What it’s like to have a skin picking disorder

I have dermatillomania.

That is a terrible name. Anytime a diagnosis has “mania” in it, you know it’s not good.

There’s another name for this condition: excoriation. Honestly, that one sounds even worse and I hate it even more.

Put in simplest terms, I have a skin picking disorder. It’s one of several body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) that clinicians believe are leftover grooming behaviors gone a bit haywire. Nose picking is another one, as is hair-pulling.

I’m writing about it now because this is #BFRBweek. I’m honored to join the effort to help educate and raise awareness about these conditions, how common they are and how to get help.

I’ve had my BFRB since I was quite young. I don’t know how young, but I can remember being in elementary school and having scabs all over my legs from mosquito bites that I had scratched and then picked.

Even earlier than that, my mom says I had chicken pox as a toddler and scratched the heck out of all my spots. In fact, maybe that’s when it started.

The onset of acne at puberty made it even worse – I hated, scratched and picked at any imperfection on my skin.

I don’t think anyone really knew I had a problem – they likely just thought I was a normal, gross kid who picked at scabs. There is a degree of normalcy in it, except I simply couldn’t stop even if I tried. And oh, I tried.

I remember throughout my childhood, my Mommers would lovingly, gently ask me to stop picking, then hand me tissues and bandaids.

My father took the “tough love” route, as always. I remember sitting with blood running down my leg from something I had just picked open, and him shaming me in disgust, saying “If you keep that up, no one will ever want to marry you.”

As with every unkind word, I took that to heart. For a long time, I truly felt I was disgusting and not worthy of love.

My compulsive skin picking led to a lot of self-hatred. My skin and my scars have always been something I despise about myself. The trouble is that the more I focus on it and hate myself, the worse the compulsion to pick gets. Being shamed or criticized for picking only makes me pick more. I can’t help it.

My greatest fear has always been that people find me repulsive, disgusting and gross because of this “bad habit” – only skin picking is not a habit at all. BRFBs are a psychological condition that I did not choose to have.

BRFBs affect as many as 1 in 20 people, and about 75% of us are female. These disorders, as with any mental health condition, are nothing to be ashamed of. But, that’s often easier said than done.

Seeking help for BFRBs

In my early 20s, I sought counseling and even tried medication to stop picking. The Prozac only had a mild benefit, if any – and I didn’t like the way it leveled out my highs and lows. I didn’t feel like myself. I couldn’t cry. So I went off it and just tried to manage on my own.

There were no dermatillomania support groups back then – and, until my mid 20s, there was no Internet. There were no fabulous BFRB organizations and resources like there are now.

Today, kids and adults with dermatillomania and other BFRBs can find support, connect with others who have the condition and get lots of tips and tricks to help. I am so happy that things have changed.

What ultimately helped me most with my skin picking was radical self acceptance, self compassion and self love.

We all find our way to the magic of self love and acceptance through different paths. There’s no wrong way to get there!

What helped get me to that point was tattoo collecting. I figured out quite by accident that the more tattoos I got, the more I loved my skin and myself.

I started out getting tattoos to cover up the areas of my body where I had the most scars from skin picking. The tattoos made me love those parts of myself, which in turn led me to pick less. It was a win win! And I’m not the only one who has seen BRFB improvements from tattoos.

I will say, though, that tattoos can be tricky for people who pick. New tattoos can scab and picking at them can hurt and damage tattoos (I speak from experience). It may not work for everyone, but I’m proof that tattoos can be part of a solution for skin picking and related self esteem issues. I know that my tattoos saved me in so many ways.

I still have hard days with my skin picking disorder, and it was not easy to write this. I had to stop in the middle to cry a little bit because I felt sad and ashamed. Still, I know that shining light on this condition, and on mental health struggles in general, is the right thing to do. I’ll be so happy if this post helps even one person.

Bottom line, the more I can love and accept myself exactly as I am – picking, scars and all – the better I’m able to ease up on myself and feel at peace. That’s the only thing, for me, that helps to calm the compulsion to pick. I’m sure I will always pick a little bit, but I’ve come a long way and I accept where I am with my BFRB today.

If you or someone you love struggles with a BFRB like skin picking, there are treatment options. More doctors and therapists know about dermatillomania and other BFRBs these days, which helps a lot. The organization behind BRFB.org and #BRFBweek, the TLC Foundation for BRFBs, is a goldmine of resources and information for patients, families and health professionals. So is PickingMe.org, another fabulous organization full of helpful resources.

Please let me know in the comments below or over on Facebook or Instagram if you found this helpful. If you have a BRFB too, try to be gentle with yourself, love and accept yourself, and know that you are not alone.

About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat, snake and guinea pig mom. Travel nut. Writer since birth. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.

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