When I Realized the 'Bad Habit' I Lived With for Nearly 20 Years Is a Disorder

I’ve lived with a “bad habit” for nearly 20 years of my life, and I didn’t realize that it was a disorder until 2016. It started when I was 10. I remember resting in bed, staring up at a blue and white net that held all of my stuffed animals. It was a particularly stressful night, though I can’t recall the reason why. Nonetheless, my fingers inched up towards my head, and suddenly, I started scratching.

It was small at first. I’d knock off specks of dandruff here and there, so I didn’t think too much about it. As time passed, though, small scratching turned into gouging. Soon, flecks of flesh came off of my scalp and onto my hand or on my clothes. My shirts (often black) were speckled in fragments of dandruff. I would wipe them away quickly so no one would notice, and I would try to hide the blood crusted beneath my nails.

I have excoriation disorder, or compulsive skin picking. I didn’t know this was a disorder that affects many people. Some pick at their arms, chests, or more visible parts of their body.

This is a disorder that hasn’t been talked about a lot. In fact, it wasn’t until I started writing for The Mighty that I learned about skin picking disorder. For the first time in 20 years, I didn’t feel alone. For the first time, I didn’t feel like a “freak” who was just doing this for attention. There were times I wondered if this was a version of self-harm, but I didn’t scratch with the purpose of harming my body. I just couldn’t…and can’t…stop.

I’ve tried many methods to slow the progression. I’ve cut off my nails, painted my nails in hopes that I wouldn’t want to chip the polish or get it in the wounds, put on bracelets to play with instead of my scalp, slapped my hand, worn hair ties to snap myself if I tried to inflict pain, etc. Nothing has really worked for me.

Everyone does it for a different reason. For me, I think it’s a way to relieve stress. When things are bothering me and I don’t feel like I’m in control, I tend to scratch more. There’s an odd sense of relief when there’s a spark of pain and then it’s gone. Of course, then I’m left with the damage, and I feel a great amount of guilt and shame.

People have noticed me doing it before, and that’s the worst. My grandmother has asked if I had lice with the amount I was scratching. Friends and family have both told me to stop, which is actually a problem. Drawing attention to it just makes it worse for me. I feel the pain. I know it’s happening. But I don’t know how to stop it yet, and that does make me feel bad.

So then, you’re probably wondering why I’m writing this if I’m so embarrassed. Well, I’m doing it for two reasons. One, it’s to force me to acknowledge that this is happening, and to encourage myself to get the right help to make it stop. Two, I know there are probably others out there who feel just as ashamed, embarrassed, and alone.

You’re not alone. Whatever reason you pick, you’re not the only one who does it, so you don’t have to be afraid. You can find help, and you can find people who endure the same disorder. Don’t suffer it in silence, and don’t be ashamed. Not many people understand this disorder, so it’s our job to reach out, to show that we are regular people who deal with it on a daily basis. We’re not embarrassments, and we shouldn’t be ashamed.

For those who don’t understand what it’s like, let me explain. Think of a moment when you have felt stressed. There’s a fullness in your chest, and your throat feels tight. All you want is for that stress to go away so you can feel relief…”normal.” Suddenly, you get an urge to make it vanish, but the only way to do that is to scratch and cause pain. Pain distracts from the stress. So, you run your fingers through your hair and search for a single imperfection. You target it, and you take out all of your stress on that tiny speck on your head. It starts out small, but then you dig more and more until there’s blood.

And yes, I’ve made those marks bleed.

I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and found blood on my scalp and hand because I’d picked while I was asleep.

I don’t like to do it, and no, I’m not doing it for attention, nor am I writing this to garner attention, sympathy, or disgust. I’m writing it to help others and to help myself realize that I’m not abnormal. That this is a thing that happens, and just as with any disorder, I can find help to mend the wounds and get better. Maybe once I find the bigger source of the stress, that will help me calm my stirring fingers. Maybe then I won’t be afraid to get my hair cut or have someone touch my head affectionately for fear they might disturb a cut.

I honestly believe that one day I’ll find a way to cope, and I think you can, too. If you need help, speak out, don’t be alone. It’s hard to reach out for support when you feel bad about what you’re going through, but it’s a disorder. It’s not something to be ashamed of. You can heal, and you can feel better.

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