This piece originally appeared on Femsplain.com. Femsplain is a community for everyone, powered by personal stories from anyone female-identified. It has been lightly edited before re-posting.
I'm always drawn to write about this topic because it's so visceral and cleansing for me. Though, usually, as soon as my trembling fingers hit the publish button, it's only a matter of time before my actions have consequences. The responses of "don't do that" and "here's the number for my therapist" pour in almost immediately, and the short-lived relief of confessing my malady morphs into an extreme sense of dread.
So my disclaimer is this: I'm not looking for sympathies, I'm looking to better myself and to be an ally to those who have trouble understanding why they're quite literally picking themselves apart.
I've suffered from dermatillomania, or chronic skin picking, since I was about 11 or 12 years old. Basically I pick at my acne, ingrown hairs, patches of dry skin, you name it.
I'm super self-conscious about all of the scars I've gained from it and I've been trying to stop picking for years. It's gotten to the point where I tend to avoid eye contact because I'm embarrassed by my appearance. The scarring on my back has gotten bad enough that I avoid going to the beach so I don't have to be seen in a bathing suit. The worst part about this condition is that it's an OCD disorder, so even if I take medicine to control my acne, what I really need to do is control my stress, anxiety and other negative emotions. Even when I'm seemingly not upset, I still pick. It's become a tic, something I do absentmindedly.
The irony of having an obsessive-compulsive disorder that you have absolutely no control over is far from poetic. It's something I've been working on and I feel like it has gotten better, but I still have a long way to go — and the longer it continues, the worse the scarring gets.In a way, I'm lucky. My general acne isn't cystic or invasive, it's pretty normal for someone my age. Additionally, I'm so obsessive about applying gels, ointments and lotions that my healing process is pretty predictable — I scar, but no pock marks. I know that eventually my wounds will go away and though I may eventually need laser surgery, my skin should be able to recover — that is, if I can ever stop picking.
The real issue here is the amount of hours I lose in the morning getting ready or at night before I go to bed when I stare myself down in the mirror, and pick until all of my pores ooze and my skin is puffy and red.
I went to the dermatologist for the first time a few years ago. I had been dreading and avoiding it for years, but finally got the confidence to try to do something about my horrible skin. I'm assuming I just had a bad doctor and people don't normally have this experience, but it was one of the most embarrassing and demeaning experiences of my life. I'm used to having doctors ask about my skin during checkups. Even my OBGYN comments on how beautiful I am … except for what I do to my face, so I wasn't expecting it to be a cakewalk.
However, what I wasn't expecting was for my dermatologist to have absolutely no sympathy for my plight. He made me strip to my bra so he could see all of my scarring and then brought in a series of med students to ogle my misfortune. He told me I had to stop picking, like I had a choice in the matter, and prescribed me a series of antibiotics and lotions to help with my acne and dark spots. The whole affair couldn't have lasted more than five minutes, but it felt like ages.
The one thing he did explain to me that I found helpful was that the clear liquid that comes out after you squeeze out all of the blood and pus (this is disgusting — I know) actually releases endorphins, which is why picking at my skin makes me feel better. And that's also why, for some, it is highly addictive.
Safe to say, I never went back. The antibiotics he put me on didn't mix well with my already sensitive stomach and made me really nauseous. I could barely take them for the two months that they were prescribed. Additionally, I was recently speaking with a co-worker the other day who said she was on a similar medication and it may have led to her pseudotumor cerebri. (Google it — it's terrifying.)
Eventually, I should find a new dermatologist, but for now I'm coping with my self-prescribed series of Lush treatments. I'm even starting to find little things about my appearance that I like. I don't hide behind as much makeup as I did in middle school and high school. I've learned to love my cartoonishly big eyes that I always wished were blue and not so brown that my pupils are hidden. I love the way my ankles poke out between my cropped pants and my Oxfords. I love how toned my calves have gotten from walking around Boston and Los Angeles. I'm even OK with my butt that I always thought was way too big for my tiny frame.