The photo I have used to represent this blog post is the first time my hands were clear of scabs from scratching. Although it did not last it was a big accomplishment for me!
I have always been a picker. Picking spots. Picking nails and cuticles. Picking scabs. Anything, you name it. However gross it may be, but I never even thought this could be a disorder.
Skin picking (dermatillomania) is a body focused repetitive behaviour (BFRBs). Other things that fall under this umbrella are trichotillomania (hair pulling), cuticle and nail biting and so many other things you would not even think of.
It wasn’t until the start of my breakdown that my skin picking turned to scratching, This time I would scratch anywhere to the point of bleeding which then gave me something to pick even more. There were times my whole arms were covered in scratches, and I am now covered in scars from them. When I got my tattoo done they had to tattoo around scab (which now makes my tattoo more meaningful to me).
I remember the time it started. I was with my first therapist and too ill to talk. She was trying to make me do mindfulness exercises to try and relax but I just couldn’t. Here it begun with digging in my nails as I felt so uncomfortable. Then I saw there was skin I could pick and from then on it got worse and worse.
It became away to deal with my anxiety and to distract how s!#t I felt, by feeling the pain I felt inside but instead of it just being mental pain I could feel and see it physically it was a form of self harm but I did not know it at the time (however it is important to stress it is not actually self harm - see below links for more information). It became a habit to distract all the mix of emotions and numbness I felt. Once I started I just could not stop and it became a coping mechanism. I still struggle hugely with it. It grounds me, in an unhealthy way. I carry fidget toys around with me to occupy my hands and I also doodle a lot. But when sitting in lectures or at social events is when it is heightened and it is these moments I feel self-conscious to bring out a toy. It really is a daily fight not to scratch.
Along with my toys I also doodle. Many readers of my blog will have already seen my doodles. By doodling it keeps my hands busy and provides a distraction.
I came across Liz Atkin (www.lizatkin.com) on twitter who also uses art as a distraction to her skin picking. She does 1 minute sketches on her tube journeys to distract her hands. She does these sketches on the Metro newspaper (a paper that is given away freely on London Transport). She then gives away these drawings to fellow passengers. By giving these drawings away it does 2 things:
It makes the passengers day to be given a piece of art
Sometimes it opens up conversations on mental health and helps to break the stigma.
Here is a video of her speaking about her work and also a couple of examples of her work.
Once I get over my phobia of tubes I shall be on the look out for her!!
I have asked a few other people to talk about their experiences of skin picking and how it affects them:
“I never really knew my skin picking had a name or that it was even recognised as a 'thing'. Since childhood I have sought out the imperfections in my skin, I see it as a way of extracting the bad from me. I first realised it was a problem when my friends little girl asked me why my arms have sore spots on them. In times of high stress it's best to cover my skin to avoid temptation but then I can spend hours afterwards trying to get every imperfection out. It's embarrassing when people stare at the sores, I have self harm scars too, I can feel people judging me without even making eye contact with them” @LucyLu_Life
"I picked often as a child and count in my head but specifically the picking I was severely punished for so i began picking places that could be hidden. I.e. My scalp and lips. I pick my lips until they bleed. Apparently in a dissociated moment I even had to get stitches on the inside of my upper lip because I picked at them so much that I pulled off my flesh in a such a chunk it's left a permanent divot & required a few stitches"
"My dad does this really badly with his hands. He picks at the skin all round his fingers and when he's really anxious, which is pretty much all the time since my mum died, he just can't stop. So his fingers are often bleeding. He also subconsciously does it when in deep conversation and his hands end up looking like he's wounded somehow as he has to plaster up his fingers. Not great."
"I think this a learned (really bad) coping strategy as when I was little I used to bite my fingers but then started doing this too. When I start doing it I hate how it looks and feels so I end up doing it more as if that will somehow make it better but it really doesn't. I'm really ashamed of doing this so I try to hide it which doesn't work well when your fingers are bleeding. There are also certain places on my hands and legs I do this too. It's like I feel for these places for comfort somehow"
For more information on dermatillomania: