The First Time I Realized My Skin-Picking Had a Name


I’ve struggled with dermatillomania for years, but never knew what to call it or what caused it. To me, it was simply what I did after I had scratched a mosquito bite raw and it had scabbed over. To me, it was my “dirty little secret.”

There was something soothing in the way a scab bled after I picked at it. There was something comforting about the brief stab of pain when I used my fingernails to re-open a wound. It helped to ease what I was feeling inside, even when I couldn’t identify what exactly I was feeling.

Over the years there have been looks of pity and concern, as well as questions as to why there were scars on my arms and legs. I never knew why I did it, only that it was something I just had to do. Trips to the dermatologist were lessons in shame, hoping the doctor wouldn’t say anything about all those scars that just “kept popping up.”

In the last five years, those scars have become plentiful as I dealt with stressors made far worse by depression and anxiety. Yet, it wasn’t until just recently that I felt I had to get help, despite already seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressants, which somehow never stopped the urge to pick. I was relaxing with friends at my house, catching up on our college days, when I leaned back a little too hard against the wall. A neon and glass Coca Cola clock fell off the wall, hit my head and broke. The glass sliced my arm in about five places.

The cuts didn’t require stitches, thankfully. We bandaged them and went about our evening, cracking jokes about time stopping and my utter gracefulness. The next morning, when I went to change the bandage, I noticed the cuts had scabbed over. The urge to pick came on stronger than any I had ever had. Before I realized it, I had a fingernail easing up the edge of the scab. I felt ashamed as I grabbed tissues to clean up. I grabbed a bandage to cover it and left it alone. There was a mosquito bite that had scabbed over not too far from the cuts. So I picked that, let it bleed, cleaned it up and went about the rest of the day.

Later that afternoon, a combination of boredom and anxiety struck. I kept telling myself I wouldn’t touch those scabs, even as I took off the bandage and ripped a scab away. There was a sting of pain, followed by a feeling like relief and then guilt. For whatever reason, I couldn’t let those scabs just heal. In the weeks since, those scabs were joined by more scratched mosquito bites, until my once almost-pristine arm now looked like I was recovering from chickenpox. Without realizing it, I would find myself picking a scab to soothe whatever it was I was feeling inside.

At my next appointment with my psychiatrist, I finally asked for help, and she referred me to a colleague. When people I know commented on the bandages on my one arm, I finally spoke of the reality, instead of making up some excuse.

“I have this thing with picking bites and scabs on my arm. I pick them until there’s nothing but a scar left.”

Instead of condemnation or pity, I received understanding in return.

“A lot of people do that,” they said. “Just take it a day at a time.”

There was something about finally revealing my “dirty little secret” to people who did not know I have struggled with dermatillomania. Finally saying the words was freeing in a way I had never imagined. It was as if acknowledging it publicly no longer made it something to be ashamed of.

Image via Thinkstock.

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