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When Biting My Fingers Took Over My Mind

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You can tell a lot from a person’s hands, especially if they have dermatophagia. Seems calm and collected, but the fingers are all torn up? Yep, it was a bad week. It was a quiet disease that overtook my mind slowly. I always thought I had control over it, until I realized it wasn’t a habit anymore; it was a mental disorder.

Dermatophagia, as it turns out, is actually a mental disorder related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), in the body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) family. It is the obsessive urge to bite the skin, usually around on the fingers and sometimes insides of the mouth. Unfortunately, some with BFRB disorders might just think they have a “bad habit,” or they’re too ashamed to bring these disorders to light. Dermatophagia, in particular, is very damaging to the skin, and like all BFRBs, it is damaging to self-esteem.

It starts out as a nervous habit, but then spirals into a horrific cycle that comes subconsciously. I never see myself doing it until I’m already biting the skin. But the scariest part of it is not being able to stop.

It hurts, yes. But the feeling of ripping the skin off, so the surface of my fingers is smooth, is satisfying enough to cause me to ignore the pain. Sometimes on really bad days, I bite my fingers until I bleed. Sometimes I bite my skin while it’s still bleeding. And when I’m not biting my skin on my fingers, sometimes I bite my inner lip until it bleeds.

It sounds terrible, and it is. It can go unnoticed by most, until you have to do something that involves showing your fingers, such as typing or writing. Holding someone’s hand causes anxiety because all you can think about is if they can feel the callouses that have formed on your fingers. The skin around your nails is weak and pink. You try to hide your hands whenever possible.

If we don’t like what we are doing to our bodies, just stop, right?

For 15 years, I’ve been through the routine: bite and pick, feel remorse, swear you will never bite again, and go to bed with healing lotion and bandages on your fingers. But somewhere along the road to recovery, either you start again without noticing, or you have this indescribable urge to bite off a hangnail. You feel like you’re in a trance when you’re biting. And so it begins again. It haunts you throughout your life and you don’t know how to stop. So you just cover your fingers in bandages and try not to think about how you’re destroying your own hands.

I’m still struggling with it. After much trial and error, I haven’t found a way to stop by my own will. If you have it, you know what I mean when I say that clear nail polish, gloves, Band-Aids, etc. do not make it stop. Dermatophagia is definitely in the mind. It has nothing to do with the actual biting. If it did, I’d be over it by now. I’m trying to face the fact that BFRBs are a form of mental illness, and I do need help.

For sufferers of dermatophagia or any of the various BFRBs, please know that while you might feel alone in this, there are other people out there who understand what you are going through. As we bring awareness to this subject, we will be able to experiment and share what works and what does not work. We actually have an awareness week: October 1 to 7, 2015 was BFRB Awareness Week. The best thing you can do for yourself is to seek help if you have a BFRB. Do not be afraid to ask for help.

I can’t let this take over. And neither should you.

nicolette siriwong

Follow this journey on Nicoc.o.

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Originally published: January 23, 2016
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