Into the Pool

When I was about seven, my daddy told me to stop biting my nails. So I did. But as is often the case with a human trying to quit an addiction, I exchanged one bad habit for another. Instead of biting my nails, I started pulling out my eyelashes. When Daddy noticed that most of my eyelashes were missing, he got sad, and he begged me to please stop pulling out my eyelashes. So, I went back to biting my nails. I bit my nails for nearly a decade and a half.

There were times when through willpower, I let them grow temporarily, in preparation for a school dance or for my wedding. But when the big celebrations were over, I’d go back to biting again. I never bit my nails until they bled, but I did bite them short. Occasionally, I even bit my toenails. But let us not get into that.

When I was 21, I was adjusting to married life and life in an apartment in a new city–Austin, Texas. I was taking classes at the University and working part-time in a child-care program at a large church. One day that year, as I was driving home from work, I looked down at my hands, and to my surprise, I saw quarter-inch-long white tips on the ends of my fingernails. Without trying, without even noticing, I had quit the habit. I had stopped biting my nails. I haven’t bitten them since.

I had never asked myself why I bit my nails. I had not learned about trauma or grief or anxiety or addiction. Back then, if you had told me that I had experienced trauma, I would not have believed you. Trauma and denial often go together, and I was in denial of my own trauma. I knew I had nervous energy; I knew I had a bad habit. I did not know that I needed healing. I did not know that I needed community. I did not know that I needed a splash in the holy waters of a swimming pool.

“I did not know that I needed healing. I did not know that I needed community. I did not know that I needed a splash in the holy waters of a swimming pool.”

On that drive home from work, when I saw those pretty white tips at the ends of my fingers, I asked myself, how did this happen? How had I stopped biting my nails? As I kept driving and thought it over, I realized the answer, and I smiled down at my fingers, thankful and amazed. The answer was that in our free time, Brad and I had been hanging out with Mike and Fiona, a couple we had met at church. We clicked, as we said in the 90s. Fiona had grown up in Australia, and I had grown up in three states in the South, but when I met her, I felt like we had been friends since childhood. We are friends to this day.

On Saturday nights, Mike and Fiona and Brad and I  played a card game called 500. We played for hours, sometimes until three or four in the morning. We ate together, we laughed together. We drank sweet tea, we talked theology, we prayed out loud. Mike and Fiona introduced us to other couples, and we clicked with several of those friends, too. 

One time, Brad and I, and Mike and Fiona took a late-night, after-pool-hours walk to a community pool, and Mike and Brad and Fiona all jumped in. I refused. I was a rule-follower and a goody-two-shoes, so I stood there like Eustace Scrubb from the Chronicles of Narnia, probably with my arms folded and my face scrunched up, worried that a security guard would discover us and kick us out and make us feel ashamed. I may have bitten my nails as I watched them—I don’t remember.

“I stood there like Eustace Scrubb from the Chronicles of Narnia, probably with my arms folded and my face scrunched up, worried that a security guard would discover us and kick us out and make us feel ashamed.”

I do remember that I didn’t stand there for long. Mike and Brad climbed out of the pool, rushed towards me, and pushed. The next thing I knew I was in the water, laughing. I don’t know if this was the moment that I stopped biting my nails, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. One thing is for sure, though. After I had found friends who loved me in spite of myself and in spite of my fears, and loved me enough to hang out with me for hours and hours, talking, listening, laughing, praying, I had stopped biting my nails. I needed friends who wouldn’t leave me alone at the edge of the pool. I needed friends who knew just when to push.

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