There are literally dozens of blogs out there authored by self-proclaimed nail polish addicts, but relatively little in the way of actually discussing the psychology behind this obsession. I first alluded to my addiction to nail polish in a previous posting on drugs and addiction, but is nail polish addiction even a real thing? Could I just be passionate about it instead?
For me, even though I don’t own hundreds or even dozen’s of polishes, the obsession has led me to lose sleep, spend money I don’t have, and time I could have spent better. I know enough to know that it’s not really about owing the polishes, since I often don’t actually buy most of the polishes I want, it’s more about the process of searching, the occupation of my mind with nothing else but polish. There is probably a rush of dopamine going on in my brain right now just from talking about it.
According to Dr. Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, addiction is any relapsing behaviour that satisfies a short-term craving and persists despite its long-term negative consequences. The question is, who is in charge? Me or the polish?
As a teenager, I used to paint my nails almost every single day. I had a couple bottles of cheap Wet ‘n Wild nail polish, and a few more expensive Hard Candy polishes, the ones that come with the little rubber rings. When I got home from school, I’d sit at my desk and do a new manicure. My favourite was always metallic navy blue with silver sparkles as a topcoat.
I used to bite my nails as a child. I’d bite them so bad that on a few occasions I’d actually peel the whole top layer off, which always took a few painful months to grow back. For me, nail biting was a way to relieve stress and anxiety. When I began painting my nails in high school, I found it was a successful way to stop biting them, and I often picked at the polish instead, knowing that I would redo the manicure later that day anyway. It was like a nervous tick, always fussing with my nails. I’ve seen my mother and my aunt do the same thing too, always nervously fiddling with their fingertips.
I think I simply exchanged obsessively biting and peeling my nails for extreme manicures. When I did a manicure, I would cut all traces of my cuticles off. I’d push them back way too far and use a little pair of manicure scissors to cut them right off. I drew blood pretty much everyday, and the skin was always red and inflamed. I did this for years, and I don’t think I stopped cutting my cuticles off until I was in my early 20s.
I know there is something about my current obsession with nail polish that harkens back to those days. Scouring the Internet for new colours, making lists, comparing swatches, searching for the perfect dupe. I haven’t obsessed like this in a very long time, but it all started up again when I was in Montreal this summer, escaping the messy aftermath of telling my mother, sister, and brother, that her husband, our father, had sexually abused me as a child. I was really depressed in Montreal but I’d always cheer up when I was scouring the city for the latest OPI collection, though I didn’t actually buy a single bottle while I was there.
When I am searching for colours I like, it is as though I am in a trance state, not unlike that which I’ve experienced with bulimic binge eating. Same goes for nail polish – nothing else exists while I’m trying to achieve the perfect application or when I’m scouring the Internet for new colours.
Here’s where it got heavy for me recently. When I realized there was a limited edition mint green that I missed out on – OPI’s Damone Roberts 1968 – I could feel the obsession escalate. I could only find two bottles for sale on Ebay for $50 apiece, and neither seller shipped to Canada. I searched high and low for acceptable dupes, with none to be found in my neighbourhood. I actually experienced two nights of insomnia since discovering this polish that I could not possess!
I took it to a whole other level when I decided I would dupe it on my own, DIY-style. I bought three bottles of OPI that I couldn’t afford and got to work mixing. After testing on a palate, I found the winning recipe – half Alpine Snow, half Greenwich Village, with a splash of Jade Is The New Black. That was yesterday afternoon into evening, and I was fine-tuning it even more today since I had access to natural daylight. Although I am very happy with the finished product, the truth is I really didn’t need it and I’m not sure I’ll even wear it more than once. I just spent $30 just to make a mint green nail polish, and I’m supposed to be on a budget right now! But the immense sense of relief that came over me when I perfected my homemade dupe was what made the anxiety go away, not actually possessing the colour. You’d think I’d put in on right away, but so far I’ve just been admiring my handiwork in the bottle.
On top of that, I just ordered another $30 worth of nail polish online, and it’s not lost on me that two of the colours I ordered are a navy blue and a silver sparkle topcoat. So who’s in charge here? Me or the polish? Methinks it might be the polish.
~ “She goes from one addiction to another. All are ways for her to not feel her feelings.” – Ellen Burstyn
Politics is a funny thing. It can shape our opinions based on hype. There’s only 24 hours in a day after all, so most of the “information” people get is filtered through mainstream media and other biased “middle men” as we shortcut our way to an opinion, and the politics of drug addiction is no exception.
The black and white politics of street drugs vs. pharmaceutical drugs is to me a hilarious separation of substances, since many street drugs started out as doctor prescribed remedies, or experimental pharmaceutical remedies at the least. This goes for heroin, cocaine, and MDMA. Certain pharmaceuticals are also commonly sold on the street for recreational use, such as OxyContin, Ritalin, Tylenol 3s, and morphine, just to name a few.
But street drug users are shamed, while pharmaceutical users are not, even though both “categories” carry the risk of abuse and toxicity. But alas, it is more socially acceptable to take anti-anxiety pills than to smoke pot to relieve anxiety, even though the pot might actually help with fewer negative side effects, especially if vaporized rather than smoked. But pot is illegal and therefore gets put in the “bad” category, and if you use it to self-medicate you risk being labeled a “pot head.” However, nobody gets labeled a “pill head” if they take anti-anxiety or SSRI pills every day, even if these drugs cause the user to want to hurt themselves or others. The prescription pills are socially sanctioned as “good” drugs, and people often think nothing of advertisements for such medications appearing in magazines or on television, along with their long list of side effects. It’s all framed as cutting edge medicine, while street drugs are the naughty “no no’s”.
The question of addiction is moot. Bruce K. Alexander has written an interesting paper titled “The Myth of Drug-Induced Addiction,” which notes that the idea that some drugs are inherently addictive has deeper roots in culture than in scientific empiricism.
This idea is augmented by the trauma-induced neurological explanations for addiction in the book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, by Dr. Gabor Maté, M.D. The brain chemistry behind addictions is pretty interesting, and seems to even explain why I sometimes feel the uncontrollable urge to buy a bunch of nail polish I don’t need.
According to Maté, early environment and parental nurturing determines the levels of receptors for certain brain chemicals. When we have fewer receptors, we are more likely to use an addiction to trigger a larger release of chemicals in the brain. Another way of putting this might be that the addict is simply trying to “get normal.”
Our mainstream understanding of addicts as weak-willed individuals simply does not match up with the evidence that suggests the social and traumatic roots of addiction. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study for example, found that respondents with five or more adverse childhood experiences had a seven to ten times greater risk for substance abuse than those with none. It’s certainly true for me that I have coped with adverse childhood experiences with drugs, eating disorders, and even binge shopping (my ACE score was 7).
In my personal experience, I have found relief from smoking pot when I’m feeling anxious and stressed and have conversely not enjoyed it when I am already feeling really good. The pot took me to a “level” which was great if I was down, but which felt awful if I was already up naturally. Similarly, some people can take or leave alcohol or cocaine, while others can’t seem to stop and will risk jobs and relationships to get it. Addiction is not about the substance; it’s about the person, and that person is not necessarily stuck in a static state either.
Have I digressed too far? In summary, it’s not about the substances! We can get addicted to anything, but it is our childhood experiences are a major indicator of how susceptible we are to becoming addicted. So, it’s silly to judge me or others for choosing to smoke pot to relieve anxiety rather than taking anti-anxiety meds – or worse, if I eat Ben & Jerry’s by the pint while watching reruns of South Park. It’s all more or less the same thing.
~ “There are as many addictions as there are people.” – Dr. Gabor Maté, M.D.