Psychological Survival

Growing up, I never really wore nail polish, especially on my fingers. Besides having a problem with nail-biting, I always just felt like nail polish was just too girly for me (which I now realize is ridiculous for a number of reasons, mostly just because there is nothing inherently bad about being girly and that was partially just my own internalized misogyny speaking). Occasionally during the summer, I would paint my toe nails (always a different color on every toe) but that was the extent of it.

While I was in Romania, Mom started painting her fingernails. And everyone else’s fingernails she could convince to sit still long enough for her to get her brushes out. For her, nails became tiny pallets where she could paint anything without the pressure of it being something that would last forever.

So a few weeks before I got home, I started really growing my nails out. She painted them within a few days of me being home and would repaint them about once a week. Once school started, she painted my nails about every other week when I would come home on the weekends. But by that point, I was so used to my nails being painted it felt strange to go that long. So I started painting them myself.

At first I was pretty bad at it. I would always strategically plan my nail-painting before a shower so I could get all the excess nail polish off the skin around my fingers. Still, bit by bit, I improved. Now I mostly only get nail polish on the skin on my right hand.

It wasn’t long before it became an apartment ritual. At least once a week, I would gather in the front room with my roommates and we would paint our nails. It became a sort of stress relief. It wasn’t until I met with a therapist once that I completely understood why.

So in our hour long session, my therapist (if I can call him that after only ever seeing him once?) told me it seemed like I might have some control issues and that I needed to come back so he could teach me some coping mechanisms to work through them. I essentially told him “you can’t tell me what to do” and never went back. I know that story sounds fake but I promise you it is real.

Even though I never went back, I did think a lot about what he said. Especially that year, it did feel like everything was falling apart a bit. There were so few things I felt like I had control over (my health, my emotions, my future) that I needed to be able to control other things. I made my bed every day. My room was always clean and my clothes were put away. And, my nails were always done. These were things I could control.

And it wasn’t just my nails being done that helped, it was the actual painting of my nails. Sure, I wasn’t great at it, but I could control it and it was familiar and fun.

Around that same time, I was introduced to a show called Dude You’re Screwed. The basic premise is that there are four friends from different backgrounds (Marines, Army Rangers, British Royal Air Force, and some guy from Southern Utah that runs marathons barefoot and lives in the desert for extended periods of time) and they take turns abducting each other and leaving the abductee in the middle of nowhere with an assortment of random items and only a few days to make it to safety or they lose the game. Before the abductee is dropped off, he is searched to see if he is hiding anything that he could use to aid his survival.

John Hudson of the British Royal Air Force is probably the best at this game. He always has things sewn into the hems of his pants or in a secret compartment in the hole of his shoe or concealed by a patch in his jacket. In addition to being the best at sneaking stuff in, Hudson literally wrote the manual for the British Royal Air Force on psychological survival and designed the training course to prepare soldiers for being stuck behind enemy lines.

Because Hudson understands the importance of psychological survival and how it can impact our physical survival, one thing he manages to do in almost every episode where he is the abductee is to make a cup of tea. I know, it is so painfully stereotypically British. But for him, it is something small that he can control that helps him feel more in control of everything else. If he hasn’t somehow managed to smuggle in a tea bag, he will find something from his surroundings to make into tea.

For me, nail polish is my cup of tea. It is small and I can control it. This little bit of control helps me feel like I can take on the rest of the chaos in my life. So it may be silly but come the zombie apocalypse and subsequent collapse of society, finger nail polish is on my list of things to find during supply runs.

Because I can’t help but feel fierce when my nails are blood red or complex when they are matte black. Because tiny tapestries on my hands that depict forests or oceans or galaxies make me feel as awe inspiring as those things are. And yes, sometimes I even paint my nails bright pink.

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