I started doing it when I was 12. It was sixth grade, acne season, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary about a self-conscious girl popping zits on her face. Little red dots and blips of blood and a mild case of Rosacea, maybe, but nothing to worry about. I was just 12 and the things on my face made me anxious. Perfectly normal. I could cover it all up with a bottle of liquid foundation, anyway, because it was cheap and at the Target near my house and my mom felt bad for me.
I liked doing it. There was an addictive rush involved with every single moment of poking and prodding; lifting and sifting; bleeding and weeping. My pores would stand out against the pigmentation of my skin, raw from being attacked by my nails. Hours of my day could be spent in front of the mirror destroying the fabric of my skin. I preferred it this way.
It made me feel powerful. I was my own plastic surgeon working my own hours. Digging the imperfections out of my skin made me feel good, as did my precision.
I used tools once I was older and more innovative. I’ve tried everything imaginable to self-exfoliate my face; tweezers, tooth picks, dental cleaning kits, plastic utensils. They’re convenient, and using them reduced the amount of white-and-red sticky mess on my hands. It also allowed me to closely examine what I pulled out of my skin for as long as I wanted afterwards without worrying about it dissolving into my hands – or worse – being reapplied to my face in the skin-picking process.
My favorite time to pick at my skin was during commercial breaks. Short, three-minute, pragmatic bursts of self-destruction. I typically watched TV alone, anyway, but was really good at wiping the mirror free of debris and quickly massaging my face to even-out its tone out whenever I heard footsteps.
My family didn’t know I had a problem. There were lots of mirrors in my house; at the end of every hallway, in the living room and weight room and bedrooms and bathrooms. I picked at my face in all of them. I wasn’t always as sneaky as I wanted to be, but my only punishment would be a brief glance of recognition, perhaps a head-shake, before the spark to talk to me about if faded out completely. Maybe I just needed to go on Proactive again.
I didn’t know I had a problem, either. It wasn’t until I was home from college over winter break, making burnt cheese-and-spinach quesadillas and getting drunk off of a not-highly-recommended line-up of Coconut Rum and Hypnotiq when the urge to pick came over me and I grabbed my video camera – I’m a film student, after all – and documented the results. I have many minutes of congealed blood and wet skin tissue and sad eyes and confessions that I still haven’t looked back at, but that’s not the important part. The important part is what I did after. With chunks of skin and mucus under my fingernails I typed “skin picking, addiction” into Google. I hit ENTER and spent the next couple of hours crying on the seven points on this list.
It’s called “Dermatillomania” or just “Derma” if you don’t like the “mania” part of it all. It’s an impulse control disorder that between 1 – 5% of the American population “officially” struggles with, but no one knows for sure since most people don’t recognize it as anything at all. It’s more common among women than men. The most common area to pick is the face. It’s usually spurned on by anxiety, depression, and/or OCD. There are even support groups and online stores with toys and puzzles designed to distract hands away from undesirable behavior.
I still do it sometimes. It’s hard to end a 9 year-old relationship with anything, especially something as abusive and fulfilling as this. Each day my skin clears, I grow happier. But each day my fingers can’t stay away and I turn a little zit into a big cavern and a perpetually unfulfilled scab, I don’t. But recovery is a process; sometimes it takes serious meditation, therapy, special toys and prayer. Other times it takes forcing yourself to sit your ass down and watch the commercials because you know it’s for your own good. Either way, recognition of the problem is the first step, and I would re-chug the nasty Hypnotiq that led me to Google my mental illness every day in order to have a good day once in a while.