Skin Picking Picked Me and I’m Picking It Right Back
Pick a color. Pick a date. Pick a card, any card.
The mere mention of the word “pick’” used to make me cringe. As an avid writer, filmmaker, stand-up comedienne, and gregarious individual, storytelling is in my nature, but there was one story I was determined never to tell.
I have compulsively picked my skin daily for well over two decades, am scarred head-to-toe, and have spent a majority of my formative years doing anything and everything I could to keep anyone from looking too closely or asking too many questions. My Skin Picking Disorder- or as I came to know it, Dermatillomania -was my shameful, confusing, unstoppable, dirty little secret that not only shaped and defined my skin but crafted a myriad of falsehoods of my life experiences and interpretations of my own identity. If you were to tell me a year ago that I would transition from being a silent sufferer to creating and running my own non-profit advocating for the same disorder, I’d ask if you felt feverish. But here we are. This is a story of identity and personal growth, the self-esteem that it takes to accept and live with a mental illness, and how choosing yourself over the disorder that chose you is the ultimate freedom. This is how I’m #PickingMe over my BFRB.
Born three months premature, followed by a two-month stay in a NICU, my friends used to joke that my touchy way with people, places, and things was a way to compensate for my time in the incubator deprived of human touch. Looking at my childhood hobbies of piano playing, jewelry-making, collaging, finger-painting, and even being nicknamed “shredder” for my impulsive behavior of tearing up the perimeters of any paper hand-outs I received in class, all point to what I call my “finger energy”. This need to make sense of what often feels like an addiction has back-boned my life almost as much as the picking itself.
Mental illness is often referred to as an invisible illness, except my scar-and-sore riddled body renders it readable like braille. Skin Picking has been the constant in my life. Flipping through old photo albums and seeing my six year old self speckled in red, polka-dot like wounds reminds be of an old babysitter commenting on how I was the kid whose mosquito bites lasted summer thru winter. Around that age I became aware that my skin, rather my behavior with my skin, was different. Letters home from summer camp trumpeted my frustration, reading, “Mom. I hate this. It’s so not fair. I have 52 mosquito bites and now have 52 scars. Send stamps. – Lauren”. I followed that one with one sent home the very next day, only stating, “53 – Lauren”. My first memory of satisfaction with picking was at camp as well. I remember wearing sweatpants the whole time, partly to avoid catty comments on my sores and partly because the sensation I got from letting the fuzzy material adhere to the scabs enhanced an internal and physical gratification I felt when picking them off.
At times my fingers seemed to have a mind of their own, roaming my body and picking off what didn’t belong. Something foreign would seem to be in control of me, and I was scared to express that. My parents’ concern only grew as they tried everything they could to deter my picking to no avail. They would clip my fingernails to stubs, lather my hands in Vaseline and gloves, and cover me with entire 50-count boxes of circular Band-Aids over every sore each night, hoping this phase would pass. Their good intentioned yet negatively-received screams of “STOP PICKING!”, only served to assure me that I was behaving badly and that my picking was upsetting my whole family, which reinforced my disdain for the word “pick.” That was in the 90’s and a long way from the DSM-5’s recognition of the BFRB in 2013. Still, my Mom tried endlessly to seek out help from every type of treatment: prestigious PhDs, Hypnotists, Psychiatrists, Dermatologists, Chinese Herbalists, Witch Doctors, Therapists, Acupuncturists, even a co-worker’s-neighbor’s-great-grandmother-who-has-a-remedy-guarantted-to-cure-any-ailment. But nothing worked. My family meant well in their efforts, but in my mind, all that I existed as, was something that needed to be fixed.
An appearance-infatuated society offered next-level ostracizing with my Skin Picking, as I grew up in the 2000’s. Kids at Space Camp held my arms down to connect the dots (sores) on me to make constellations. Words like “gross” and “leper” were favorites of bullies. I started carrying concealer with me everywhere. Sleepovers required extra precautions: To visit, I packed Band-Aids and full-length PJs in case they had white sheets and I picked in my sleep. Home, I played up how cool my black sheets were and hid my Band-Aids and gloves before jokes could be made. Once my middle school nursed grabbed me during study hall to publically interrogate me on why I wasn’t taking care of the infected sores she pointed out on my ankles. I never wore shorts again. In high school, I heard a rumor that I was self-harming, which was news to me. A college counselor pulled me in his office junior year after receiving a tip from a concerned classmate that the marks on my body were from a drug addiction. By now however, I knew how to handle this, and just smiled and laughed off how I had chiggers, or a rash, or the chicken pox, or whatever I pulled out of my rolodex of reasons for my offending condition that particular day.
In fact, part of my ingrained behavior with Skin Picking became misdirection. And with sufficient confidence, and an answer for everything, I really was able to appear fine and flourishing. The problem was, I was loosing my grasp on my identity along with any measure of self-love. Yet, still, I became a master of deflection, rewriting my life events to ward off picking questions and ready with whatever reason I needed to give to change the subject. Quitting figure skating at a highly competitive level was “something I just didn’t want to do anymore,” and not because I couldn’t take my tights down without pulling bloody scabs off with them. A summer in Tanzania became my explanation “for where all these pesky mosquito bite scars came from,” but not where I accomplished summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. Once in a locker room I profusely assured a health club manager that I was not contagious, it was an allergic reaction and I was sorry for making some of the other members uncomfortable, before I went and cried in the shower. My college thought a hospital stay was from an asthma attack when really I had cellulitis from picking and was on IV antibiotics. Often I would be dressed and out the door to work only to see my arm bleeding through my shirt, then heading back to change while thinking of an excuse for being late. My dating life, friendships, family, social-life, intimacy, and career- everything was affected by the front I put forth to not have to explain what I could not effectively explain.
