Blog

Oct1
2013

Finally Recognized

By Laura A. Barton

Content Note: The following blog contains descriptions of dermatillomania, a body-focused repetitive behavior characterized by skin picking. We believe it is important to sensitively and honestly discuss this disorder, but we also encourage supporters to recognize their boundaries and not read anything that could potentially be upsetting or triggering.

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When I was a kid, no one could figure out what was “wrong” with me. They could see the marks, some new and some long ago healed, and those closest to me knew I picked my skin, but no one could figure out why. Not my doctors, not my parents, not anybody, so nothing was ever done for me. For 11 years, I suffered with shame and no answers, thinking I was the only one who did this. I wanted to be beautiful and normal, wanted desperately to stop, rather than have people stare at me for what I was doing to myself. I didn’t learn my behavior was a disorder—known as “dermatillomania”—until I was 16, and it wasn’t until I was 19 that I began a serious effort to get better.

Through all of this, it seemed I was on my own—but my story is not uncommon.

If you’re unfamiliar with dermatillomania, it is definitely not a “one size fits all” condition, but essentially, it is a mental disorder that causes someone to impulsively pick their skin. People do so for different reasons and in different ways, but in the end, damage is done repeatedly to the skin, and it has a negative impact on day-to-day life. Personally, I’ve worn long sleeves and pants in 30 degree Celsius weather to hide the scarring. I’ve cancelled sleepovers with friends. I haven’t gone swimming in years. I’ve faced questions like, “What’s wrong with your face?” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I have gotten a lot better when it comes to worrying about the assumptions people might make about me, but there are still days when I get anxious and self-conscious and just want to hide away from the world. There is no off switch for this disorder. There is no “just stop.” It’s a constant battle.

Dermatillomania may not seem like a serious problem to some, but knowing the online community and my own experiences, I see how it affects people. Many who have this disorder are silent for fear of ridicule and rejection. They isolate themselves and often don’t even know dermatillomania is an “actual thing” until they come across it online, like I did. I read the discouragement in their words as they struggle, the dread that this is going to last forever. It doesn’t just affect our bodies; it affects us to the core. But I’ve made huge leaps and bounds in my own healing process because of this community, because they’re there for me and can understand what I’m going through. These people I’ve only ever met online are some of the most compassionate, understanding, and supportive individuals I know, and we all want to help each other.

Another place dermatillomania is now receiving attention is in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which I think is an important step that will hopefully increase knowledge of the disorder. Its official listing is Excoriation Disorder, and it falls under the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder spectrum. Of course, it’s still a brand new diagnosis, and there is often much to be debated about revisions to the DSM—but the fact that the manual is even recognizing it could lead to progress in treatment and awareness about the disorder. Skin picking is shrouded in controversy, and it’s a fight to prove how it ought to be in the DSM, if at all. I’ve read an article dismissing it as a “reality-show problem,” and there are many others who shrug it off as nothing more than a bad habit. Another difficulty is that skin picking is considered by some to be a “common grooming behavior,” and people don’t understand why that needs to be listed as a disorder. But while there will always be naysayers and ridicule to fight, I have hope that one day we won’t feel so alone and lost. It’s a lot to hope for, but the more people understand about dermatillomania, it may make living with it a little easier, and hopefully fewer will have to struggle in silence.

Even if people don’t receive official diagnoses (which is perfectly OK—a diagnosis isn’t a cure-all or a guarantee, and I haven’t sought an official one myself), I hope they might at least be able to know there is help and support for what they are going through. For anybody with a mental illness or disorder, finding people who acknowledge the legitimacy of their struggle and discovering that there are others out there with it can be comforting and healing.

Through my own self-discovery and with the help of those in my life and the online community, I’ve learned to love myself and am healing mentally. When I heard of dermatillomania getting a spot in the DSM V, I started to find my voice and felt it was vital to talk about it more. What I want people to know is that this is real, and they’re not alone. It’s OK to struggle, and it’s OK to feel upset.

One of the best things I’ve learned is that there’s nothing “wrong” with me after all. I have a disorder—but it doesn’t define me. It’s helped shape who I am, but it’s not who I am. I’m a young woman with hopes and fears, loves and dreams. I can live a happy, full life, not just with dermatillmania, but despite it. And you can, too.

—Laura

Laura Barton is a writer from Ontario, Canada and an advocate for mental health awareness. Although she enjoys writing creatively, she also hopes to use her writing to help others in their own journeys through mental health issues, especially dermatillomania.

For more information or resources on dermatillomania, here are some places to start:
The Trichotillomania Learning Center
Canadian BFRB Support Network
OCD Center of Los Angeles

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Comments (32)

  1. Sonja Fowler

    I don’t try to hide them anymore. As a matter of fact, I had my father’s signature (Alzheimer’s sufferer) tattooed on my arm in white next to my scars to remind me of the one person I can always trust-the one that will always love me. It’s been ONE YEAR!!!!! I’m proud of myself-and I’m 54.

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      Definitely something to be proud of, Sonja! Great job!

