If you’ve never heard of dermatillomania, it’s an excoriation disorder, meaning obsessive compulsive skin picking. It is something I have struggled with my whole life. When I was younger, it manifested in scratching at mosquito bites until my skin was completely raw and bleeding, leaving scars. I would pick at my cuticles until I developed terrible welts that on some fingers reached my knuckles. But it didn’t start becoming super noticeable to other people until I started getting acne. Until then, I was good at hiding it. I wore band-aids almost all the time. However once the problem was on my face, there was no way to cover it up despite my efforts with a heavy, uncomfortable foundation. Since my derma is triggered by both sight and touch, every time I saw myself in the mirror or felt a bump, I would pick at it, often until it bled, always making it worse. It got to the point where I always had scabs on my face, chest, back, and shoulders. I was so self-conscious yet still couldn’t manage to stop myself. I put post-it notes on my mirror to try and remind myself, but I would just overlook them and continue to pick and scratch. I wore sweatshirts so people couldn’t see the damage I had done, but my face was the worst part. I felt so bad about myself.
I tried to take care of my skin as best I could. I was always trying new products, cleansers, moisturizers, spot treatments, masks- none of which helped- because my skin wasn’t the problem, my habits were. They were in control of me. When I came to college, I was exhausted by myself. I came across a video of a girl talking about her struggle with dermatillomania. I had never of heard that word, or even felt like anyone understood what I was going through besides my mom, who also struggles with the same thing. It was a moment of clarity for me. She spoke about how it was taking over her life, and I realized that mine was too. It causes so many of my self-esteem issues and anxieties. I realized how much time I lost. I would sit on the bathroom sink and pick for over an hour regularly. At first, it hurt to think about. The realization that I had wasted so many hours scrutinizing over every red spot, craning my neck to pick at my back. I was hurting myself. So I decided to let this wake me up. I didn’t want this to be the rest of my life. This was where I started trying to turn things around for real.
The first thing I did was get rid of the tools I used to pick at my skin. I started being more diligent with my medications and using methods of relaxation I had worked on with my therapist. I got fake nails put on, which also helped me stop biting them, so that I couldn’t squeeze the bumps with the same precision. The most important thing I did was to stop looking in the mirror. It was definitely the hardest. I would do my best not to wear my glasses when I had to do something like check my hair or my outfit in the morning, that way I wouldn’t see the spots. Weirdly enough, watching Dr. Pimple Popper also proved to be incredibly therapeutic. I would watch her blackhead videos when I was having intense urges, and often they would help me. Of course things don’t heal if you keep scratching them, so I still had lots of scabs. However, I wasn’t gaining more. This was when I decided to ditch the plethora of products and give into the advertising: I started using Curology. I figured it would clear up anything that was acne, that way I would stop picking at those bumps subconsciously. This helped me a lot as well. Having a simple skin care routine that was more manageable and easy to stick to helped. Also, I kept it by my bed and did it without looking in the mirror. As for the existing scabs, they eventually started to heal. I tried to just touch rather than scratch, and I hope that eventually I will be able to wean myself off touching as well.
I continue to have days where I pick uncontrollably, especially during times like these where I am especially stressed. Since being home, a lot of my routines have been shaken up as well, which makes it hard to maintain the habits I was working so hard to create. However, the most valuable takeaway I got from this experience is that I am in control. I went from telling myself to stop and not being able to, to listening to myself when I remembered how upset I’d be to see that damage I had done to my face. It is hard to get yourself to stop doing things, but not impossible. It is something I still struggle with every day, but I have improved so much and I have to be proud of myself for that. Here is to continuing with good habits and getting rid of the bad ones, as hard as it may be.
If you struggle with derma, you are not alone, and there is hope for you. I know how difficult it can be, but I am in a much better place in just a year of acknowledging my obsession. While you can never completely overcome these compulsions, practice and patience help. Remember that you are in control. Dermatillomania is a chronic condition, and as of now there is no cure, but it doesn’t have to ruin your life. Things like habit reversal therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy have proven to be helpful to those affected. I also engaged in therapy for nearly four years to get to where I am, and I still have a ways to go. However, happiness and comfort are not impossible. I thought I would never feel comfortable in my body, but here I am now and I can genuinely say that I am so much more comfortable than I ever have been. There is hope.