This story was originally published July 24, 2016.
There are very few things I feel shame about and keep under wraps — just ask anyone who’s had a couple glasses of wine in my company. But my 13-year struggle to get my dermatillomania — a compulsive skin-picking disorder I’ve been diagnosed with — under control is one. Physically, skin-picking is an ugly habit. But to me, what it broadcasts about my mental state is even uglier: that I’m weak, anxious, neurotic, not in control.
I can count on one hand the number of people who know how deep into this disorder I am — and I’ve learned not to talk about it. Because when you tell people you pick, you get one of two responses: “Oh, me too, I can’t resist popping pimples!” Or, “You just have to not do it. Force yourself to stop.” Which is usually where the conversation ends, because this has never been about acne or free will. That, and it’s pretty socially awkward to counter with “No, as in, I sit in my bathroom for hours on end digging into my body, going after tiny specks that could maybe, one day, weeks from now, be hairs, with sharp tools until I bleed, scab, and scar. And then I do it all over again. By the way, how’s your salad?”
I can count on one hand the number of people who know how deep into this disorder I am — and I’ve learned not to talk about it.
I started picking between eighth and ninth grade for reasons I can’t pinpoint now, but it’s not uncommon for compulsive tendencies to develop around the onset of puberty, when our hormones are raging. During high school, my legs got the worst of it. I’d lock myself in the bathroom, settle in on the toilet seat, and pull out every hair on my leg I could grasp with those pointed Tweezerman tweezers. The ones I couldn’t get? I’d take a safety pin and cut into the hair follicle until I reached them. I’d fall into a trance doing this and lose track of time — it wasn’t unusual for three hours to pass before I gave up, flushed a trash can’s worth of bloody tissues, and went to bed, sore from hunching over and squinting.
Needless to say, I spent California summers in jeans, always, and school years in knee socks. (Luckily, all my time was spent at a barn riding horses or in Catholic school, so both clothing items worked well within the respective uniform guidelines of each.) When there was a dance or track meet and I was forced into a dress or shorts, I relied on lots of Sally Hansen Airbrush Legs.
When I headed to college, the picking stopped for almost a year, my scars faded, and I figured I was in the clear. I credited finally being free of the constraints of my parents’ home (they were great; I was a difficult teen) and being surrounded by people 24/7 as the solution. But I eventually relapsed, and when I did, it was on a less readily visible area: my bikini line.
Now, skirts and dresses were in; bathing suits were out. Which, fine, I’ve never liked swimming. But I do like sex, and having to always arrange for it to be in the right lighting, at the right angle, at the right time between picking binges is exhausting. And when you prod at your bikini line (and I have until very recently) to the point that it’s constantly red and irritated, then at best, partners might think you’re prone to ingrowns and sloppy with a razor; at worst, that you have an STI. And then the stigma around that — gross, dirty, et cetera — lodges itself in your head and you start to believe you are all those things. After all, what other kind of person would see invisible imperfections and mutilate herself in order to get them out?
I took the disorder with me to New York City after graduation. A couple years into living here, I met two of my best friends — and not only are they beauty editors, they’re skin-pickers and hair-pullers, too. Water seeks its own level. Together, we’ve formed a fucked-up, judgment-free support group of sorts. We revel in tales of ingrowns that come out easily — in a long spiral! — when you pinch them, but we also talk each other off the ledge on late nights: Walk away from the mirror. Go put on a hat/gloves. Write down the triggers in this moment.
One describes the compulsion to dig into her scalp and legs as being like “a really bad security blanket. When I’m not stressed, I can control it; otherwise I can’t.” And that idea of control — having it, lacking it — is what’s at the root of this: “When my life gets out of control, this is the one thing I feel like I can control, so doing it makes me feel better in those times,” explains the other.
Increasingly, I’ve started to feel the opposite way: that I’ve lost control. In my teenage years, there was something comforting about the act, but now I recognize, even in the moment, that I don’t want to be doing it, that no good will come of it — yet I’m helpless to stop. Therapy, journaling, notes on the mirror, getting rid of tweezers, cutting my nails short — nothing has worked for any significant amount of time.
Then, a few months ago, I made a decision I’d been fighting for years, mostly out of the unfounded fear that I’d turn into a Stepford wife and lose my signature sardonic Daria-ness in the process: I went on the anti-depressant Wellbutrin, for reasons at the time that were unrelated. And guess what? I didn’t, thank God, turn into a sweet, perky thing overnight. Instead, I found myself living in this calm-ish, healthy-ish emotional place where I can see situations for what they are and respond appropriately. Meaning: A small amount of extra stress doesn’t lead to me spending the night in my empty bathtub, sending manic emails ’til 4 a.m. A disappointing response from a guy I’m dating doesn’t feel like a major catastrophe. And for the first time in my life, an urge to pick doesn’t necessarily mean that I will, inevitably, pick.
If that sounds like a passive way of putting it, that’s because it is: By no means am I fully out of this — like any addict, I’ll always be in recovery mode. Thirty-six days ago, jet-lagged and delirious in Stockholm, I fell into one of those zoned-out trances and picked a hole into my areola (I know — what the actual fuck?!) that was so deep, it shocked me into getting my shit together. I’m sick of creating wounds, waiting for them to heal, feeling so elated when they do, then repeating the nasty cycle. Since then I haven’t touched my skin. Have I wanted to? Every. Single. Fucking. Day. The difference is that now I can feel the urge, shift it to an actual stray brow hair that needs plucking, and walk away — to throw on a bikini or have sex in the daylight.