When Jenny Lawson’s book Furiously Happy was released a couple years ago, I logged into my Kindle account and purchased it for my reading pleasure. I’ve always had a thing for ladies who blog-turn-author; it gives me hope.
Partway into the book, I learned a brand new word: dermatillomania.
Dermatillomania, I learned, was the name of a disorder that I immediately self-diagnosed myself with. What the hell is dermatillomania? Ms. Lawson astutely notes that spell-check doesn’t even know what it is, and she’s right. I currently have three red, squiggly lines on my computer screen.
Also known as excoriation disorder, dermatillomania is the fancy name for the urge to repeatedly pick one’s skin. Face, head, hands, any body part you want to destroy – the illness does not discriminate!
I was really excited when I read the words, because there is nothing more encouraging to a crackpot than knowing there are other crackpots out there just like you. I quickly became 100% convinced that I had this disorder that I didn’t even realize was a disorder in the first place. Not only do I pick apart every life situation and scenario on a mental level, but I have a physical parallel that goes along with it. I’ve got all the bases covered.
I pick at my fingers and cuticles, and sometimes my feet. It is horrible, painful, and gross. I think it kind of stemmed from my childhood nail-biting habit. Nail-biting is typically thought of as a nervous habit, which makes a lot of sense considering that I am a habitually nervous person. I bit my nails right down to negative space for over 20 years (I have reason to believe that I started as soon as I had nails and teeth).
I constantly had my fingers in my mouth, and my nails were also always ugly and short. Not like, trimmed-short short. But gnawed off. Jagged edges, messed-up nail beds, and what was left of my nails usually had layers peeled away. They looked like slabs of slate. Even as a stupid little kid, I knew enough to be embarrassed of my habit. I knew my nails were ugly, but my sister and dad also bit their nails so I thought it was a nice hereditary trait.
When I was in my 20s, the vain part of my brain decided that enough was enough. I just wanted pretty hands. I wish I had some deep advice for nail-biters out there hoping to stop, but I pretty much just kind of stopped. It wasn’t overnight, and years of biting meant that it took more than a year for my nails to grow out nicely (i.e. not bulgy and uneven and weird-looking).
But what’s super lame is that I replaced that nail-biting habit with skin-biting and picking. And in many ways, it is so much worse.
For me, picking at my cuticles goes so much further than just fixing a hang nail or getting rid of some dead skin. I create the problem. It is constant. I don’t know I’m doing it. There is no thought process involved. If there is even the slightest piece of dry skin, I completely mutilate myself until I am raw. I have to keep bandaids on me at all times because my fingers are always bleeding. I keep them in my purse and in my desk drawer.
I do it in my car, while I’m watching TV, and when I’m concentrating on anything. I do it while I’m shopping. In a box, with a fox, whatever. If my fingers hurt too much, I start on my feet. And if I have a scab anywhere on my body, it will sometimes take months to heal because I keep reopening it over and over. Sometimes I catch myself doing it, but I can’t stop it. I just think “I’ll just maim this one finger and I’m done FOREVER,” but twenty minutes later I’ll look down and realize I’ve eradicated every bit of skin my fingertips have to offer.
Since my fingertips are almost constantly bleeding, sore, and red, I’m not entirely sure they look a hell of a lot nicer than bitten-down nails. Not even my vanity is satisfied. There is literally no upside.
I’ve discovered a few things that sort of help. Keeping my fingers and toes manicured is one of them. Wearing socks, and applying lotion like I’m Buffalo Bill’s captive is also sort of helpful. Cooking, cleaning, gardening, or anything else that requires my hands is good. Unfortunately, the 8 hours per day that I spend working (alone in my office, at the computer, thinking, concentrating, talking on the phone, reading…..) are my worst hours and outnumber all the other hours I spend not mutilating myself.
I was getting a manicure done the other day, and got the question I always get: “What happened to your fingers?” It’s an uncomfortable situation. I always kind of brush it off, say something about how I had a really bad hangnail the other day. Classic avoidance. But this woman had a nice air about her, and for some reason I trusted her and actually answered honestly. I admitted that it was something I did and that it was a horrible habit. I’m glad that I did.
I am not the first one she’s seen with a disorder like this. I guess estheticians see a lot of nail-biters and skin excoriators. She asked me whether I’d ever tried any therapies for it; namely, meditation.
I said no, but was super interested. I am, after all, on this teetering road to self-discovery and getting more spiritual. Meditation is something I believe in and work at every day these days. I am not good at it, but I have found that listening to guided meditation on YouTube has been a good way to get my feet wet. My mind spins the hell out of control when left to its own (Ego) devices, but when there is a voice that tells me what to think, it’s something I can focus on and follow.
While my girl worked away at my fingers and toes, she told me that you can actually look up guided meditations that specifically help target habits and disorders like this. She was referencing nail-biting ones in general, but told me that she was sure there were other ones out there that might help me.
She was right. There are tons of guided meditations for skin picking out there! I guess that if there are enough people suffering from a disorder that even has a name, that there is a market for it.
I listened to one as I fell asleep the other night. It wasn’t 100% meditation-y, but close enough. The man in the video had me relax deeply, and then had me go through the motion of starting to go at my skin, but think the word ‘stop’ and stop before actually doing anything. I am not totally sure what else he had me ‘do’ because I think I fell asleep before it was over.
That same night, when I got up in the middle of the night to go to the washroom, my hand automatically went to my mouth to bite at it. But something funny happened. I also automatically knee-jerked my hand back down and mouthed the word “stop.” I didn’t even think about it – I just did it. My eyes snapped opened and I grinned ear to ear. I’ve never, never had a reaction like that.
I’m going to try it a few more times, and do it consistently for a while. I was out of town and forgot my headphones, otherwise I’d have done it all weekend, too. I actually am convinced that this could actually be a huge help in my life.
Has anyone else ever tried guided meditation like this before? How did you find it? Did it work for you?