**Trigger Warning** Brief mention of self-harming behaviors, self-mutilation, and OCD**
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.
228 replies on “Confessions of a Wolf-Biter”
Late comment is late, but I wanted to add that Erika Moen has a great strip on her struggles with trich- dermatillomania, specifically. You can find it here.
I do the cheek-biting thing, but not until the point it’s harmful. (My poor legs, on the other hand, will probably never be the same.)Â I suppose, until now, it never occurred to me that it’s not something everyone does. Congrats on stopping cold-turkey.
Thank you! So far so good, but I don’t have any doubt that it will manifest some other way. You can’t stop a 20+ year habit cold turkey without something happening. I know myself too well!
I’m a picker. My legs are in a terrible state right now from a handful of bug bites and razor knicks that I compulsively pick at. And blemishes on my face… forget about it. I also can’t help but pick and chew at my the skin around my fingernails and toes (just picking there, no chewing). When I feel I’m especially out of control with it, I ask my husband to point it out to me, which he’s glad to do, as it annoys him to no end. I was a nail biter as a child, which I’ve mostly moved past, but I chew nailpolish off once it start to chip and peel… which I’m sure is totally healthy and not cancer causing at all [/sarcasm].
I’m a picker, too. Â I hate it.
Trichotillomania, here. Â My Â poor hair. Â It never really goes away, but it’s much worse in times of stress. Â The worst part is that the hair takes six months or longer to grow back. Â I’ll be completely over what was stressing me out so much, and then a nasty cowlick will spring up out of nowhere to remind me of what was wrong.
I do definitely bite and pick at loose skin. My target of choice is my scalp, but it’s definitely very mild and was much worse when I was a child. To a certain extent it’s just a benign coping/distraction mechanism (grooming behaviour gone awry) but definitely it has at times tipped over into self-destructive behaviour.
Nice to know I’m not alone. I once had a doctor ask if I was doing intravenous drugs, my arms looked so bad.
I did this something terrible as a child, but the dentist only commented on it once. Now, after years of therapy for OCD and anxiety (along with hand washing and chewing skin off my cuticles), I don’t do it as often, though I’ve moved on to chewing my lips. I wish you luck, I have resigned myself to chewing or picking or all kinds of weird rituals.
I’m a nail biter. And a cuticle-gnawer. And a scalp-picker. Have tried and failed to break all three at various points.
I used to bite my nails as a kid, then eventually was able to stop when I took up the guitar and actively had to keep them short to chord properly. My classical guitar instructor actually had his right hand kept long and it still makes me shudder to think about it.
Now I still keep my nails very short because otherwise I poke at the skin around the nail beds obsessively. I will never have pretty hands.
I used to bite my nails, but when I started waiting tables in college, I switched to chewing the inside of my mouth.
I did not know this had a name.
Thank you for this post.
I ‘ve suffered from dermatillomania for as long as I remember. Picking my body where I perceived blemishes. I remember wearing long sleeves and pants in the summer and using concealer at a very young age.
Over the years, I’ve gotten better at not doing it, but it still happens sometimes. In fact, because I’ve been avoiding picking my body for so long, I’m now picking my scalp for the past few years. Another habit I’m trying to drop.
The only habit I’ve successfully dropped is nail biting. I started at a young age. Once bit them so bad they got infected. Yuck. These days, I may bite them occasionally, but then I immediately cut them short and do my best to ignore them.
I chew on the inside of my cheeks and lips, but it’s rare.
I find when you try to break a bad habit, it tries to re-emerge in a different form.
I’m kind of envious that you can ignore them when they’re short (I always end up biting them further…)
I won’t lie, it’s really difficult the first few days but the urge always passes. I also tend to slather them with cream when I get the urge, so if I do bite it’s slippery and rather…gross. Haha.
One thing I found that helped was maintaining what nails I did have. Filing away any ridges as soon as they started growing. Pushing back my cuticles. Putting nail hardener on. Essentially,Â every timeÂ you want to bite, fix your nails in some way. Once they started getting longer, I’d treat myself and paint them often.
It has been four days and I haven’t bitten the inside of my cheeks at all. It has all grown back and the inside of my cheeks are all smooth and I haven’t even had the urge to bite since there is nothing TO bite. I have been all proud of myself and strutting around that I kicked the habit.
But I noticed today that I’ve been absentmindedly picking at my fingernails, and licking/biting my lips a little bit here and there. New habit emerging, perhaps? Oh no!
First, good for you! Those first few days are the hardest. Congrats.
Second, it could be (but I certainly hope not!). I find if you don’t deal with the anxiety/understimulation in some way at the time it is happening, it bubbles up and results in destructive behaviors. It’s kind of like whack-a-mole.
Last night at dinner my husband pointed out that I had a reddish/bluish bruise under my bottom lip. Apparently I’ve been sucking on it and hadn’t even realized. *sigh*
I bite my nails really, really badly, far past the quick. And I tear all of the skin off of my lips, until it bleeds, usually. It’s kind of tied in to my other anxiety disorder issues… I don’t know. It looks bad, and I know I need to stop, but I find the act of doing it strangely calming.
About once a week I’ll make a resolution to stop, and then I catch myself doing it without even thinking about it, and there goes that effort.
I wish you all the luck in the world with this. These habits, or compulsions even, can be so difficult to overcome. I have dermatillomania (a form of OCD involving skin-picking) and it is so hard to even start to control. In the past I’ve picked holes into my forearms and picked at my nails and the surrounding skin until they were bloody and my throbbing fingertips woke me up in the middle of the night.Currently I’ve been obsessed with picking at my lips and the top of my head, which is going to make my next trip to the hair salon really pleasant! Icky stuff, but I’m getting much better about it.
By the way, I think the term “wolf-biter” sounds fierce and awesome, and like what I would name a softball league if I had one.
Oh interesting – I do the cheek biting thing too, really heavily. I’ve pretty much got permanent scarring on the insides of my cheeks. And I grind my jaw like whoa. And I carry so much stress in my neck muscles that it causes obscenely painful headaches. Yay, physical manifestations of stress!
WOLF BITER 4 LYFE.
We must be the same person! I do all those things, and have huge knots in my neck, back and shoulders. I have permanent scarring as well. Though I’ve noticed in the four days I haven’t bitten, the skin is a lot smoother than I expected. A lot ofÂ whatÂ I thought was permanent has gone away.
I’m a finger biter. Totally a nervous habit. I’m gonna start telling my boyfriend I’m just hanging out with my inner wolf (he doesn’t like that I do it).
I figured “hungry” would be an inappropriate response.
I chew my lips. I stop when it hurts. Then start again later.