Ever hear of Dermatillomania, Excoriation Disorder, or Body Focused Repetitive Behavior? Then this post is for you. I think you only really know about it if you suffer from it (or you’re a psych student doing a project on it).
Also, I am by no means a professional. These viewpoints are my own experiences as someone who deals with this issue (amongst many others, ha!).
Preface: This is a candid and raw post. I had a few major breakthroughs lately and can’t stop myself from writing the way I am.
I always knew it was weird. My kindergarten teacher apparently scarred me for life and throughout childhood if I took the chance of confiding in a friend I immediately received the “you’re a freak” face. I started to become really shy and unbelievably sensitive, beginning a life of guilt, anxiety, and self-doubt. Dealing with this odd habit really made my awkward teenage years even more fun.
As I started to mention, I’ve been struggling with this issue basically since as far back I can remember. I think it might be one of my first memories. I was 4 or 5 and I recall walking through the hallway of the house I grew up in and noticed a little bit of skin next to my nail. My mom told it was a cuticle. I remember it fairly vividly for how long ago it was (and for how many gallons of booze and natural elements I’ve put my body through). Finger biting & picking. It quickly became a huge concern. I recall going to the doctor for it. My pediatrician told my mom not to worry about it I’d grow out of it. I worried about it. I did’t grow out of it, I grew into it. I knew it was different. I was different. I was weird. Even that little I started shaming myself for it.
In kindergarten Sister Linda tried to correct it. In the front of our classroom we had a taped square outline on the floor. It was supposed to be a TV where we watched “the news” in the morning. Students would stand in the center of the box and have to recite or update things we learned. It was really about putting a student on the spot. Front and center. One morning for the news, she asked myself and Jimmy to stand in front. She then told our class that Jimmy helps his dad work on cars, so sometimes his hands get cut up, but that’s okay because it was an accident from working. She then pointed to me. Spilled my awful secret to the rest of the class. She told all the other kids that what I did wasn’t okay because I was purposely doing it. I would never get married because no one would want to marry someone with skeleton hands. Because, according to her I was going to chew my fingers to the bone if I didn’t stop.
She then pointed to me. Spilled my awful secret to the rest of the class.
Sidebar: Jesus, just writing that was a huge release and realization of so many things. I never realized how fucked up that was. It more than likely explains my issue with being put on the spot. My heart starts racing and I panic, my mind goes blank. I feel stupid and I don’t know why. I’m not dumb, I know it! Geeze, this definitely explains why I clam up, especially in work meetings. (It all makes sense, now! You’re a virgin! – Side not, I realize I do a lot of cutaways in my writing…not sure if other readers are picking up on these pop culture references or not. If you’re a good writer reading this, can you give me advice if I suck in the comments down below?) Also, not for nothing but Jimmy’s hands were cut up like an odd amount. WTF did his dad drive a cheese grater?!…End Sidebar
Needless to say Sister Linda’s approach to my issue did not work. Her solution was to create a calendar . For every day I didn’t bite my fingers I would mark the day with a gold foil star. At the end if I filled the page with stars I’d win a free book that came with a cassette. It was about a cat, rip-offly similar to Garfield, who had to give up fish for lent. Super worth it, I know.
Of course I put all the stickers on the calendar, even though I probably became so much worse after the news broadcast. I needed that book. That book would prove I was like everyone else and not a freak. That book slightly salvaged my reputation. Having the book proved I didn’t bite my fingers like teacher said. The book gave me it’s own issue though. I knew I didn’t really earn it, so it came with this sense of guilt. Not to mention the fact I didn’t actually stop biting my fingers.
Again, this was kindergarten. Thinking about that now as a parent is devastating.
Throughout the years and as I grew older it was just a second nature type thing. My family knew after a while not to bring it up because I was so sensitive about it. I’d try fake nails once I hit high school. That didn’t help. I’d find myself walking up to a register to pay for something and having to retract my hand quick because I’d be bleeding from digging at myself so much. I’d be terrified the other kids at the pool would see my disgusting wet fingers. Half the time I never realized I was doing it. I tried bad tasting nail polish. That helped a little. I tried thinking about it constantly and having it consume me. I tried ignoring and pretending like I didn’t do it and it wasn’t a big deal. I tried journaling about it. I tried all these things and end up thinking “why doesn’t this work? am I stupid or crazy?”. It was a non-stop cycle of shame, embarrassment, guilt, over-thinking, and self-loathing.
Sidebar 2: I want to take a moment here to make sure you’re not reading this thinking “this bitch is crazy”. I’m a high-functioning professional in the workforce, competent parent & spouse, pay my bills, have a good credit score. I do have a blast living, but definitely deal with some dark days. I’m an over-achiever and hard worker. I don’t have a criminal record, though what I smoke is criminal…wazzzzap! Jesting. But that’s why I wanted to blog about this. I want to break the stigma down for the people who suffer from this. I think a lot of people that do do this have a similar personality set. They create stigma for themselves. Yeah it’s not the most normal thing in the world, but it’s because of deep rooted issues you don’t even realize you have. We become our own worst enemies, our toughest critics. Biting the hand that feeds, literally.
One night in college on a web-surf sesh I came across that word: dermatillomania. There it was in front of me with a bunch of google images of hands like mine. Message boards and comments from people sharing their woes and stories. Some of them relatable, some of them not. But I knew I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only person in the world too dumb to stop chewing their own body up.
I guess I thought by knowing it was something, something with a name, it’d maybe go away on its own. It didn’t. It didn’t occur to me to look into anything further. I was already paranoid it was in my search history. I can’t have people know I googled ‘how to stop biting myself’. SMH so embarrassing.
