Confessions of a Dermatillomaniac

Disclaimer: The following blog post may contain disturbing descriptions.

I pick the skin near my nails, cuticles predominantly, but also the hard skin on the fingertips. I use my fingernails mostly, but occasionally I bite it or use a sharp point to pry loose the skin. Once the skin is peeled I usually put it in my mouth and chew it. The rubbery texture feels good. (By the way, I’m a vegetarian, have been one all my life.)

I have been battling with this impulse control disorder nearly half my life, since I was a teenager. When I was a toddler, my mom tells me, I ate sand, tasted peeling whitewash paint and chalk. Doctors said it was because of Calcium deficiency; they prescribed doses of Calcium and now the one going for me is my thick bone density and the pride of never have fractured a bone in my life.

I got into biting my nails and chewing skin much later. It started with paring my nails – especially toenails, especially while reading. And I used to read a lot. I started intense manicure and healthy skin-care regimes as a teenager to help me curb my habit – without much success. Although, my onychophagia isn’t as bad as skin-picking, I did peel my thumbnail from the inside out a month or so back. I did it out of curiosity. I wanted to see what would happen if I gradually removed my thumbnail from the bottom up. Except for my thumbnails, the rest of my nails are healthy and long enough without getting in the way of work – like typing or washing dishes.

The thumbnail I peeled is, strangely enough, on my right hand, my primary hand. I don’t know why I ‘chose’ that particular side, I don’t remember very well that moment of first mutilation. It is an indication of something though. Perhaps a therapist would be able to enlighten me.

I take a strange joy in my mutilated nail. People who chance to see it would gross out on it and ask me what happened. I would smile and say – rather, lie about it – that I got hurt. I did not wish them to gross out more than they had already by just looking at it; knowing I had done it willfully and consciously would be added shock I did not wish to inflict. Some would insist on knowing more, and then depending on the person, my responses ranged from telling the truth, lying about it, leaving them with an ambiguous response, and ignoring the question altogether. It is healing now, but I still tinker with it. What is most special about that torn up nail is the numerous opportunities it gave me to have a go at the skin around it.

I know the truth. Behind the physical act is a deep psychological one. And I don’t need a therapist to tell me that much. I am under stress and anxiety rules me. I am a thirty year old Indian woman, still single, and sans stable job. I used to be decent looking once upon a time, but I no longer am. I am also very aware of my biological clock ticking the time away, and my PCOD does not help. As I type this my leg nervously jiggles and I have goosebumps thinking about all my dreams vanishing before me. Any pause from the typing of this blog post means that my fingers start attacking my thumbs. The skin on the thumb is oh so vulnerable, it calls to the fingers.

I try my best not to indulge myself in my “bad habit”. I catch myself many a times and stop, but so many times it is an unconscious action. I caught myself tearing my skin while driving one time too many. Usually when my gear-changing arm is free, my fingers have a go at my thumb. It is like I am at war with myself. I know that in part my picking my skin is the realisation that I am overweight and I have been battling that for a while. Like I said, PCOD doesn’t make it any easier. Being on a diet and trying to control my eating makes me subconsciously turn to skin. It is yummy dead protein after all…

There is also a sense of mission involved. Sometimes I know I am picking and I know I should stop. But I keep at it. I have to get it out. I cannot stop and I will not stop, despite the pain, until that damned thing is out. It is because of those moments that I know I suffer from dermatillomania.

And the pain? I pride myself in having a higher than average pain threshold. I sometimes don’t feel the pain I inflict upon myself. When the blood comes pouring out, I like the rusty warm taste of it. (Did I mention I am anemic?) I can see how easy it would be to start cutting myself as well. But those two problems are not mutually inclusive. While cutters cut to feel physical pain when coping with emotional pain and to release the endorphins through the cut, I personally peel and tear skin to take away what feels like an excess and an impurity on my body.

Perhaps I suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder as well.

I have never sought professional help for these problems. I think talking about it here on my blog is a first step; I am admitting to myself that I have a problem, and  I am letting the world know it. Next step is perhaps getting counselling. That might be a bit difficult to find though, in my part of the world. In the meanwhile I have online support groups.

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