We all have those little idiosyncrasies or habits that we can’t break. Do you twirl your hair? Pick at your fingernails? There are so many little tics and oddities in the world of the human behavior, that nothing seems all that strange. We all have our little coping mechanisms and physical manifestations of stress. I’m no exception.
I’ve had many odd body-related habits in my 30 years on the planet. When I was a small child, I’d pick at the skin around my fingernails and tear it or bite it off. When especially anxious as a child, I would scratch certain areas of my body, trying to get to some phantom itch, until I’d bleed. As a teenager, I’d lay in bed and obsessively hunt through strands of my hair, looking for split ends. When I’d find one, I’d pull it apart with my fingers. I’ve also been known to grind my teeth ferociously, or clench my jaw in my sleep during times of extreme stress or if I’m sick.
Most of these quirky (and sometimes painful) habits never followed me to adulthood, except one. I chew the insides of my mouth obsessively. Chewing my mouth is a daily, nay, hourly habit — one that I take part in from the moment I wake up (often I begin before I even get out of bed) to the minute I roll over to go to sleep. I have chewed the insides of my cheeks and lips for as long as I can remember. The skin on the inside of my mouth is rough, covered in patches of regenerating skin and jagged edges where I’ve bitten.
Upon waking, usually the first thing I do is feel around my mouth with my tongue to see if any patches of skin have grown back overnight. Usually they have. Once I find them, I’ll bite the new skin with my teeth and pull or tear it off. The act of tearing new, tender skin with my teeth is very enjoyable in a primal sort of way. I repeat this process until I’ve cleared away all the new skin, then the rest of the day is spent obsessively pulling, tearing and biting off any jagged edges or pieces that I left behind. Some people bite until their mouth is full of blood or covered in sores, but I’ve never done that. I just bite until the insides of my cheek are somewhat even with no new, loose skin. The people in my life are quite used to seeing me, at any given time, with the knuckle of my right-hand middle finger pressed to a spot in my cheek, gnawing away, absentmindedly making a meal of my cheek.
Chewing the insides of your mouth can cause problems. As I said above, it can lead to sores and ulcers, or if you bite too hard and draw blood, the mouth could become infected. It can also cause premature lines around your mouth (which I unfortunately have the beginnings of already). There is some question as to whether or not it can even lead to oral cancers, but this has not been proven.
Chewing the inside of my mouth is like second nature to me and just part of my life. It never really occurred to me that my habit could be related to a larger problem, like anxiety. It seems like common sense, now. I do suffer from extreme anxiety, and many of my past problems like the cuticle-tearing, teeth-grinding and scratching could also be related to anxiety and stress. Considering how many knots I have in my back and shoulders, it isn’t hard to believe that my body illustrates my stress levels through my muscles and skin. The chewing is just an advanced, complicated manifestation of my anxious personality.
The only time in my life that I was ever able to stop for an extended period of time was during my pregnancy. I’d be interested to read about why this is, but have found no information or studies that have examined the correlation between anxious-biting and pregnancy. My guess would be that it relates to the hormones in my body during pregnancy. All I know is that I did not absentmindedly chew my cheeks when I was pregnant, but a few months after I had the baby, I started doing it again. Interesting.
I’m far from the only person who does this, however. Lip and cheek biting/chewing is a lot more common that you might think. There are also people that chew on their fingertips, or pick the skin on their heels, or even chew on their tongue. In researching the biting/picking of skin for this article, I’ve discovered that it has been attributed to a specific disorder.
It is known as Dermatophagia, and is described as a form of obsessive compulsive disorder in which a person obsessively bites or picks at their own skin. Generally it manifests itself on the person’s fingernails, but it can also occur inside the mouth, focusing on the cheeks and lips (as well as the outside of the lips), a person’s feet, or other parts of the body. Suggested “cures” for this disorder include bad-tasting deterrents (like nail polish on the nails), mouth guards, or in extreme cases, psychotherapy. Sufferers of this disorder are affectionately known as “Wolf-Biters.” I kind of like the sound of that.
So now that I know this about myself, I’ve decided to break my 20+ year habit and stop being a Wolf-Biter. At the time of writing this, it has been only two hours and twenty minutes since I woke up, and I’m already suffering a bit. I can feel that new skin has generated on the inside of my cheeks, and my instinct is to bite, bite, bite. Instead, I’ve drunk twice as much coffee as usual, and am occupying my hands (since using my knuckles to press my teeth into my face is a major part of my biting) with typing. I have cinnamon gum on the ready. My goal is to try and stop chewing my cheeks cold turkey. I have no idea if this will be possible, since I’ve never attempted to quit before. When this article goes to print, it will have been four days and a few hours since I tried to stop. Wish me luck!
Are you a Wolf-Biter, or do you have an interesting/odd habit relating to the body? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.