Girl Talk: Help Me! I Can’t Stop Picking At My Skin

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In June, I went to the doctor with what appeared to be a spider bite on my back. The bite had gotten seriously infected and was oozing pus. In October, I went to the doctor because I had an infected cold sore. My lip swelled up, and my face puffed out. And in January, I went to the doctor because of an infected ingrown hair. The infected part had swelled up and was throbbing painfully. My temperature was elevated and I was prescribed another round of antibiotics and warm compresses on the spot.

So that’s three major infections, and three rounds of antibiotics. Three different major skin problems — with their attendant pain and embarrassment — in three months. And it’s all my fault. I can’t stop picking at my skin.

Some experts refer to picking as a “self-soothing” activity, aka something we do when we want our brains to stop. Amelia, who wrote about her own picking troubles, says that she picks because, “Basically, I need to feel ‘busy’ at all times to feel normal, preferably in a way that allows me to create order or ‘fix’ a problem.” She says she finds it “meditative.” But it’s an actual problem, with its own DSM classification: impulse control disorder. The medical term for it: Dermatillomania. But what it really is: Self harm, in the guise of a calming, almost meditative behavior.

I don’t really remember when it started, but I do recall a friend in high school admonishing me for picking at ingrown hairs on my legs. Stop, she’d say, as I squeezed what were probably imaginary pimples and ran my fingers over the ingrown hairs on my legs. The skin on my legs — particularly my thighs — were always a target then. I had mercifully clear facial skin in high school, so face picking wasn’t much of an issue. But my nails?  My nails were horribly bitten down, and my cuticles raw.

As I’ve grown up — and my hormones have helpfully conjured “problem skin” — my picking has gotten worse. Any ingrown hair — anywhere — is up for grabs. I can spend what feels like hours staring at my face, looking abstractly for any blackheads or pimples-to-be. And the damage I was doing to my fingers? It’s increased tenfold. My fingers look as if they’ve gone through a thresher, and it’s not uncommon for one or some of my fingers to be bleeding from the nail bed, after I’ve unconsciously picked away the skin from my finger. (Like, right now I’m writing this with an open wound on my pointer finger.)

You know that scene in “Black Swan” where Natalie Portman’s character imagines her finger skin is peeling away? Well it’s not that bad. But it’s bad.

And all the infections I’ve had lately? They’re because I don’t just pick once. I go back to the same sore spots, again and again. Last night, after spending hours pouring over skin infection websites, grossing myself out, I think I’m finally ready to stop.

Strangely, I think a lot of my picking comes from a desire for perfection. These tiny pieces of dry skin around my cuticles? They’re keeping my nail beds from looking nice. So I’ll just tear at them — until, of course, I make them way worse than they were when I started. Vicious. Cycle. Or my face picking: I see the sproutings of a zit under my skin — and I am compelled to push and prod it, until whatever it was going to be has actually morphed into a major skin crisis. And my leg picking — I actually enjoy tights season because it means I won’t have to see the glaring skin imperfections on my legs that are preventing me from having movie star gorgeous gams. I can’t understand how some girls have such spotless, hairless legs and I want my legs to look like that. Only I go about it by destroying them, instead. Maybe subconsciously, I may be doing it to give myself something to fixate on. Something I have domain over. I want to have clear, fresh skin, but I continually act against that goal.

According to the website Skinpick, which is run by two doctors — Dr. Rujuta Vinod, Dr. Ted Grossbart — and a guy who wrote “The Complete Guide to Picking Disorders”  (aka the experts) there are lots of things that can trigger picking. Common causes of compulsive skin picking are:

  • Stress, anxiety and other psychological factors.
  • Neurological imbalance caused by overloading stress to the nervous system.
  • Chemical imbalance.
  • Traumatic events, particularly in childhood.
  • Heredity (oftentimes it runs in the family).

For me, it’s probably a combination of a few things — I definitely get stressed out, and I probably have a neurological imbalance (don’t we all). I’m a high anxiety person, and the picking seems to go with my personality makeup. If only I could channel all that energy into something healthy, like running (never going to happen). According to experts, there are a variety of treatments for picking — everything from therapy to support groups to medication. What makes it so difficult to treat is that it’s a compulsive behavior that you’re often not even aware you’re doing. I’m finally at the point where I’ve realized the negatives are outweighing the benefits. Three major skin infections in six months is just not worth it.

So that’s why I’m turning to you, readers, to ask: What advice do you have to help me stop this destructive compulsion? Maybe you’ve tried something that’s really worked. And feel free to confess your own picking problems in the comments. I’ll just be here, fighting the urge to pop that zit.

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