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A 12-Step Program

April 9, 2012

12-step programs are all the rage, but I have never found one to address my addiction. I would have joined it long ago if I had. Many times I’ve imagined saying those liberating words of ownership: “My name is Chris, and I have chronic onychophagia.” But, alas, there is no Onychophagiacs Anonymous. Yet. And so, just as addicts in earlier centuries were, I am on my own to cure, endure, or succumb.

The shame of chronic onychophagia does not rest on the victim alone. The family shares the shame and faces the criticism of those outside. Accordingly it adopts a response by choice or default to the problem. Mine did. My parents tried to cure me, resorting to threats, natural remedies, and bribes; and when none of these methods worked, they chose denial, and we sank into the uncomfortable position of those who pretend the white elephant does not exist.

In the years since childhood, I have occasionally considered seeking medical help for my addiction. Unfortunately, I have learned that, whereas the medical community aggressively seeks methods to cure socially unacceptable addictions (i.e. drugs and alcohol), it largely ignores ones deemed acceptable or tolerable (i.e. gossip and slothfulness). Some addictions, such as gluttony, it’s true, have moved into a ‘gray’ area reflecting a shifting social attitude, but this heightened attention seems to reflect the growing economic burden to society (i.e. health care costs) rather than the emotional and spiritual burden to the addicts. And this leaves those of us suffering with ‘tolerable’ addictions (like chronic onychophagia) to battle them on our own.

It is my observation that where addiction reigns, sin is close at hand. Yes, I know that it is popular now to speak of the genetic predispositions that bring about addiction. They do exist, I’m sure. We live in a fallen world, and we have all inherited genetic weaknesses, even as we have inherited genetic strengths. But when that addiction “reigns,” sin is always present. The alcoholic who has succumbed to his genetic predisposition manifests that subservience through an excessive consumption of alcohol; the glutton manifests it through an excessive consumption of food; and the gossip manifests it through an excessive spewing of words. And that brings me back to chronic onychophagia.

Chronic onychophagia is the clinical name f chronic nail biting. It is considered a form of masochistic self-mutilation, and it is far more common that most people realize. It occurs in: 28% of children ages 7-10 years, 44% of adolescents, 20% of young adults, and 5% of older adults. Those who suffer from it often incur great pain, as their nail plates are damaged and their fingertips become overly sensitive. In addition, infections are prone to occur and can be spread through the mouth to the body.

My nail biting has been a source of embarrassment to me my entire life. It has not been something I have wanted to talk about. As I aged, I learned to bite my nails in private and keep my fingers hidden. Yet, the ever-present ache of overly bitten nails was a constant reminder of failure. Still, along the way, I accepted that failure and decided that I was best off neither talking nor thinking about it. I accepted that this was the way things must be and that I would never gain victory over my addiction until heaven. I had submitted to the reign of my addiction.

I have found that we Christians often approach our besetting sins in the same way. These are not usually obvious problems like nail biting. Often they are more insidious, like slothfulness, gossip, and gluttony. Most of us, when we became Christians, became aware of our sinful natures and saw the many addictions to which we were prone. Full of newborn idealism, we sought to work or prune away those weaknesses. We had some successes, usually in the more blatant cases – most believers seem to get mastery over drunkenness and drug abuse, and as we battled those temptations, we struggled to gain mastery over the less obvious ones, like gossip and gluttony. In those areas, we had some successes and some failures. And then, it seems, at least by my observation, that at some point in mid-age, we congratulated ourselves on our successes and accepted our failures. Call it tiredness, call it maturity, call it laziness, call it whatever you wish; but at some point, for many, the battle was abandoned and surrender was declared.

I am speaking of Christians who have grown tired, of believers who have forgotten the optimism of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit. In particular, I am speaking to Christians like me who have fought their “Romans seven” natures many years and have despaired of gaining real victory in this life. To those who have embraced a “Pie-in-the-sky-in-the-great-by-and-by” Christianity, to those who have surrendered, I want to give this word of encouragement:

By God’s grace, four years ago, I stopped biting my nails.

 

“Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

– 1 Corinthians 15:57

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