So today I would like to talk about something that to be honest, I would much rather not have to admit to. It is not particularly related to relationship issues. However, I am sharing it here in the hope that it might be useful to someone. Dermatillomania (also called “Excoriation Disorder”) is the habit of picking excessively at your own skin. It is a psychiatric condition and a type of self-harm and I have, or I did, struggle on and off with it for far, far too long – actual years. It is literally a very ugly habit and I really pity anyone who was forced to watch me “at work”. For me it was so deeply ingrained that sometimes I would just absently be picking away even without realising it myself. Yes, this is one of those “gross habits” that I was talking about. I really don’t have many bad habits like this, which is just as well, because this was huge! If you have not watched me at work, then believe me, you don’t want me to go into the physical mechanics of this particular habit.
If I am honest, I am reluctant to admit how long I struggled with this thing! But please believe me that it is many years, and ultimately far too long. Actually, I can tell you almost to the day and time when I started damaging my own skin and what
precipitated triggered this habit. But I’m not going to! Let me just vaguely refer to “far too long”. But it has been years.
Has Huggie-Wuggie seen it?
If I have already met my husband, and I have seen him at any point over the last few years, then yes, he would have seen the results of this condition on my face. Actually, he would likely have seen me actually attacking my own skin; perhaps he would have been forced to watch me work away for literally hours at a time.
So here I am proclaiming my victory over this. But you know what? It is still such early days concerning this. Literally a month ago, even three weeks ago (as I write this) I was (still) actively pulling at my own skin. But I am confident that I have finally attained victory! This is despite the fact that I have previously “beaten” the habit in the past, then succumbed again. Sometimes there would be whole months between “relapses”. However, this time I know will be different (please Lord!)
So here I am sitting 3 weeks later with a smooth, healed face. My fingers rarely venture towards my face. But for the extensive hyperpigmentation (darker patches) on my face, you would never know that I have ever had any skin issues. Actually, I am working hard to deal with this hyperpigmentation too in that I have finally allowed myself to do the necessary research into skin serums specifically targetting this. My hope, and prayer (note to self, I actually need to pray about it!) is that in a few months the hyperpigmentation will also have disappeared, along with the habit, and I myself will be able to forget that I ever had this habit!
Facial dermatillomania – facing my demons
My poor face was the main part of my body to truly bear the brunt of this habit. And there were so many times when I would sit down and wish to myself that if I was going to pick obsessively at my skin, to the point of causing bleeding and other damage, that I could have chosen, or “picked” a more discreet part of my body, one that I could have covered up with clothing. And yet I stopped wishing that when I saw pictures of people who did and who have attacked the skin on different parts of their body. Some people are literally covered in self-inflicted wounds and bruises from top to toe.
I would now like to write a little about what it has taken to overcome it.
I think the chief thing that has helped has been this: to actually realise that this is a recognised medical condition! ( For anyone who regularly reads this blog, it was around the time I wrote the post: “So I read some posts today…”) Stuck in among all the posts about relationships there were some links about dermatillomania, and, helpfully, a definition. And I was amazed to recognise my habit there! Because before then I did not even realise that this was a recognised condition, with a name. I had never met anyone else who did this.
It took me a little longer to actually do the research, to pluck up the courage to “google” the word “dermatillomania”. Actually no, it was then that I really realised that this is “a thing”. And somehow I believe I realised why we “sufferers”/perpetrators do it, and how it becomes a condition. And getting that understanding somehow helped me to understand what I would need to do to stop.
Why we do it: This is certainly what happened in my own case and I am sure that this is what happens in most other people’s cases too. For me it started off with a habit which in itself was actually quite innocuous. And actually, I had happily practised this habit for at least a while, if not years – without any problems whatsoever, or the slightest temptation to take it obsessive. But then an extremely stressful incident occurred, and then suddenly it was so easy to take this innocuous habit, and to twist it or corrupt it to the point where I actually started injuring myself. And sure enough! In the description about this habit, this is one recognised feature of the condition – that it is something that people do in terms of stress.
You know what? This is a psychological condition that is manifested in a physical habit. “Stress” makes up the psychological component. Realising that this is common not just to me but to other people encouraged me to challenge myself. And I realised, as I have previously realised before, that the habit is not in my fingers themselves. Ultimately this habit causes pain and harm to my face, and I think that my body parts could never willingly continue a habit that would knowingly harm another body part. No, if there is a habit there, it is literally in my head. What I am trying to say is that in attacking my face my fingers were not doing it by themselves, they were only ever obedient to the psychological forces playing out within me. So after a few days, even, of controlling my fingers, my fingers of themselves stopped spontaneously moving towards my face.
