I thought picking at my skin was just a bad habit – but it was more serious

Sitting at my office desk in 2018, I suddenly felt a familiar, irrepressible urge filling me up like hot lava. 

I was going through a particularly stressful time, trying to organise a place to live with a couple of acquaintances. I was on edge. It was a creeping feeling, gathering momentum before swamping my mind completely.

I tried, as I had many other times before, to push it down, smother it, and expel the fire by taking deep breaths, but my concentration was shot. I had no idea what I’d been focusing on only moments before.

All other thoughts were eclipsed by a nagging voice, increasing in volume, that was emerging from the depths: I needed to pick my skin. Now.

My mind turned to the marks and bumps I knew were on my face, chest and shoulders. Rationally, I knew these weren’t really pimples, rather half-healed scabs ravaged over and over again.

It was as if, this time, the result of me picking them would be different, that this time the thing I was sure was lurking beneath the surface, that I had to get out, would be released. 

It was an eventuality I desperately craved, for the piercing, ecstatic high I got when it happened. I felt like an addict.

After what felt like an eternity trying to ride the urge out, I just couldn’t take it any more and walked straight to the company bathrooms and locked myself in a cubicle. 

There, I immediately shuffled my shoulder out of my shirt and began running my fingers across my skin. I found perfectly natural bumps that I would interpret as imperfections that I couldn’t resist but squeeze and scratch at until someone else came into the bathrooms and the swing of a door and their footsteps snapped me out of it.

Going back to my desk, I felt a queasy mixture of satiation, elation and an unshakeable disappointment in myself.

Even at this juncture, I refused to acknowledge I had a problem. I told myself it was just a bad habit – like biting my nails. It was a way for me to relieve anxiety, a sort of pressure valve, and I thought I could stop at any time. It had been around for months, and it wasn’t going away.

What worker, I’d rationalise, didn’t take cheeky breaks from work by going into the bathrooms to play on their phone for five minutes? Surely what I was doing was just as innocuous? So what if I had found a way to relax? Wasn’t I entitled to that?

Looking back, the fact I was so on the defensive to an imagined critic of my behaviour should’ve been a telltale sign. Back at my desk, I slowly started sneakily Google searching for things like ‘skin picking can’t stop’, and came across the word ‘dermatillomania’.

It’s an OCD-related disorder that’s characterised by an urge that feels impossible to ignore; for me, I target my face and shoulders and chest.

Around a month after discovering the word, it came up in a therapy session I was having to help manage my generalised anxiety disorder because she noticed I’d kept touching my face, and for the first time I acknowledged – to my counsellor but also to myself – that I couldn’t stop. I was out of control, and needed help.

Admitting it felt like a huge weight off my shoulders; a weight I didn’t realise I’d been carrying.

That’s the difference between a habit and a compulsive disorder such as dermatillomania, which is thought to affect as many as one in 20 people. Habits are conscious repetitive behaviours that slip into unconscious behaviour, but which ultimately don’t impact the quality of the doer’s life in a negative way – with some effort, they’d be able to stop.

Dermatillomania starts to, for example; take up more and more time, affect relationships, professional life and how the sufferer does or doesn’t socialise. I started feeling more reluctant to meet friends, and felt less attractive in my clothes. The disorder can cause scars and set into motion a pernicious cycle of anxiety caused by picking, which it feels only picking can ease, ad infinitum.

Also known as a body-focused repetitive behaviour (BRFB), skin picking, or hair pulling, trichotillomania, which is another BFRB, can arise out of a desire to ‘perfect’ the skin, or as a way of relieving stress.

The origins are complex and will differ from person to person, but spotting the signs of when the behaviour moves beyond habit into compulsion is absolutely essential to ensuring sufferers get the help they need.

I cheated myself out of months where I could’ve been getting the professional help I needed because I had internalised the stigma and shame that surrounds the disorder, and I trivialised it.

Put simply, I was embarrassed – and felt like no one else on earth could understand. It was only when I realised that this had gone way beyond habit and that other people also suffered from the same thing that I no longer felt so isolated in my suffering.

Online communities and charities such as the Picking Me Foundation not only put my experience into perspective, but offered something I had been sorely missing: a glimmer of hope that maybe this wouldn’t be forever. 

I stumbled across the charity by accident, it having the word ‘picking’ in its name, and saw blog posts and articles detailing different strategies, such as setting a timer when you’re in your trigger areas (for me, and many, the bathroom).

Now, my GP is aware of my condition. I’ve had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and am some way along the road towards recovery. Like any recovery, it’s not linear, and relapses are common, but the gaps between ‘sessions’ is getting longer and longer and one day I hope there won’t be another one. 

It’s not easy, but feeling ‘seen’ has been critical to getting better.

First, though, I had to admit to myself and to those caring for me, like my doctor and my counsellor, that what I thought was a habit actually ran much deeper, that something had its claws in me, and that I needed help.

Finally, I’m getting it. 

To read more about Lauren’s journey with anxiety and dermatillomania, you can order her book, HANDS (published by Harper North) here.

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