Conquering with Keen - Alyssa's Nail Biting Story

Conquering with Keen - Alyssa's Nail Biting Story

July 09, 2019

Alyssa is a 21-year-old LGBTQ+ activist and botany field scientist living in Arizona. She has been struggling with nail biting and skin picking for 14 years.  This is how she’s Conquering with Keen Awareness, in her own words.

Nail biting, skin picking caused by stress

My Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior (BFRB) manifests itself as nail biting (Onychophagia), skin picking (Dermatillomania) around the nails and cuticles, and scab picking. It affects me physically, typically with scabs, and almost always with short nails. Sometimes I don't realize I'm picking until I start bleeding. Sometimes it happens in intense situations like during a test or when there's a lot to do at work. The common factor is that I'm always feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and like I don't have as much control as I need to have over the situation at hand.

Like most people in my generation, I'm a child of divorce. My family rose from the lower/working class to the middle class during my childhood and fell back into the lower/working class around the time of the 2009 housing crash. Many people in my family, especially my mother, deal with severe mental illness and substance abuse problems. None of these things are to blame for my BFRB, but they definitely didn't help my stress levels. I hope that people my age can feel solidarity and feel seen by me sharing this much.

Emotionally, my BFRB has mostly impacted my self-esteem and self-worth. Women are held to impossible beauty and behavior standards in our day and age. I definitely think this impacted my BFRB, especially since puberty and middle school. There's a lot of external factors that I can't and couldn't have controlled about my life, my upbringing, and my past. I think the media tells us that even if we can't change our lives or our stories, the least we can do is show up looking our best and that will be our redemption in society's eyes (by we I mean women, men, non-binary people, people in general). That's a really toxic line of thinking and way of seeing ourselves that I try to unlearn a little more every day. can be pretty in whatever body you were given.

Finally, my fixation on my hands and nails probably originated from the fact that I have the brachydactyly type D mutation, commonly known as "toe thumbs / clubbed thumbs." I remember always trying to hide my thumbs in my fists and biting them the most as a kid. Since then I'm grateful to have learned that you can be pretty in whatever body you were given. You can even be handsome or invent your own type of pretty. Whatever feels right. Most people are too focused on themselves to notice anyway. Shout out to fellow nonbinary and genderfluid people out there that might be reading this. I see you and our mental and physical wellbeing matters, too!

Needing a Replacement for Replacement Strategies

I eventually became frustrated with trying to change my BFRB myself with replacement strategies. I used fidget cubes, but it was difficult to keep them with me all the time. I tried redirecting methods, but they were hard to stick to. My family would snap at me for nail biting or skin picking in front of them, but it always made me resentful and embarrassed. It's hard to say if they were truly rude, upset, or disappointed at the time or if I was projecting my views about myself. It took me moving away from family for a state-run boarding high school, then jobs and college to truly decide for myself that I wanted to stop nail biting. I wanted to stop skin picking. I wanted to stop hurting myself in this way. 

I first heard about Keen by HabitAware, the awareness bracelet, through the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. At the time I was also in a BFRB support group on Facebook that recommended Not Alone Notes, which is a website that mails free, handwritten letters to people with OCD to remind them they aren’t alone, encourage hope, and dispense resources. When I received my note I was thrilled and noticed HabitAware sponsored the note so I decided to explore their website and investigate them more.

After I received my Keen I trained it to notice my nail biting movement and my one hand cuticle picking motion. I use it by charging it every night (or every other night on good days) and I wear it tight on my right wrist, then go about my business. I feel Keen's vibrations for my nail biting motions mainly and it works really well for me. Some weeks are so good I'll go without my Keen for a couple of days. Now I've started bullet journaling and doing more visual art instead of nail biting. I still love my fidget cube, though. I like to think of my Keen and my fidget cube as superhero best friends in the fight against all my BFRBs!


Awareness Leads to Wholeness

My hands are a lot better now. My partner has noticed and so has my mom. When I visited my grandma earlier this week she remarked that my nails are the longest she's ever seen them. That made me so ecstatic to hear her say that! I know I make the people in my life proud in other ways, but there's a special sort of wholeness when the people around you are happy that you love and care for yourself. Especially with something that physically manifests, like nail biting. My hands and nails are by no means perfect now but they don't have to be, and I'll be ok if they never are. The important thing is that I know how far I've come on this journey. Even if no one but me notices, I'm proud of myself for trying new ways to cope and be mindful of my body and my BFRB. And I'm really glad I found Keen to be my guide on this journey.

...there's a special sort of wholeness when the people around you are happy that you love and care for yourself.

I absolutely recommend Keen to other people with BFRBs such as nail biting, skin picking (Dermatillomania), or hair pulling (Trichotillomania). Keen has helped me be mindful about my BFRBs. The little buzz (or strong, if you want it) on my wrist is just what I need to recognize where I'm at and where I'm going with my actions. It's much more effective than a nagging relative or a self-deprecating joke to yourself to make you stop nail biting or stop skin picking. I sort of disassociate when I'm doing my BFRB, and I've found this is pretty common for others with BFRBs via my support groups. A lot of people hate disassociating but personally, I love it (except for cleaning up the blood and wounds after, of course). I go to my happy place, sort of like when Squidward from SpongeBob SquarePants travels to the future and is ALONE in the white box room - but better. As I've gotten older, I realize that Planet Earth and the present is the place I need to be. The Keen bracelet is helpful in building mindfulness because it shakes me out of my BFRB disassociation before I go there - and can't get out.

...remember that you're not alone!

As for other Keen users, I'd recommend:

  • Use your Keen with mindfulness meditation and/or yoga. It will get you in the right head space of the mindfulness approach to BFRB that Keen provides.
  • Also, forgive yourself! Progress is almost never linear. Use the Keen app or a bullet journal tracker to track your progress and identify your triggers. Even if no one but you notices your progress, recognize it and treat yourself for it. Taking care of pets and plants has been a helpful distraction for me as well and has taught me a lot about self-forgiveness and forgiving others.
  • Join a support group either online or in person if there's one near you.
  • Overall, remember that you're not alone!

You are definitely not alone, Alyssa! We're here for you and anyone in our Keen Family!
Thank you for bravely sharing your story with our family.
Wishing you love, strength & awareness,

About Keen by HabitAware
HabitAware makes Keen, a smart bracelet that helps manage nail biting, hair pulling, thumb sucking, and other subconscious behaviors. Customized gesture detection brings you into awareness and helps you develop healthier habits.
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