So then the big question is this: knowing that this is a psychiatric issue, has the psychological battle been conclusively won? Candidly speaking, I am not sure it has been won. However, my goal is to find less destructive ways of expressing inner angst. And you know what comes top of the list? Blogging – but this time privately. Sometimes just pouring stuff out helps me to structure and order my thoughts and get things in perspective, and think of a way of tackling things.
But you know what? I have been here before. There have been so many times in the past when I hoped “I have overcome this!” – but I somehow kept allowing habit to suck me back in. You know how I said that there was one innocuous habit that started it all? Well over the years, I would vaguely recognise that to overcome this more destructive habit, I would need to let go of the (seemingly) innocuous habit too. But I was reluctant to, I argued to myself that afterall this habit was not destructive, it was the obsessive part that was destructive. But now, I have finally acknowledged that to overcome the deeper issue even the seemingly lesser habit has to go altogether. It is not just those two habits though! It is a whole raft of habits that have been established around this. And from experience, each of these habits in itself has the power to pull me back into the destructive habit, so I have to find a way of conclusively breaking each one of these habits. These habits include constantly touching my skin, using my fingers to assess my skin, and most overwhelming of all – constantly looking at my skin! Even thinking about the habit, remembering the sensations of going through each of those motions. Constantly checking out my skin in a mirror. And in a way, this is a vicious cycle, because I would look at the skin to check on the progress regarding the hyperpigmentation, and then before I know it, my fingers would venture towards my face…and then…. 🙁 🙁 🙁 But no more (Please Lord!) I have literally had to catch myself every time, and stop myself looking at my own face!
Dermatillomania and drinking alcohol
On this blog, I have been somewhat evangelical about the fact that I don’t drink. (And for the record, I’ve never taken drugs either!) And talking about this dermatillomania illustrates a point about myself. I absolutely know, I’ve always known that as with dermatillomania, so with alcohol, something that may have started off innocuously would have become obsessive, during the times of high stress in my life. I absolutely know of myself, and I have always known, that if I ever cultivated drinking, even as an innocent pastime, it would have been too tempting to turn towards this when life got stressful. I am absolutely sure that I would drink excessively, the same way I have picked obsessively at my skin. Why am I saying this? I am asking you to observe yourself – honestly. Do you also have this tendency towards compulsive behaviour? If so, I would ask you to be very, very careful around alcohol or other stimulants, such as narcotics, or even prescribed medication. As bad as dermatillomania can be, at least it was never life-threatening, either to me or to others – at least not in my case (to my knowledge). But the same can definitely not be said of alcohol or drug abuse. I would urge you that if you can see the slightest tendency towards this in yourself, to do your absolute utmost to cut yourself off from it. This is for the sake of potentially saving your own life, or enhancing the peace of people around you. I believe that actually many of us would have the tendency to compulsively start doing something in times of stress. Actually, this was not even my only compulsive behaviour – just the most visible. Perhaps this is true of you too – perhaps you are already acting compulsively in some ways. So many people that I care about drink, and to be honest I worry about them. I worry about what they might be struggling with behind closed doors, or behind a facade of “having it all together”. We all know that that concept of “having it all together” is increasingly not true of any of us. Like with me, this might not just be one habit, but perhaps a whole family of habits, perhaps not wrong in themselves, that consistently and predictably suck you right back in, even at times when you think that you have overcome the bad habit.
My skin as an expression of forgiveness
Seriously, my skin is such an important lesson in forgiveness. To think that I have knowingly abused my skin so thoroughly and systematically for so many years – and time after time after time after time my skin has “forgiven me”, and healed thoroughly (just spontaneously looked at it again!) Wow. Although I can never advocate sitting around if someone picks on you, attacks you and makes you bleed for years on end! (Even if that person is me!) And to think that in all those years despite all that extensive damage I never got even a tiny skin infection. Thank You Lord! (Or perhaps I just did not notice!) All the same, it is my God I have to thank for everything. You know, by rights, after treating my skin like this, for so long, I should look old and haggard. But thankfully, apparently, I don’t! Rather I look consistently young for my age, so young looking, apparently, that younger guys, erm … – I mean much younger guys, erm…like consistently over a decade younger, erm…wink!!!
Going back to Mr Huggie-Wuggie, I would definitely prefer for him to have never witnessed the slightest trace of this, to only have seen my skin radiant and clear as I hope it will look in a few months time. But perhaps there is something powerful about the possibility that he might have seen me over the course of that journey, from being my very worst, actively picking, to banishing the habit for good and afterwards attaining clear, beautiful skin. This is so that he would see me not as someone who does not struggle, but rather as someone who battles her issues – and overcomes.