      Reply  |  
  2. Barbara

    I am a family member of Laura’s and I have witnessed her struggles, not understanding for many years what the situation was. It is really only since she has connected with her caring and understanding online friends, dare I call them a family of choice, that I have also witnessed her growth, the finding of her voice and her passion for helping those who are willing to listen, to begin to see and maybe understand this mental health issue that has previously gone unrecognized.
    Laura, I salute you for your courage to speak up, to have journeyed through the the darkness and what may have appeared to be a lack of love for you by those who do love you and did not understand. You are an amazing young woman!

    Reply  |  
  3. Angela Hartlin

    I believe there will be so much more figured out 20 years from now about the classifications of BFRBs and I hope one day that the DSM will have BFRBs specifically under their own category. I love hearing your perspective on this, Laura, because I’ve watched you grow in many ways with owning this disorder instead of letting it own you! I can’t wait for Project Dermatillomania to be released so that all of our voices will be heard!

    I also loved reading the comment from a family member of yours, Laura. It brings me back to the exact things my own mother had said to me about her as a bystander.

    Reply  |  
  4. norma

    thank you for sharing this information for years i have been struggling with this and no one would take me serious but now i see the light of this dark tunnel of everyday struggle to not pick myself and make scars that i cant cover up! ugh so painful as well what i do to myself still don’t know why i do it !

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      Hi there, Norma. This disorder is very confusing and there’s so much we don’t know. That’s why I believe in spreading awareness about it so that we’re not so alone and in the dark about it anymore. I’m glad that you’re beginning to learn about it. There IS hope for this, even if it’s difficult at times (or a lot of the time). I wish you the best!

      Reply  |  
    2. Michelle

      I completely understand Norma! My family hasn’t ever understood why I was a “picker”. My husband has always tried to tell me (with the best intentions of course) that I’ll get infected, which is probably true, but it doesn’t make the urge go away. My only advice to you is to not let this define you, don’t make it your identity. We are stronger than our illness!

      Reply  |  
  5. Emma

    Laura, this is excellently written. You are so dependable to inform in an accurate, sensitive, and positive way. I find that dermatillomania is such a complex issue and there are so many things that I want people to understand, that I get overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Thank you so much for speaking out. I am excited to see what else awareness week has in store.
    ~kickingmydermatillomania

    Reply  |  
  6. Anonymous

    Your recovery is inspirational. I suffer from trichotillomania and have for about 7 years now. Your story is truly incredible thank you for sharing!

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      Thank you for saying so! I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been struggling with your trich. I wish you all the best with finding your way to recovery, too! You can do it. 🙂

      Reply  |  
  7. Anonymous

    Reading the first paragraph of this had me shaking. I’ve never cut or self-harmed but I’ve wanted to and my depression has gotten that bad before. But I do hurt myself in another way: my hands. My fingernails are bitten all the way done, and though I’ve mostly stopped that, I now pick my cubicles until I’m bleeding all over. I can’t stop. I do it when I’m bored or when I’m feeling shy, but mostly when I’m thinking negatively or am uncomfortable. It’s great that it has been recognized medically, but it’s still strange to think that people might have this and not know. Thank you for writing this and speaking out about something that’s not talked about enough.

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      Well, when it’s such a strange and unknown disorder, it’s hard to find anyone to identify it. Even doctors. So a lot of the time it’s just trying to find that one person or one source that can say, this is what the issue is. I’m glad that you know it’s a disorder though. It sounds like you also deal with onychophagia (nail biting disorder).

      Reply  |  
  8. Amanda

    Laura I never knew this aabout you but it has inspired me a loT I suffer from depression not knowing if I was good enough and I would often pick my face which is why I got scars I don’t no you very well we only talked a couple times you are very beautiful Thankyou for your story

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      I’m trying to place who you might be since I know a few Amandas. If you see this and are comfortable doing so, send me a message! Thanks so much for your kind words, and I can definitely relate on the depression front since it’s something I have and still do struggle with as well. Maybe we can chat some more? I hope to hear from you!

      Reply  |  
  9. b.e. noll

    Thanks Laura Barton for this. Thanks twloha for posting it.

    Reply  |  
  10. Anonymous

    I’m constantly picking at the skin next to my thumbs, and i can’t control it. Although it’s not as severe as others, would it still be considered dermatillomania? And how would one go about getting “help” for it because i’d like to stop but it seems impossible.

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      I know many people who only pick at their fingers or around their fingers. Just because it may not be as “bad” as others doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. If it’s something that brings you stress in your life and you have trouble stopping, then it’s something to maybe seek help for. Check out some of the linked websites and maybe they can help you. All the best!

      Reply  |  
  11. Jhn

    I have derma also, along with other compulsions. This describes my exact feelings very well, and I am so glad about this growing awareness. I hope people begin to recognize it as what it really is, not something they either dismiss or are completely disgusted by. It’s something that often makes someone feel very alone.

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      This can be such a lonely disorder, which is why I strongly believe in raising awareness. I share your thoughts, Jhn. Thank you!

