Have you ever heard of the mental illness called dermatillomania? Read today’s guest blog from Laura Barton to find out more about it. Laura Barton is a Canadian writer and speaker from the Niagara Region who uses her experience with mental illness to share with others the realities of what it is to live with them and hopefully help people gain a better understanding of the experiences and people behind the diagnoses. By the way, the photograph is by a woman named Jillian Clark.
When I wake up in the morning, before my brain is even fully alert, I do three things.
Turn off my alarm (after already having hit snooze at least twice).
Bemoan the fact that it’s time to leave my comfy bed.
Scan is a word people with body-focused repetitive behaviours use to refer to their hands searching for skin to pick or hair to pull.
I’ve had a BFRB called dermatillomania, officially called excoriation (skin-picking) disorder and a slew of other colloquial terms, for over twenty years.
My mornings consist of ripping off scabs and skin, dealing with stinging showers, and covering up the damage with Band-Aids if necessary. All because there’s something a little off in my brain when it comes to what should otherwise be a common grooming behaviour. While people without this disorder seem to have an off switch when they get rid of unwanted skin, mine is constantly malfunctioning.
I’m okay with it now, but in the past it nearly destroyed me. Not knowing why I was doing what I was doing, that it even had a name, that I wasn’t the only one doing it, and why I couldn’t stop brought me constant misery as I dealt with situations like being asked if I had chicken pox in Grade 10 because my face was torn to shreds from picking at acne.
It was a source of constant shame, embarrassment, and mortification.
Nowadays I don’t have time for any of that.
Accepting this disorder has taught me that dried blood under my nails and scarred skin are just facts of life, not damnation.
Basically anything my picking brain says shouldn’t be there goes. Eventually a scar is left in its wake, and my entire body is riddled with them, but even they aren’t safe from the picking if one day they feel “off.”
Some dermafolk, a term I use to describe people with dermatillomania, pick for hours in front of mirrors and using tools and getting lost in the behaviour. While I will say I picked absentmindedly for years before I knew what I was dealing with, I never quite zoned out, I’ve never picked for hours on end, and the only tools I use are my fingernails with the rare use of nail clippers or tweezers. I point out this difference only to avoid any generalization of what the disorder is because it affects us each in different ways.
Over the years, we do each seem to become, for lack of a better term, self-trained experts on how to deal with open wounds, infections, and even pain. The pain doesn’t typically come in the act of picking, but afterwards.
One thing I should make clear too is this isn’t self-harm. Self-harm requires intent to cause the harm, whereas the open wounds and scarring are just by-products of this disorder. When my hands are feeling around for the next scab or mark, it’s not about hurting myself, but getting rid of what “shouldn’t” be there.
The physical side of this disorder is only part of it, though. The mental game, which I’ve touched on, has the potential to be awful too, and it used to be for me. Trying to understand why my brain thought my skin was so wrong and trying to decipher why I couldn’t stop the behaviour was a hell that, along with depression, took me to the brink of my life. I tried countless times to stop, trying 20 day challenges to break the “habit” (which it’s not), trying to bribe myself with rewards if I could go for certain periods of time without picking, fake nails, acne cream, and the list of failed attempts goes on.
The reason these things didn’t work is because it’s a disorder, not a habit to be broken. I’ve come to realize that even if I removed everything my picking brain hated—acne, bumps, scrapes—I would still pick my skin because that’s what the disorder says to do.
The research is still being done on why exactly we can’t stop, but one of the theories is about the off switch I mentioned earlier, and is one of the ones that makes the most sense to me.
While this disorder once controlled my life and put me through years of hell with being judged and criticized, I’m at a point in my life where I’m perfectly okay with the fact that I pick my skin. Before you ask, it does still suck sometimes, if only because the maintenance and behaviours that come with this disorder can be absolutely exhausting. And I also understand that it’s not the healthiest behaviour in the world and I would never glamorize it or encourage it in others.
When I say I’m okay with it, I mean that it doesn’t upset me the way it used to, that I can manage it, and that I can still live my life the way I want to even though it exists.
It presents me with challenges, but it also has given me so much, such as compassion towards others who struggle, a network of friends that I wouldn’t trade for the world, and even, to a degree, a better understanding of humans overall. In a way that I never expected or thought possible, it empowers me now.
So even though one of the last things I will do tonight is pick my skin, I’m more than okay.