My nails pre-lockdown were long and strong enough to drum satisfyingly on a tabletop after a hard-fought two-year battle to stop biting them.
Once lockdown started, my nails lasted two days before I bit them down to painful stumps like an uncomfortable homage to Life As We Now Know It.
Not only was this disappointing – undoing two years of work towards anything, no matter how frivolous, doesn't feel great – it was also worrying. There's a pandemic going on, for Christ's sake; literally the last thing you're meant to do, save for hopping your neighbour's fence and giving them a bear hug, is stick your fingers in your mouth. But I just couldn't stop.
One day, while watching Friends, I came across an idea. As Chandler slipped into a deep sleep while listening to a stop-smoking tape encourage him to be "a strong confident woman", I decided to give the one thing I hadn't tried in my previous efforts a go: hypnotism.
Despite falling on the 'kooky' side of treatment options, there is significant promising research suggesting that hypnosis can be helpful in treating a number of complaints, from poor sleep to chronic pain to stopping smoking. A bout of furious googling brought me to Uncommon Knowledge, a specialist psychology training company which has been providing downloadable self-hypnosis sessions since 2003. Its library has self-hypnosis sessions on pretty much any problem you can think of, from tackling self-esteem in relationships to increasing self-discipline, conquering a fear of flying and quitting teeth-grinding. There are some to help you learn a musical instrument. And yes, of course there's one for nail-biting.
Each recording is created by four hypnotherapists or therapists and corresponds to issues that the practitioners involved have successfully treated IRL. The downloads are 15 minutes long and, far from being the type of hypnotherapy popularised on TV – all swinging pocket watches and some crackpot assuring the patient that they're "verrry sleeeepy" – hypnotherapist Mark Tyrrell explains it more as coming to adopt a "relaxed and focused state of attention, a little like daydreaming". You will still be aware of your surroundings but your attentiveness will be more focused.
"When in hypnosis, you're more connected to the instinctive part of your mind so you can retrain your unconscious to respond to situations differently and more successfully," he explains. It's often used in conjunction with cognitive behavioural therapy, which also aims to retrain your mind to adopt more positive thought patterns.
And so I have a go. I lie on my couch, press play and immediately question literally everything. I uncross my legs and focus on my ceiling fan as advised but struggle to shake the million thoughts I have about everything from what I'm going to cook for dinner to how the government's going to pay off the coronavirus deficit. It turns out that sitting (or lying) still, even under lockdown, is still an uncomfortable experience.
The voice on the recording is calm and soothing and while I don't at any point feel my mind slip into a new state of attentiveness, it soon becomes easier to focus on the practitioner's words rather than the voices in my head. The language he uses is intriguing: instead of "biting your nails" he refers to it as "biting bits off yourself". He encourages me to explore the difference between feeling the urge to bite and the feeling after biting. He asks that I imagine an emotional barrier between wanting to bite my nails and it being something I should not do.
After a few minutes he begins to compare my nails to citizens living under a violent dictatorship, explaining that they've never been allowed to flourish and live up to their full potential. For a moment I imagine my nails as North Koreans and I get distracted, hurriedly tuning back into the practitioner's follow-up instructions to imagine what my nails would look like were they allowed to grow long and strong.
Waking up at the end of the session feels suspiciously easy and I conclude I hadn't actually been 'under' at all. Later that evening I bite my right thumbnail down to a stump watching Connell's silver chain on Normal People.
Nevertheless, I crack on with the session daily. Some days it's hard, depending on how much stress I'm under. I get impatient with the recording, which I soon memorise, and I pre-empt the next part, willing the session to be over and chastising myself when it ends as I feel like I haven't taken it seriously. Other days, the session feels like a lovely relaxing meditation from which I emerge calm and quietly energised. Every day, though, I bite my right thumbnail until I feel pain.
What I don't notice until day five, however, is that I haven't bitten any of my other nails. Even the ones that have grown unevenly and catch on fabrics; even the ones with a tempting flap of skin hanging off the cuticle. By day seven, I use a nail file out of necessity for the first time since lockdown began.
Now on day 10, I have stopped biting the thumbnail as well. My fingernails are long enough to wear nail varnish without looking like a child trying to emulate her mother and I can (almost) drum my nails on the tabletop again.
I haven't done the session for a few days so whether diminishing stress or the focus on my nails allowed me to tap back into my pre-lockdown 'no nail biting' mentality, or whether the hypnosis really worked, I'm never going to know. But what I do know is that I'm going to try some other self-hypnosis downloads. Fifteen minutes a day to change hard-to-break habits of a lifetime? Seems almost silly not to.
Next up: stopping smoking. Watch this space.