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The Evidence of My Disorder You Can See on My Hands

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Lying on my bed, staring at the plain wall.

It stares back at me.

My gaze falls hesitantly on my raw, pink fingers. I hate myself. Why do I let myself destroy myself like this? Haven’t I gone over this thousands upon thousands of times in my mind? Haven’t I also tried countless coping methods — play-doh, rubber bands to snap my wrists, scented oils, band-aids, gloves? What’s wrong with me, and how could this be happening to me?

Dermatophagia, out of all the things I may be struggling with, is to me the most puzzling affliction I have to deal with. Out of generalized anxiety, clinical depression, possible borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it is also the torment I’ve been dealing with — or at least floundering in – -the longest. I can’t remember a single day of my entire life when I wasn’t biting something. My lips, the inside of my mouth, my fingernails. When there were no fingernails left to turn to, I would automatically move to whatever was closest — the skin surrounding the nails. At first, it didn’t seem to be much more than just a bad habit. I would sometimes scold myself for this behavior, not realizing just how terrible it was, believing the worst was the impact it had on my teeth and my dental work that I had had done ever since elementary school.

Around the time that I left the comfort of my home environment for middle school, though, things took a sharp turn for the worst. Again, I had no idea just how much worse. Overtime, it grew from a terrible habit to an obsession. As I progressed through high school and into college, it became — and has become — a full blown addiction. Sometimes (and unfortunately still to this day) I would walk into class, hiding my hands and/or crossing my arms because of the gnawing during the lunch hour and during prior classes. Sometimes I would sit down in my desk, smearing blood all into my notebook or over my clothes because I hadn’t even noticed I was bleeding. Sometimes I could barely use a writing utensil, because my hands were all wrapped up in paper towels hastily grabbed from the bathroom because I was too embarrassed to keep bothering the office workers for bandages.

This continued for years, mostly without detection except when a teacher noticed as I was handing in a paper. I didn’t even have a good response; I just told him I had been under a lot of stress. Contrary to my hopes that my problem would begin to work itself out as time crawled on and “as I matured,” it just got worse. Driving with people was my worst nightmare because I felt that every time I turned the steering wheel it was as if I was screaming to my passengers, “Look at me! This is what I’ve become!” It even became slightly dangerous as I did all possible things I could to avoid detection. For instance, if I had to try to carry a heavy object I wouldn’t grab it by the handle, I would grab underneath so that my fingers weren’t visible. At least if they were smashed in an accident, nobody would be able to tell the difference. In the end, I’m sure many people did notice. I’m also sure that few truly understand the struggle. Just as an alcoholic is compelled to drink, often against his will, I also feel completely helpless when standing up to my condition. Except the main difference is the bottle is always in my hand; the bottle is my hand.

The one time I made a valiant effort to stop, I ended up experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms that you might expect to find in starting or stopping a prescribed medication. For the entire time, I couldn’t move without severe fatigue and I couldn’t stay awake for more than about four hours at a time. I somehow survived about 72 hours before I relapsed again. That was the first time I had experienced life without the guilty “blood on my hands”… and it genuinely felt awful. When I fell back again on that third day, it was worse than I had experienced in months. I never tried again after that. After all, what is even the point — it has become, it seems, an additional process of my body. I do it, hating every second of it, but still finding a terrible relief in it, whether or not I’m thinking about it. Consciously, subconsciously, it’s all the same, and they all end the exact same.

The entire reason I’m even writing about this right now is because I’ve been going through another one of these episodes. Coming fresh off of a mission trip during spring break that probably should have instead been spent in the peace of home, I’ve experienced the perfect storm of lack of sleep and alone time, extreme periods of busyness and boredom, anxiety, and hunger. And whenever it looks, no pun intended, that it’s getting better, the peak of the roller coaster hits — and then plunges down again. Some days I count: why I do, I don’t know. One, two, three fingers bleeding right now… four, five, six, seven fingers torn apart within the last few hours…

I showed my fingers the other day to someone I was talking to about depression. He was telling me how there were days where he was so angry, he would punch things — walls, lockers, doors — anything that could cause a painful response. His knuckles often bled after such outbursts. I was more than happy to be able to empathize — I showed him my fingers, which, ironically were doing better than usual. He gasped in horror as he observed the different shades of black, red, pink and dark blue. He probably didn’t know such a thing was possible. I can definitely say though, it is possible. For me, it’s all I know.

I’m addicted to the pain, my psychiatrist says. It’s ultimately no different than cutting. The problem is, it impacts everything in your life. You can’t write properly, you can’t use your hands properly whether in physical work or otherwise, professional and social interactions are terrifying because of the realistic fear that if someone tries to touch your hand they will find out. You can’t really hide it. Band-aids have become my pocket buddies, hoodies became my favorite sweatshirts for resting my hands out of sight, winter the best time of year because of the excuse to wear gloves, and any red clothing the ideal for hiding evidence. I constantly ask myself, what should I do? What can I even do?

The first step for me and for many is, I suppose, to consult a therapist/doctor. I am even noticing other problems beginning to develop, such as a sugar addiction that isn’t replacing my finger biting; it’s aggravating it. Out of all my counseling experiences, this is the only thing I conscientiously withhold information about. It just feels too shameful for me — what kind of monster would do this. Besides, am I actually trying that hard to win? It’s such a bizarre thing to be struggling with that it often seems to me that, to everybody else, I’m not trying hard enough. But no — sometimes I’m trying too hard. Sometimes I’m worrying more about what others might think than what others do think: Compassion. It’s a treatable malady. I’m a person with a monstrous problem, not a monster with a personal problem. Maybe if I focus on the path I have cut out for me instead on all the thorny bushes surrounding it, I can reach my destination in one piece of mind and body.

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Thinkstock photo via sodapix sodapix

Originally published: May 20, 2017
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