I would look back into it in waves. One thing I did find a little helpful but probably possibly even more destructive was to file your fingers down in the rough spots, or chewed spots with a nail file. This would smooth your skin and give you nothing to dig at. For a bit.
When I became pregnant I actually almost made it to the point of no return with it. I thought I had just about kicked it. I remember thinking I did. I started painting my nails and was so proud at how much I healed. I was so close. Then I had a stressful few weeks a couple months ago and completely relapsed. It was like kindergarten again. I couldn’t stop. I was chewing my fingers raw. I knew it was really messed up at this point. That’s when I did another web surf sesh. As I was hanging virtual ten, this time I came across another website: The TLC Foundation for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors. I spent a while going through the site. Then there it was. Find Help & Support, Find a Therapist. That was when I found the name of the one women like in all of the state that provides BFRB therapy and she just happened to offer it in my city. I emailed, but not right away. Even as I was here, in the spot that said “here is someone that can help you” I was thinking to myself “she’s going to think I’m so weird. How can she help me?”. I had utilized counseling services in the past (not for this specifically) so how would this help?
I never realized it was a psychological issue until I started talking to a therapist who specializes in this. I just thought I had something wrong with me. I was defective. I was a stupid-piece of shit that was too dumb to stop. I am a smart person, I should be able to handle this. It’s such a bizarre thing. People who don’t do it don’t understand everything that compulsively makes you do it. You don’t even know or realize until you get help with it.
Things That HAVE Helped
Exploring your childhood and recalling growing up with the issue. What do you remember as a kid that made you nervous? Or stressed or anxious? What is it about those memories that stirs something up? Does it relate to any other issues you might be dealing with? It’s a very introspective exercise so be prepared to shake up some not so great memories or think back on things you didn’t realize how deeply affected you. It’s like skipping rocks, the ripples might go way beyond what you’d expect.
Being completely conscientious when you start picking and what’s happening around you. Are you talking? Are you in a meeting? Listening to someone else? On the phone with your mom or girlfriend? Watching tv? Driving? Is it something distressing? Are you working yourself into knots over work, money, kids, your mom, your pets, your friend’s wedding you’re in in two months and the things you have to do for it? You get the idea. Take notice of when you are doing it and just notice that. Does a pattern emerge?
Consider trying something to replace your busy fingers. Chances are you’re also a fidgeter in addition to the skin picking. Like you sit and shake your one foot, pumping it up and down. I’m not talking about a fidget spinner, but if it works go with it. My therapist introduced me to this beeswax stuff. It doesn’t just help as a whipping boy for my fingers. I realized what a sensory issue this also was. It is your body and has a certain feel and sensation to it. So weird if you’re reading this I know, but there is this odd sense of gratification that comes with it. The beeswax is unlike any other material I’ve used. It takes a bit to warm up in your hand, once it does though it’s completely malleable and you’re able to squish, roll into a ball, and experience the same sensations of picking in some really odd way. At my first therapy session I was introduced to it and I think I ordered it in my car in the parking lot before I left. Here’s a link to it. (If you purchase through this, I’ll receive a bit of an incentive, FYI.) I have pieces of this wax all over (but out of reach of my daughter), on my dresser, window sill, desk at work, cup holder in my car, and a piece in my purse.
Another fidget type thing are these pea pod key chains. They are a bit goofy but it also in a way has a similar sensation to your fingers. There’s a little pea in the middle and you pop it out of the pod. I purchased these ones and use them as well but not as much as the wax. These items aren’t the cheapest things but for less than $20 i think it’s well worth it to try them as a substitute.
Stop being so hard on yourself. This is difficult to break after a lifetime of putting yourself down. Among a ton of other insight my therapist gave me a few interesting metaphors to think on. One was from a psychologist she follows. Basically think of everything you deal with in life as a backpack you carry around. Work, relationships, kids – it all adds weight. People with anxiety and depression tend to keep piling onto their load. Resulting in it either weighing them down or complaining about the weight rather than unloading anything. It’s okay to acknowledge it when it gets heavy. “You know what, this does suck!” Or “this is really upsetting, I need to unload and release these emotions or thoughts or feelings”. She said by picturing the things you deal with in that way it allows you to realize how heavy the load you’re carrying around is and that it’s okay (really it is) to unload a bit.
Another one I love and I’d never heard before she told me was: picture two fish swimming in the ocean. The one fish looks to the other and says “boy, the water’s really cold today”. The other fish looks to him and asks “what’s water?”. I thought that was so powerful. You don’t necessarily realize something so obvious because it’s what you grew up with or we’re accustomed to. For me my parents were a bit neurotic through my childhood and I’ve really been learning to recognize that certain things maybe weren’t so normal. I’m in no means blaming my parents for anything, and as mentioned there were a number of things that led to my issues, but learning to see things from that outer perspective is extremely powerful and helps you release and realize a lot. A lot about your life and yourself.
Therapy. I am realizing and writing all this after two, that’s right two, therapy sessions. I had my second session yesterday. As I was heading to work afterwards I realized I was slowly streaming tears. I’m not sure if they were tears of joy, but they were tears of some type of relief. Relief that I’m not crazy or alone. Relief that I actually noticed in the morning before my appointment my hands had looked the best they have in a long, long time. I know it’s due to that first session and the things my therapist had me think about and realize. It was enlightening. We are continuing to meet until we both feel our work has accomplished what my goals were. I can happily say I am on my way and finding I’m feeling revitalized and starting to not be so hard on myself and my hands.
I urge anyone who suffers with this habit (or hair pulling, other areas of skin picking) to go to The TLC Foundation for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors, and Find a Therapist in your area. It has been monumental for me. I feel after all these years I’m actually facing this issue, learning to understand it all, process it, and work on becoming the person I know I can be.