The 'Bad Habit' That Was Actually a Mental Health Disorder


For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a picker — I can’t let a pimple go unpopped or a scab go untouched. I also have to brush out all of my son’s cradle-cap (it’s basically baby dandruff) to feel completely fine with life; yet, those things mentioned above aren’t a necessity in my life. They aren’t always there or perhaps don’t present a problem where I may see it; therefore, I don’t feel a constant urge to sit and brush out my son’s scalp all throughout the day. However, there is one part of my body I can’t seem to itch away from “picking” — I’ve done it since I was a young child — and that is picking the skin on my fingers.

I assume it all started because of boredom; I remember my childhood days, sitting in the classroom, casually daydreaming. To pass the time away, I would nonchalantly pick the skin around my thumb. No big deal. I liked the way the picked skin felt against my other fingers. Weird? Perhaps. But I chalked it up as a quirk and thought nothing of it. It never seemed like a big deal — to me, anyway.

As the years went on, my skin picking stayed with me. I graduated to the other thumb, because you know, the right thumb was picked to shreds and it hurt like a monster. My boyfriend at the time would hold my hand and I would squirm, wondering what he thought about my rough and picked fingers (it obviously wasn’t a deal-breaker since we ended up married).

The years went on and there was a very brief time when my fingers weren’t picked and I had healed thumbs that were smooth. I actually remember when that was: my husband went away to basic training and I swore to myself not to pick for eight whole stinking weeks, and somehow I totally managed it. When I first saw him after eight weeks of being apart, one of the things I pointed out were my smooth fingers. Talk about an odd thing to be proud of. That was when I was 19 and honestly, I don’t remember a time since then when my thumbs were smooth. I’m 28 now.

I remember always being a picker and assumed it was just a bad habit — one of those nervous tics that so many people have, like twirling your hair or biting your nails. We all have our quirks. Except, it’s not just a bad habit. I noticed my skin picking got much worse after I had kids; probably from lack of sleep, extra stress and anxiety that motherhood brings. It happens.

But then, it spiraled out of control after my second baby was born almost one year ago and I was struggling with postpartum depression. I would pick my thumb to shreds and then pick some more — it would hurt, but I didn’t care. I would be in the kitchen, where I was supposed to be preparing dinner; the kids would be screaming and I would just be standing in a daze picking at my thumb. Five minutes would pass by and I would just stand there, picking at my fingers. It was bizarre. I would pick when I was in the car, sitting down at night watching television or whenever my hands weren’t busy. Pick, pick, pick. I picked most when I was super anxious; like meeting new people or running late for something or extremely stressed from a long day with the kids or after a fight with my husband. You could tell the type of day I had just by looking at my thumbs.

Something had to give.

So one night, after a horrible day of thumb picking, I landed upon the world of Google and delved into articles that dealt with skin picking. I had picked my thumb into a bloody mess that day and now, it wasn’t just the side of my thumb, but the top and down on to the pad.

Why can’t I stop this? It hurts but I’m still digging into my skin!

I found out this was a mental health condition, and it had a name: dermatillomania. I also wasn’t the only person in the universe that picked their thumbs or fingers, and I learned people also pick various other parts of their bodies. For once, I felt “normal” about this, yet I was still completely perplexed on how to actually stop picking.

Perhaps one day I can finally put my anxious fingers to rest, but for now, my thumb picking brings me some sort of odd comfort. It’s a total love/hate relationship. I can go a few days without picking (mainly when my thumbs are very sore), but then I find a rough patch and I’m right back to digging into my poor fingers. It definitely makes me self-conscious and I wonder when my kids will begin to notice “mommy’s hurt fingers,” but I’m taking it one day at a time and every hour I don’t pick is a small victory in itself.

If you or a loved one is affected by body-focused repetitive behaviors, you can find resources at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.

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