I experienced all of this shame, hiding, and hampering of my self-growth, all while concurrently battling my picking compulsions. Sometimes I’d loose 3 hours of my day, stuck in a mirror, compelled to fix and finish what I had begun picking at. I’d have bruised elbows from hunching over mirrors for extended periods of times, strained tendons in my fingers from repeatedly squeezing at areas from unnatural angles, and scratch marks and dried blood on my sides when I woke up in the morning. Tiny balls of bloody tissue peppered the bottom of my trashcans, and sometimes the floor around them, often with me only discovering the battleground that I had left behind the next morning. My finger scanning was part of my body language when I talked now, picking at areas both if I got excited about what I was sharing, or bored with what was happening around me. Mirrors became tantalizing, almost fun-house-esque. My body seemed to walk itself over to mirrors, no matter how much my internal voice knew better. I’d hang scarfs over mirrors to keep myself from looking into them, but still would catch myself contorting my body to find any remaining visible parts the scarf didn’t reach. I felt terrible about myself. And then, alas, the medical world finally seemed to catch up with me.
I was diagnosed with Dermatillomania in 2013, thanks to the DSM-5s (albeit confusing) re-naming/recognition the Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior, Excoriation (Skin Picking) Disorder aka Dermatillomania. I felt like a human again. I finally received validation and an explanation! I had a word, a term, a name for it now after all these years! I even asked the doctor to say it again. Dermatillomania. It was a funny to say, but easy to break down what it could mean: Derma (skin) and Mania (madness). Suitable enough. Who was I kidding, I was ecstatic! I wanted a button and a t-shirt and a certificate all printed with this finally tangible illness on it. I was eager and ready to research everything about it, start some medication, go through the treatment and finally be cured of this behavior. But no. Devastatingly, I learned how misunderstood, underreported and under-diagnosed this skin picking disorder was it lacked medical studies, research and funding for treatment, and cure. Many professionals had no idea of the disorder, but were usually familiar with its sister -and similarly named- disorder Trichotillomania, which itself only had a slim background in medical research. Worse was absorbing the stigma that the name Dermatillomania carried, rendering it a “bad habit” in the medical world, not something that seriously needed attention and funding. It wasn’t viewed as life pervasive, debilitating, or threatening. I was deflated and defeated, all over again. I felt like the medical world gave up on me, and worse, I gave up on myself.
In 2014 I was hospitalized from picking an area into an abscess for the 6th time except on this visit I contracted the life-taking bacteria MRCA. I spent the next two weeks recovering in the hospital after having eight inches of my inner thigh removed before leaving in a wheel chair. Over the next three months I transitioned from having an imbedded vacuum I wore in my thigh 24/7 like a purse, to a walker, to physical therapy. Ultimately, I moved to a new city where no one new me or my rolodex of reasons for my Dermatillomania. It was there, in response to a random stranger’s innocent questioning of what had happened to my leg, that I experienced a new compulsion: to share the truth. And I haven’t shut up since.
Owning my Dermatillomania made me feel whole, authentically and vibrantly like myself again. Each time I shared my BFRB, I started to take control from the controlling disorder. My self-acceptance grew each time I talked about Skin Picking, to everyone and anyone usually whether they asked or not. I even began acknowledging moments I had just picked, which helped me love myself more. Now when I looked in the mirror, the pieces of my identity I thought I had lost began to take shape. In the new passion of sharing, I got to know myself as a mental health advocate and truly learned you can’t pick your purpose when it has picked you. I am proud and honored to announce the nonprofit I’ve founded Picking Me Foundation (501c3).
Picking Me Foundation is dedicated to raising awareness and inspiring acceptance about the Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior, Dermatillomania aka Skin Picking Disorder, for sufferers, supporters, and educational communities alike! I hope to change the connotation of “pick” for BFRB sufferers, to help patients and parents understand these behaviors are not their fault, and to educate the medical world on the dire funding Dermatillomania needs. Picking Me Foundation sends Fiddle Packs full of fidget toys and BFRB information to day cares, schools, and baby-sitting organizations, in hopes of helping sufferers keep their finger energy off their bodies while engaging community leaders to start conversations about BFRBs early on. Through our social media campaigns and interactive mental health booths, we encourage sufferers to share why they are #PickingMe over their BFRB we seek help individuals understand they are more than their disorder. With each hashtag and story from fellow sufferers or supporters, I understand myself more and more, and I will be forever thankful that. Even though my recovery and management is an ongoing journey, I’m happy I’ve finally picked ME over picking me, and plan to help those in need do the same. I’m #PickingMe over my BFRB because my story isn’t over and I sure have a lot to say. How about you?