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.
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 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.