What My Friends Didn't Know When They Told Me 'Leave Your Skin Alone'

“Leave your skin alone.”

“You’ll have scars for the rest of your life!”

“Ew, do you have chicken pox? You shouldn’t be in school like that!”

“What’s wrong with your legs?”

“You look like your mom puts cigarette butts out in your skin.”

These are all things I grew up hearing about the scars and scabs on my legs. I couldn’t control the obsessive compulsion to scratch the skin off my shins or pick off existing scabs, so I grew up going to the doctor and eventually the dermatologist for treatment of infections so bad it hurt to walk. I ruined my favorite clothes with blood stains and woke up with blood caked under my nails and all over my sheets from scratching in my sleep. I would flush bloody tissues down the toilet so my mom didn’t find them in the garbage and know I’d been picking again. I lied about bloody noses and bike wrecks to hide the fact I had a serious and undiagnosed mental illness.

I was finally diagnosed with anxiety and depression when I was 15, and several months later I learned what excoriation disorder, also known as dermatillomania, was: an anxiety disorder characterized by obsessive picking of the skin. I found pictures of other people just like me who couldn’t stop scratching their skin, with arms and legs covered in scabs and open wounds, and went sobbing to my mom in the other room because for the first time in my life I understood I wasn’t someone who took pleasure in hurting herself: I was just a sick little girl with a rare symptom.

I wish my friends and family, classmates and teachers knew this about the scabs on my legs. I wish I knew longer than just three years ago that I have excoriation disorder so I could have explained it to the people who asked. I wish my friends and family knew that when I was picking my skin I was also having a panic attack. I wish they knew what it’s like to have your fingers do something you hate, do something that hurts you even as you beg them to stop. I wish they knew what it’s for my own hands to be my worst enemy. I wish they knew about the nights spent up way past my bedtime bleeding all over the sheets but unable to sleep until I satisfied the manic desire to pick. I wish they understood that this is not a bad habit I can break if I work hard enough. This is a symptom of a serious mental illness, a 15-year cry for help that no one understood because excoriation disorder is an illness you’ve probably never heard before.

I wish everyone else struggling with self-harm disorders knows this: you are not crazy. You are not masochistic. You are suffering from a condition that is treatable, not all that rare, and 100 percent not your fault. You are suffering from a chemical imbalance in your brain and just as a diabetic has the right to replace the hormone they can’t produce, you have a right to restore balance in your life.

Most importantly, you are not alone.

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