Learning To Live With Dermatillomania


It’s as ugly as a word as it is a habit. Dermatillomania. A form of compulsive skin picking. A skin picking disorder. It’s the constant picking at pieces of skin, no normal person would even notice. But to me, the moment I realize there’s something there, I dig into my skin. The moment a cut begins to heal I reopen it.

The most common is the skin around my fingers but more obvious than that which I do when people aren’t watching is picking my lips.

It’s something I’ve lived with my entire life. The common phrase sounds like a parrot to everyone who knows me, “stop picking Kirsten.” If only it were that easy. But I’ve been doing it since I was four.

A behavior associated with anxiety, OCD, boredom and weirdly pleasure. There’s a strange comfort in pulling a piece of skin you think is a blemish. But it goes from bad to worse when that small piece skin turns into a scab.

“Does it hurt even anymore,” my friend said. As we drove in the car heading to college watching me as I looked at the window picking my lips. He knew me my whole life and with that came knowing, accepting and failing to help me want to change this habit. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves.

“Eventually you get used to it,” I replied.

Self-inflicted pain isn’t something you should get used to.

“It’s a form of self-harm,” a therapist told me.

“You can’t honestly tell me picking skin can compare to someone cutting themselves. You can’t even compare those two things that’s ridiculous.” I yell.

But I learned self-harm didn’t have to be that extreme. Self-harm was only causing yourself pain on purpose when it’s within your control.

“You strive for perfection. That’s why you pick at any blemish…A form of control when you feel there are other things in your life you can’t.”

A lot of people pick their skin, you can’t tell me they all have issues, can’t anything just be a habit?

At four years old was there psychology behind it or just a habit? Was it foreshadowing the anxious person I’d become as an adult or the struggle in balancing a healthy relationship with myself? There was no way anyone could make that correlation or prediction at such a young age.

When I was a kid my grandmother let me wear her lipstick in hopes that covering my lips would prevent me from stopping.

My mother would smother my lips in vaseline at night that I resented and the first chance I got I’d wipe it off.

I’d wake up with dried blood on my hands screaming for my dad in the morning and he’d take me into the bathroom. Wipe the blood off. “My poor angel.” Then tell me it’s okay.

Teachers would pull me aside in grade school asking why I did it.

All I could come up with was it was a habit I never really had an intention of breaking.

In the house, my mom always made sure I had band-aids.

I could go from fine to my fingers covered in blood in minutes without realizing. That was the thing it became such a bad habit I didn’t realize I was even doing it most the time.

Most girls in high school went for manicures and I hated to because the alcohol hurt my cuts and I’d get another lecture from some stranger how I shouldn’t pick.

My boyfriend in college sat with me as we watched a movie. He grabbed my hand. “You’re digging into your skin, Kirsten. Stop.” He grabbed me hand and wouldn’t let it go until the end of the movie.

I sat on a bus heading to my job in New York. We were stuck in traffic. I was bored. I anxiously looked at my watch over and over again. Without realizing I was picking my lips until I could taste the blood. The stranger next to me handed me a napkin, “Stop. It will be okay.” He said.

In a meeting with my boss, I hid my finger that was bleeding as I picked listening to him speak.

Having coffee with a friend, he grabs my hand. “Your fingers look good.” As if it was a sign I was emotionally healthy… at least for now.

At 25 it’s still something I do. It’s still something I struggle with. But I live with it even if it’s not proudly.

I look at my fingers almost looking for something anything that’s not there. Any reason I can pick. Any scab I hate. I wake up and before I even open my eyes I’m pulling the skin off my lips until they are bleeding and hurting and there’s nothing left.

Lipgloss burns in the morning as I apply it to the open wounds.

Skin begins to heal every 12 hours and that’s when I start picking again. It’s kind of sick that I know that.

It annoys me how much it controls me but it doesn’t annoy me enough to stop.

There isn’t a day in my life I haven’t picked at my lips of pulled at my cuticles. And I can’t imagine a day there will be.

Accepting this is the only way I’ve learned to live with it. And learning when I do it and why is still something I’m learning about myself.

“You can get really sick or get an infection,” doctors tell me every visit.

I know.

The human body continues to amaze me because no matter how many times I cause myself pain my body heals it.