Obsessive Skin Picking is Much More Than a Bad Habit

Guest Contributor

You might not even realize you're doing it. You pick, pick, pick at a scab or pimple mindlessly, sometimes breaking the skin and drawing blood, sometimes not. If you are aware, you likely are ashamed of your "bad habit." Long sleeves are a staple in your wardrobe to hide the sores that won't heal on your arms. Maybe you breathe a sigh of relief in the colder months because no one questions why your legs are always covered.

If any of this sounds familiar, it's time to make an appointment with your doctor to discuss a condition called dermatillomania, or obsessive skin-picking. I have it. It is not a bad habit. And while it may feel as if you are, you are not alone.

What is dermatillomania?

According to SkinPick.com, obsessive skin picking — or dermatillomania — is defined as "repetitive picking at one's own skin to the extent of causing damage.” Behaviors associated with the condition often result in discolored skin, scarring, and could even result in severe skin tissue damage in more serious cases. Dermatillomania is classified as a body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) and, like eating disorders and Trichotillomania (a condition in which sufferers pull out hairs from his/ her scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, or facial hair), it has the potential to harm your body and physical appearance.

Dermatillomania is a condition fraught with shame and secrecy. Only those who have it or related conditions can truly understand that lack of willpower has nothing to do with it. What you are dealing with is a mental illness. This is not a bad habit. You are not weak because you can't stop.

You're not alone

It hasn't been long since I learned that my reality had a name. I remember blinking - a lot - as I processed the new information I had stumbled across while researching for a story related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It turns out, dermatillomania is an OCD-related condition. It was a powerful moment. My life suddenly made sense in hindsight. I now had an explanation for the nights I stayed up while my family slept, picking and digging and barely breathing until I felt the skin break on every blemish within my line of sight and reach. I finally understood why I washed myself up, then snuck into my own bed before my husband would wake up for work, because I knew what I did was not normal and I couldn't explain why I had to do it (but I had to do it).

When I first shared about my dermatillomania on social media, the private message inflow I received was filled with responses of surprise, shock, and gratitude. So many people had been blaming themselves for something they have no control over. One woman said she now understood why her husband couldn't stay away from a sore on his leg long enough to let it heal if it was not wrapped in medical tape to keep him from picking.

Getting help (and a support system)

My therapist designated my little dog, Nibbler, as an emotional support animal after noticing that when I focus on him, I tend to leave my skin alone. My own plan is built on talk therapy and refocusing my OCD skin-picking tendencies to other activities. I consider it a good day when I am able to break myself away from my own skin to pick up my favorite gel pen and start doodling a new piece for my Etsy shop. The concentration I pour into my art functions as an alternative outlet, and I often find myself letting out my breath in relief when I finally put down the pen.

My family also has stepped in as my support system, gently redirecting me by placing a hand on top of my own if they see me picking at my skin. There is no judgement; only love. And for this, I am eternally grateful.

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