      Reply  |  
  12. Michelle

    Thank you so much for this! I have struggled with dermatillomania since I was young, and started picking at my lips. This quickly turned into picking at scabs and acne scars. I’m 30 years old now, and I still struggle with it. I feel like I have to hide my wounds from my own husband. I didn’t even know what it was called, I figured it was some version of cutting. Thank you for helping me to see that I’m not alone, that this isn’t just some bad habit. Now that I know it’s a real disorder, I feel like I have more strength to endure and perhaps overcome it. God bless you!

    Reply  |  
  13. Chris R

    I came across this on fb. Thank you for writing such an honest piece about this disorder. I like the part where you say that you have a disorder, but it doesn’t define you and helps shape you. I didn’t know it was one till recently when I decided to look up my symptoms. It affects mostly my fingers. My parents and family, especially my mom, have been on me my whole life to stop and do something else with my nervous habit. I’ve had this since I was 4 and I’m about to be 30. I think I’m going to send them this article so maybe they’ll learn a thing or two.

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      This disorder can be so lonely and defeating, especially when you don’t even know it’s a disorder yet, so I’m glad to hear that you’ve looked it up. I can relate to the family situation, but just chalk it up to the fact that they don’t understand (even though that can be really frustrating!). Sharing some literature with them definitely might help! Thank you so much! And best of luck! 🙂

      Reply  |  
  14. Thundermare

    I too have suffered for years with this and so has my mom. I wonder if someone with a severe aniexty disorder can also have this as well.

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      I don’t see why not. I also deal with pretty severe anxiety along with having this disorder. Not to mention that the speculation is that this disorder is used to cope with anxiety in some cases, so it would make sense. I wish you and your mom the best!

      Reply  |  
  15. Gina

    The first time i went to my psychiatrist, he asked what brought me in, so i pushed up my sleeves and tears started immediately. He said, “I see”. It was scary and embarrasing but also liberating.

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      That’s really amazing and I so admire people that can do that. I haven’t had the courage to do that myself yet. Good on you, Gina! 🙂

      Reply  |  
  16. b.e.noll

    The title of this came to me, in the midst of a bad day, today. It would not leave. Made me think of Laura Barton. So here goes…

    The Final Band Aide

    had
    numbers
    on it
    like several
    before it
    morphed into
    a heart shape
    stupid
    and I was told so
    many times
    what they
    -perhaps you
    did not know
    is that when my skin
    gets cracked
    [& even at times
    when it doesn’t]
    I pick at it
    tearing away
    at me
    till it bleeds
    one more way
    to be a freak show
    so
    some where
    some how
    I have been carrying
    those numbers
    with me for years
    so I could discover
    an out
    so every
    band aide
    for a month
    or more
    had that
    not for you
    silly
    for me
    to remind me
    He cares
    He sees
    He’s here
    with me
    147:3
    so simple
    short & sweet
    thanks
    Jesu
    I needed
    [I still need]
    to carry this
    with me
    [it helped so very much]
    by b.e. noll

    “He heals the broken hearted & binds up their wounds”
    – Psalm 147:3

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      This is really lovely, b.e. noll! I’m sorry to hear that you were having a bad day, but it’s good to see that some creativity came out of it. I’m flattered that you thought of me and thanks so much for sharing this with me and everyone else here who may read it.

      Reply  |  
  17. shannon bledsoe

    I pick at the skin on my fingers and around my nails. I do it even if it hurts or bleeds. not one finger is untouched. I cant help myself. I’ve always done it as far back as I can remember. I always thought it to be a nervous tick like biting nails or lip. I never would have thought it was a disorder, I thought I was just weird. it drives my husband crazy. all I have to do is look at my hands and then I start. im not really sure what triggers it, possibly nerves or boredom. I cant stand the way my fingers look. I would love to get my nails done but im too ashamed. ive never met anyone else that has done this to themselves so this makes me feel less alone and less ashamed. thank you.

    Reply  |  
    1. LauraBarton

      Hey there, Shannon! Anxiety and boredom definitely play a big role in this disorder, and there are potentially many more factors. Check out groups on facebook or even online sites like the ones listed at the end of the piece. Those are great resources in my opinion, and might help you find some answers. 🙂

      Reply  |  
  18. ah

    I suffer from trichotillomania and have now for 11 years. I only started getting help around eight months ago. It had been a painful process but it is helpful to hear that others suffer to and that non of us are alone.

    Reply  |  
  19. Danielle

    I’ve been dealing with trichotillomania and skin picking for about 17 years now. I was fortunate in that my pediatrician recognized the disorder and had my mother get me into a counselor’s office to help me with my issues. Unfortunately, the treatments they suggested for me didn’t work and seemed to in fact exacerbate the problem. I was ridiculed by both friends and family. Always it was “Why can’t you just stop? What’s wrong with you?” even from those that were closest to me and who knew what was wrong. I still hear this from my mother and she sat through many of the counseling sessions with me. To this day, I can’t be naked with the lights on, even around my husband. I am constantly worried that my daughter is soon to come to an age where she knows that my disorder makes me “weird” and is shamed by me.
    When I read stories like yours, it gives me hope. It reminds me that I’m not alone in this and that there are others out there fighting the same bizarre compulsions. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m so happy you found a community that made you feel so accepted.

    Reply  |  
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