Tics (not the bugs)

I was about eight years old when I learned how to crack my knuckles. I was laying in my friend’s bed during a sleepover and I heard this popping noise.

“What is that?” I asked her.
“I’m cracking my knuckles”
“Oh cool, I’ve always wanted to know how to do that!”
“No, I’m not going to show you.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s addicting. You won’t be able to stop.”

I spent the rest of the night trying to figure out how to do it on my own, and it wasn’t until my friend was already asleep that I heard the satisfying -pop!

By the end of that week, I had learned how to crack my knuckles in three places – at the base of the finger, in the middle, and at the top. When you crack the last joint in your finger, you have to pull only on the top of your finger. It kind of feels like you’re trying to pull your fingernail off. Or you can push the joint inwards, your finger curling around itself like a snail. This actually hurts worse. I think it might be a martial arts move. The third way to pop the third joint on your finger is to simply prop your thumb under the joint and then use your other fingers to pull the top of the finger down, like you’re opening a beer can with a lighter.

It’s painful. And addicting. As soon as I had finished one joint, I would feel like I needed to pop it again. And again. And again.

There is something kind of emotional about the process — wanting to feel another popping joint is like wanting to be reassured that my bones are still where they should be, that my hands are still working, that I am strong and have good muscles and am talented and special and smart. And I’m never satisfied that these things are true, so I’m never through with popping my joints.

People notice and sometimes remark that I will ruin my joints this way. There’s always that point when I make a new friend and they see me wrench my neck to the side for the first time and they usually go “JESUS!” and I go “Sorry.” I used to say “Sorry, I’ll try to stop,” but I don’t say that anymore, because I know it’s not true.

Once I asked my dad, who is a doctor, if the things people warned me of were true. “Will I get early arthritis if I keep popping?” “Well it’s not good for you, honey.” he said. I pressed him. “Yes, but will my fingers get so thick I can’t put on a wedding ring?” Some lady in the locker room at the YMCA had told me this. “No,” he said, “that’s a myth.” Cool. So I had this rebuttal when people called me on it.

A few years later, I started gymnastics, and learned how to bend my body in all sorts of different ways. Suddenly a whole world of joints opened up to be popped. My back, my ankles, my neck, my wrists, my elbows, my toes all cracked in several different ways. I would spend nights cracking every bone in my body instead of sleeping. I used to listen to these tapes to fall asleep when I was a kid — I guess my mom bought them for me because she was tired of me screaming MOOOOOOM all night instead of sleeping. The tapes went like this :

“Lay very still. You are very relaxed. Feel the muscles in your body. From your head to your toes. Now, starting with the very tip of your toes, squeeze your muscles as hard as you can. Now release, and breathe. Now the balls of your feet…”

I followed the tape, and instead of the muscles thing, which didn’t help me relax, I used it as a map of all the possible joints I could pop. I would do it in a symmetrical pattern, like most things. Whenever I scuffed one of my shoes, I had to make the exact same motion and scuff the other shoe with the exact same pressure — in the same way, I had to crack all my bones evenly. I would start with the finger on one hand — pop! and then move to the corresponding finger on the other hand — pop! from one toe — pop! to the corresponding toe —wiggle* wiggle* why won’t it pop ?.

I learned that my body wasn’t as symmetrical as I thought, and soon began to concentrate only on these “problem” places — my right ankle cracks easily but my left ankle seems to go at a slightly different angle and for whatever reason, is not as satisfying. This difference has gotten more pronounced as I get older and is actually incredibly maddening to me. Sometimes when my thoughts go still it’s just me and my ankles driving me insane. I get fidgety before sleep, rolling my ankles around and around, trying to get them to match. They never will and I know this. But the obsession continues, it doesn’t care about what will or won’t happen. It cares about the impossible becoming possible.

It’s now at the point where every time I take a step — literally, with every step, I am discretely popping my left ankle, just a little, the same small click with every other step, trying to get the sensation I want, all the while knowing I will never achieve it. When I run, I hear it in my ankle more than my feet : ___ click! _____ click ! ____ click! My body isn’t a family of curled up little snails anymore, it isn’t a series of beer bottles opening and opening and opening. It’s a question without a response that keeps asking itself.

The asymmetry used to overwhelm me with panic. It would start with my ankle, or my middle three left toes (also not symmetrical), or the right side of my neck. It would pop, but the location or the depth or the angle of the clicking joint was incorrect. So I’d try to fix it. To make the joint reverberate just the way I wanted it to. To scuff one side just as much as I scuffed the other. Again and again, either until my neck was sore or spasming out of control and I had to lie absolutely still in bed for the rest of the day with a heating pad around my shoulders to stop the throbbing. I would usually do this when I was alone in the house, then lay in front of the TV with my heating pad crying because it hurt and because I couldn’t do anything else with my day and because my stupid bones had won again. I will die before I my body will be symmetrical ! I will die in front of the stupid TV.

Now I’ve learned to be aware of this panic, to tell myself “I know it sucks, but you don’t have to think about this.” Even though the urge to pop my joints is still there, and I still do it at every waking moment without being able to stop — I’ve stopped thinking about it so much. I’ve realized it’s a question with no answer, and so even though I still ask it, I never expect the answer. I think maybe I have even stopped the popping a little — but I can’t tell, because it has become as second-nature to me as breathing. Writing this post has actually driven all these thoughts back to the forefront of my mind and now panic about asymmetry is looming again —

You know how to tell if something you do is related to anxiety? Wait until you’re in a really bad spell of it and then take a xanax and see if it goes away. Now I’m not popping my ankles anymore, so I can finish this post.

I once got acupuncture because I was having severe back pain — maybe mysterious pains will be another post. I would lay down and try to relax my muscles while they stuck me with needles, and every new point of entry drew its own aura of muscle tension around it. I’m not really sure how acupuncture is supposed to feel, but for me it wasn’t necessarily relaxing my muscles so much as showing me to what extent my muscles were not relaxed. So for the next forty five minutes as I lay there on the bench, needles coming out my back like a porcupine, I would try to relax my muscles, methodically, as if I was trying to sleep, in order to release those little auras of tension. And I found that the deeper into this muscle relaxation I went, the more I was aware of an undercurrent — like an aquifer — that coursed through my entire body.

Have you ever pushed a shopping cart across a bumpy parking lot and felt how the metal vibrates against your hands, and travels up your arms, makes you shiver and let go of the cart for a second? It’s a really nasty sensation, right? like nails on chalk board? This is how the vibration felt for me on the acupuncture table — except it was coming from inside me, really deep inside my muscles. And it was attached to fear, and panic. The more I relaxed my muscles, the more I felt like I was dying, like my body was going to somehow fall apart if I let go all the way, and I would just slide off the bench and end up as a pile of muscles on the floor. Maybe that sounds nice. It was terrifying. But before I succumbed completely to the vibrating panic, the acupuncturist would make her reappearance at the door and tell me it was time. And after the session I would drive home feeling like I was made of jello and had just napped for hours. Maybe by meeting that panic at its source I had pushed it farther away from me — or drawn it out, expunged it.

I guess I’ve written this because it seems like you can either ignore your physical habits, let them become part of you. Maybe they will hurt you, but not in ways you expect them too. Or you can drag them out of the closet, let them completely overwhelm you for a given period of time, and then realize you are still okay.




  1. Wow, it feels like you’re inside my head. I had a very similar experience with OCD and cracking my joints and all the worry and guilt about damaging my body in the process. Reading this made my fingers and toes start tingling.


    1. Ooh sorry ! Maybe I should put a trigger warning on it. I hope you’ve found ways that work for you to manage the habit 🙂


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