This essay is the backstory for our song "Stringlyjack," which you can listen to below or over here.
In 2007 I read an article in The New Yorker titled “An Error in the Code,” by Richard Preston, about a rare inherited disease called Lesch-Nyhan syndrome that causes the people who have it to self-mutilate. At first glance, this genetic condition looks like cerebral palsy (a common misdiagnosis), but the telltale sign is a patient’s compulsion to bite his own hands.
If unrestrained, patients will bite their fingers and lips ferociously, sometimes entirely off. Their fingers are similarly hell-bent on self-harm; they may grab a fork and plunge it into their nose. They don’t want to hurt themselves—they can feel pain, and are terrorized by their actions—but can’t stop the impulse, which becomes more pronounced when they are nervous. People with Lesch-Nyhan, Preston explains, “feel as if their hands and mouth don’t belong to them and are under the control of something else.”
One of the neurologists Preston interviews, H.A. Jinnah, explains the disorder like this: “Lesch-Nyhan is at the far end of a spectrum of self-injurious behavior…. Many people bite their fingernails,” he says. “They’ll tell you it’s gross and that they don’t want to do it…. Now let’s turn up the volume a little… some people bite their cuticles until they bleed. Now let’s turn the volume way up. Now you have someone biting off tissue and bone.... Where, in this spectrum of behavior, is free will?”
I didn’t realize I too exhibited self-injurious behavior until a pivotal manicure many years ago. I rarely get my nails done, but some special occasion inspired me. I told the nail technician she could just ignore my lumpy thumbnails, which are ridged like a washboard, from base to top, with some ruts so deep the nail plate is drastically warped. My uncle once told me, not unkindly, that my thumbnails looked like the outsides of abalone shells. They have appeared this way since young adulthood and were always somewhat of a mystery to me.
“Nervous habit,” the manicurist said. “No,” I said, as a proud non-fingernail-biter, “It’s hereditary.” I explained that my dad’s nails are the same way, and that his grandmother’s nails were ridged too. “That means you all have the same nervous habit,” she said, clipping my other nails. Noting that the ridges were only on my thumbnails, she explained that I was using my index fingers to pick at the skin surrounding them, and pushing the cuticle back, over and over. She said the repeated assault damages the matrix, where the nail emerges, so it comes out in fits and spurts—charging ahead when it has a moment of freedom, holding back when the pointer finger is on the attack.
I had no idea I had been doing this, though at that point I must’ve been doing so for more than a decade. You can read my thumbnails like tree rings—identifying times of high anxiety by the deeper gulches. I later learned it’s called a “habit-tic deformity.” An article in the industry magazine Nails explains that for nail techs, the hardest thing about the deformity is convincing people they have done it to themselves. “It’s important to understand that though the condition is self-inflicted,” the advice column says, “the client often is not aware of the nervous habit.”
Enlightened, I decided that since no one else had ever commented on my habit tic, it was likely undetectable, and could remain my secret shame. Sometimes I attempted to thwart the bullying impulse of my index fingers by wrapping my thumbs in Band-Aids or tape, but nothing got my fingers working faster—they seemed to love a good challenge. It’s not that painful, more like a constant dull soreness. It stings to squeeze lemons. And it seems to bring some measure of psychological soothing, like worry beads might. If a photo catches my fingers doing their busy work it looks like I’m holding a yogic hand pose, a mudra.
But when I started dating Daniel, he picked up on my compulsive picking right away. “Why are you torturing your thumbs?” he asked, worriedly. I had no answer, because I had no awareness when it was happening. I wasn’t doing it on purpose. It seemed like something that occurred entirely separately from me—carried out by an unknowable part of me with a different agenda. Two months later I read Preston’s article.
Doctors Lesch and Nyhan discovered the syndrome in the 1960s, when they encountered Matthew, a young boy with neurological disabilities, who had bitten off parts of his own fingers. His grandmother and mother took his self-harm as a matter of course, wrapping his fingers in bandages and mittens. “The women had devised a contraption to keep him from biting his hands,” Preston explains, “a padded broomstick that they placed across his shoulders, and they tied his arms to it like a scarecrow. The family called it the ‘stringlyjack.’ Matthew often asked to wear it.”
I stopped reading for a moment. Stringlyjack. I said the word aloud—I wanted to feel it move across my mouth. It sounded like a Brothers Grimm tale, as produced by Tim Burton. It seemed like the device would be uncomfortable and embarrassing. But it made perfect sense—a liberating confinement. Although my compulsion is significantly less severe, I could imagine sinking into that sweet relief. I still think about the stringlyjack, and that young boy propelled by a genetic glitch. I think about how he begged to be strapped in, especially when my own fingers have gone too far, and drawn blood.