emotions than we like to admit—pity, self-loathing, anger, joy, desperation, determination, stubbornness, depression, stupidity, judgment, superiority, arrogance, ecstasy... These slowly get tangled in our heartstrings, knotting together like a noose, growing ever more difficult to separate the strands. It becomes harder not to qualify yourself, to try and distance your mental state from the masses, to settle on a—“Well, at least I'm not...”—step in the flimsy hierarchy of your own perspective.
The effects of the actions themselves—drinking, smoking, fucking, snorting, tweeting, lying, shopping, eating, stealing, jogging—can manifest over a lifetime, but also sucker punch you as a terminal diagnosis, or as a cop kicking down your door. Some of the consequences have been shoved down our throats and into our family rooms by awareness campaigns—anti-this and pro-that—or perhaps by those closest to us who have fought and lost the same battles. However, most of the stains left by addiction are hard to identify, or warn against, or fetishize. They spread like glaciers, imperceptible but inexorable, slowly altering how we spend our time, energy, money and attention. Even if I know the risks and have read the science, even if I recognize the daily burden on my mind, even if I see the damage being wrought, that tangle in my heart reaches up to grip my throat, and is relieved only by a drag, a drink, a like, a purchase, an orgasm.
My thumb is bleeding now, as even the recollection of vices is enough to stir an unconscious nibble. I suck hard on the cuticle, wishing that the taste of copper made me vomit, or that the sight of my insides alone made me collapse. On the contrary, like the good Pavlovian case study I am, my neurons have been unplugged and reshuffled, linking satisfaction to blood, and pleasure to pain, urging me to choose short-term release despite long-term discomfort. For a logical human, one bent towards self-awareness, the cognitive dissonance in observing one's addictions is maddening, but having a flexible mind is not the same as having a strong will.
No... nothing will be learned from this latest rending of my flesh, this anxious evening indulgence. Nothing will remain but the faint taste of iron on my tongue, along with new wounds for my body to hide and my lizard brain to forget.