things you know if you’re a skin-picker

(and things you should know if you’re not) 

i've spoken about compulsive picking before, but never in much detail. it definitely resides within that privileged 'acceptable' sphere of mental health disorders alongside depression & anxiety (let's not pretend that schizo spectrum disorders aren't still stigmatised on a whole other level) but, nevertheless, any disorder that contains an element of self-mutilation is always going to earn you the side-eye from some people. so here are some facts that you definitely already know if you do it (but it's nice to hear you're not alone) and that you should know if you're lucky enough to not do it (because being supportive of someone by actually understanding what they're going through makes all the difference).

  1. it isn’t self-harm. there’s a distinct lack of sympathy for mental health conditions that see sufferers doing things to harm themselves. something about doing yourself physical damage stirs up real disgust in a lot of people, and i think this is why so many sufferers of BFRBs (body focused repetitive behaviours) - especially skin-picking due to the drawing of blood - are ashamed to talk about it. skin-picking is, actually, from a clinical perspective almost the opposite of self harm - which is generally inflicted as a way of dealing with difficult emotions/thoughts/situations/experiences. the urge to pick, however, is so strong that it actually overrides pain sensations and lets you finish the job, so to speak.
  2. it’s a vicious cycle. while the definitive cause of skin-picking is still unknown, the cyclical nature of the process gives us an insight into the psychological aspect of the disorder. what starts with an urge or ‘itch’ to pick at something - usually because you feel your fingertip skim over a bit of dry skin or you catch sight of a spot as you pass a mirror - soon mutates into an exponentially increasing feeling of tension that you know can only be resolved by picking/squeezing the particular culprit. doing so, however, simply opens the floodgates and before you know it you’re excavating the nail bed of the neighbouring finger or you’ve tied your hair back for a proper go at your face. while the act of picking/squeezing acts as instantaneous relief from the urge, you’re then left with the inescapable feelings of shame, guilt, and self-loathing that contribute to the stress/anxiety which makes you want to pick/squeeze in the first place. 
  3. it takes different forms. most of my finger-picking is automatic, while my face-picking is focused. my fingers ‘pick themselves’ often without me noticing until someone (usually my always on-watch boyfriend because he’s wonderful) tells me to stop OR when i realise i’m bleeding. as long as my fingers can feel each other, and therefore feel the crevices left by previous picking, i won’t be able to stop myself. if i can feel the bits ‘needing’ to be picked, i’ll pick them. there have been occasions when i’m literally saying the words ‘ok i’m gonna try so hard not to pick’ only for bf to point out that i’m doing it as i speak. my face-picking, however, is a whole other monster. i’ll scan every square millimetre of my face to find the bits ‘needing’ squeezed. no pore is safe. and when there are aren’t bits to be seen, i’ll run my fingers over my skin until i find a bit that *feels* problematic. and, of course, squeezing perfectly fine pores with, by this point, not particularly clean fingers only leads to actual spots in said pores, just begging to be squeezed.
  4. it feels like gambling. this is how i often describe it for people who can’t relate. for me, the process is addictive. when i come across a ‘good’ pore that’ll yield me something to squeeze out, i feel like i’m on a winning streak and that the next one will be as satisfactory. when i get a disappointingly empty pore, i feel like i owe myself one more go at another one to make up for missing out. interestingly, gambling used to be listed in the same category as impulse control disorders like skin-picking in the bible of psychological disorders before being redefined as an addiction with the latest edition of the manual (DSM5). squeezing my face feels like a treat that i shouldn’t really be having. sometimes i find myself thinking ‘ok you’re allowed 3 more shots to find a good one’. …then you low-key hate yourself.
  5. it's a black hole. the normal passage of time ceases to exist when you get in the zone. i’ve rocked up to the mirror to get a particularly troublesome spot that’s causing me actual pain and does legitimately need popped. suddenly it’s 2 hours later and my face is puffy, my skin is red raw, and the mirror’s steamed up from me having to get close enough to see the damage i’m doing in better detail. of all the disturbing aspects of my impulse control disorder, it’s this genuinely trance-like state that both scares and shames me the most. i honestly don’t know where the time goes. i have lost a lot of time to compulsively ripping at my own flesh. 
it’s hard for me to approach this disorder from anything other than a clinical perspective. psychology is what i’m versed in and how i understand the world. writing about my own experiences, therefore, is something that is hard for me because i want to present myself as a case study, when - really - i know that each struggle is unique and complex and cannot be explained purely in the same terms as mine. 
truth be told, when i sat down to write this i thought i’d reach a sort of zen conclusion with which i’d leave you with some sage and comforting advice. but, like, that’s not what this is. i don’t have an answer. or a solution. i’ve been so busy and flitting all over the country for the past few months to tackle this in a constructive way. but if the objective was to make even one single person feel less alone in this horrible, frustrating, infuriating whirlpool of compulsive picking then i hope that i’ve succeeded. i’ve obviously ripped my fingers to shreds while writing this because i can’t type with my life-saving false nails on, but hopefully it’s been of some use to somebody. having someone say the things that you’re feeling, and thought you were alone with, is one of the friendliest experiences in the universe. ‘i do that too!’ is one of the most comforting thoughts you’ll ever have. 
as always, i’m an email away if you wanna talk. 
let’s try & do what’s best for us, at least just for today.

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  • Sophie on

    Thanks so much for sharing, I had no idea what I do was a “thing”. I don’t quite know what to do now that I know this. Sorry words failing me-not slept

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