My Dermatillomania Story
I find myself reflecting on my life and experiences of recovery a lot during this time of year. For good reason, though: I celebrated 3 recovery birthdays in June. The first: six years sober. The second: a year cigarette and nicotine free. The third: a year free of self-harm.
You see, having eczema has brought more challenges into my life than just the symptoms of atopic dermatitis. During the first adult flare-up of my eczema, I found myself dealing with a new skin-related issue: dermatillomania.
What is dermatillomania?
Dermatillomania, also known as compulsive skin-picking (CSP) or excoriation disorder, is a mental health condition that is characterized by repetitive picking, scratching, squeezing or poking of the skin.1
Compulsive skin-picking belongs to a group of disorders that have “body-focused repetitive behaviors” (BRFB). The cause behind the behavior can be vastly different between individuals experiencing CSP. Although it is classified as a mental illness, the underlying symptoms and behaviors behind why a person is engaging in skin-picking mean that there can be vastly different experiences between individuals as well.2,3
How is dermatillomania different for different people?
Skin-picking may begin for different reasons. For example, person A has a skin-picking disorder centered around anxiety. However, person B also has dermatillomania, but their experience is centered around self-soothing due to depression. Meanwhile, person C is dealing with CSP as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder.3
These three people may have different contributing causes to why they experience CSP. But their experiences of having CSP will often be very similar, at least in my experience.
Why was I skin-picking?
I was person B.
I was going through the most difficult period of my life to date when my skin-picking began. Honestly, I had never thought myself the type to engage in self-harm. I thought of cutting and slicing skin, burning – basically extreme self-mutilation – and I would shudder. It took me a while to realize my skin-picking was just that: self-harm. While, yes, I certainly engaged in the behavior during moments I felt anxious, I also engaged in CSP when I felt sad or depressed.
Sometimes I am not even sure why I did it.
I would enter the bathroom and emerge hours later, my face, legs, and arms swollen and hurting, with tears in my eyes because I just didn’t understand what even happened. Nothing was making me anxious, sad, lonely . . . but there I was. Feeling guilty and ugly because I had scarred myself yet again, but even more so because I didn’t even have a discernible reason why.
What impact did it have on my life?
My CSP took up a considerable amount of my time, money, energy, and self-worth. I would spend lots of money on bandages, doctor visits, medicines, fidget items, and supplements just to try and find some sort of relief.
Just trying to manage the secondary infections from both eczema and my dermatillomania was like a full-time job.
When did I decide to try to stop skin-picking?
Last June, I had a couple of things happen all at the same time: I quit smoking, hit 5 years sober, and also came down with an illness that made me sicker than I had ever been. I would love to be able to tell you more about it, but honestly, there is not much I remember.
When I began to recover, I realized I was recovering more than I realized. I was officially told I was in remission from my autoimmune diagnosis very shortly after. I wasn’t in a great place mentally, but I made a conscious decision that my CSP had to be a part of the things I would triumph over.
I feel grateful and proud to be able to be looking at that upcoming horizon of “1 year” for smoking and CSP. It was not easy to get here. Much to my annoyance, the difficulties of everyday life did not subside at all just because I was on a self-improvement journey.
How did I recover?
Financial issues made private therapy inaccessible, but I was fortunate to finally gain access to healthcare coverage that helped me access medicine to help with my depression and anxiety. I also actively sought out learning self-led cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based practices to help me in the most stressful moments when I wanted to engage in CSP.
As with learning any new skill or stopping unhelpful behaviors, practice is everything. If you are dealing with CSP, I hope, at the very least, that reading this helps you know you truly aren’t alone. Thank you for reading and letting me share a bit about my experience. If you or someone you know is struggling with compulsive skin-picking, check out the Picking Me Foundation or The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors for helpful patient-informed information and resources related to CSP.
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