My head is almost always in pain. This is due to picking at my scalp – and occasionally my lips. If I were to pinpoint when I started to pick I would say it started when I was 13. At this point in my life I moved from living with my abusive mother who neglected me, my little brother and my Mum’s boyfriend. I was shipped off to my Dads home where he stayed with his wife and other children. This also involved moving from a practical city to a middle-of-nowhere countryside, no rules to many boundaries and my own room to a partly shared one.
By the time I was 15 my picking was almost constant. My hand was constantly on my head even when I was walking. My step mum would say “Hand down Amy” before I had even realised what I was doing. My head would also occasionally bleed. At this point my step mum decided to reveal that when I would visit my Dads house as a child (roughly 1 and 2 years old) I would pull my hair out.
It wasn’t until I was 16 that I realised my bad habit had a name. Dermatillomania. Dermatillomania is the repetitive and compulsive picking of the skin resulting in tissue damage. It is also said to be a form of self-injury which relieves anxiety. You can find dermatillomania on some OCD related pages as it was deemed a separate form of OCD. However, not everyone agrees with that statement. The condition usually arises during teenage years or early 20’s and the condition is dominated by females.
It was almost a relief to see that my bad habit wasn’t just a bad habit and that I wasn’t suffering alone. I kept quiet about my discovery for a few months then eventually tried to reach out to my parents about seeking medical advice. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds due to living in a house with many other siblings and all of my attempts to reach out failed. For reasons that need not be included I was then shipped off, again, to live with my Grandparents where I eventually spoke out. A doctor’s appointment was booked.
There are many treatments for dermatillomania which include both behavioural treatments and pharmacological intervention. Online statistics show that very few people have managed to stop picking their skin themselves. I was pleased to be assigned therapy. I would have an hour of therapy every 2-3 weeks where the therapist would help me discover causes for my skin picking. We discussed alternatives such as wearing gloves and hats and she also had me keep a log of every time I picked.
The log was a huge eye opener to me. Without the use of the diary I would never have realised how much I pick or how my mind works in relation to my dermatillomania. The diary allowed me to see that I would pick for a few seconds every minute or so. If there was a time where I couldn’t pick for 10 minutes then the picking time would increase to a few minutes. Finally, if I didn’t pick for a few hours then, right before bed, I would pick for an agonisingly long time. This could range from 30 minutes to two hours!
There are many causes for dermatillomania and I still have many causes which I have not yet realised. Fortunately, through being self aware and due to hep from my therapist I can name a few of my causes. A common one I have that I have also seen online is that dermatillomania is a coping mechanism for stress and turmoil. I experience turmoil in regard to not fully understanding why I have been unsupported and left by so many family members. Yet another, which comes from a psychological perspective, is that dermatillomania is a result of repressed rage due to authoritarian parents. My Dad and Stepmum had many rules that I didn’t ever get used to and I disliked the seclusion of the countryside.
A stigma I have faced by the select few I have told about my condition is that I only pick at my skin because I get bored. While it is true that being very busy reduces the urge to pick it is not something that occurs due to boredom. Boredom is a feeling I can cope with without the help of picking.
I also suffer from depression and anxiety. I have found that picking, when I am not otherwise engaged, distracts my mind from the many sad thoughts I experience on a daily basis and thus keeps me somewhat happy; or, at least, above suicidal level.
At this point in time, at 17 years old, I have no family support. My therapist lost touch with me and despite going to the doctors again they were very unhelpful. My dermatillomania is still something I suffer from on a daily basis which frustrates me as I don’t want to do this to my own skin yet feel powerless towards the condition. The support I do have comes from my fiancé who tries to help me stop picking at my skin whenever he can.
As I grow older I do learn to cope with it better. When I first started therapy I would sleep all of my time away as sleeping is one of the few times where I don’t pick. I now cope in a number of ways. When my hair is wet I don’t pick so I avoid using a hair dryer after washing my hair when I can. My dermatillomania is a coping mechanism for the depression I have and so I try to induce happiness whenever I can. This usually takes the form of reading and being with my fiancé. As I mentioned earlier, staying busy is also a good solution, since I love writing my blog which I recently started has also been a tremendous help.
Amy is a 17 year old who works full time in an office from 9 until 5. She is also trying to gain another administration qualification. Her hobbies include reading, acting, learning, volunteering and writing. In her spare time she writes whenever she can and runs a blog.