- I’ve had dermatillomania, or compulsive skin-picking, for as long as I can remember.
- After dealing with shame and worry for years, I decided one New Years that I would work on kicking the habit for good.
- Many expensive manicures and bottles of hand cream later, I finally got to a place I’m proud of.
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I clutched my mangled fingers together under the table as the woman across from me playfully scolded the owner of the restaurant – a neighborhood spot in a neighborhood full of billionaires – in broken French.
It was the first time I’d been invited to post-work drinks with this clique of Wall Street women, with their perfect, smooth, bejeweled fingers lifting forkfuls of tuna tartare. As a journalist at a finance-news giant a few blocks away, I might have looked like I belonged there. Instead, I was disoriented.
I was expecting a networking opportunity, but I arrived at a happy hour among girlfriends-who-knew-each-other-from-work. I was a Midwesterner one year into her first big-league job in New York City; I was acutely aware of my discount-store dress and my inexperience with the city’s culture.
So I chewed. As I smiled and tried to keep up with the conversation, I hoped none of my raw-ripped hangnails were bleeding onto my white napkin. But even as that thought burrowed into my mind, I pried another layer of skin off the thumb on my right hand.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve compulsively bitten and pulled my skin, leaving bloody fingertips and hard, calloused spires of flesh.
Growing up, I was badgered constantly for it. In high school, a classmate brought me a bottle of lotion after spending months watching me pick and tear. A relative at dinner questioned who would want to eat food passed by hands that “looked like that.” A college friend told me she worried that one day I’d simply peel myself to nothing.
The comments, like the stinging and bleeding, hurt. But the repulsive, raw, and scabbed hands were just as much a part of me as my brown hair and pierced ears.
Clinically, skin-picking, or dermatillomania, is an overgrooming disorder related to nail-biting and trichotillomania, the condition that compels people to pull out their hair or eyelashes. It falls under the umbrella of body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) and affects 1.4 percent of Americans, most of whom are female. According to Psychology Today, it usually begins in puberty, and can be associated with perfectionism and anxiety.
I didn’t know that I was a member of a tribe of perfectionistic body-tearers when I decided one New Years to quit.
I just knew I was sick of the distracting shame when I shook hands with someone, and the worry that took hold when I wore light-colored clothing. It also wasn’t merely an aesthetic issue, though my hands always balled up, hiding my fingers, when I saw any sign of a camera. I had been sick with a year’s worth of nuisance colds, and I needed to stop picking up germs off the subway pole and putting them in my mouth. My habit could not be part of my new life.
I won’t pretend that kicking this habit was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it took – and takes – a different kind of resolve than what I was familiar with.
Most of the big decisions I made before then were motivated by a feeling of crisis. Performing – anything from a high-school book report to the interview for my big-time job – felt like grabbing a parachute in a burning airplane. Throwing myself with all my energy into the unknown wasn’t nearly as terrifying as a future in the lowest-middle class household I grew up in, with a job like that of my parents: working all night doing boring, difficult work to pay only the most threatening past-due bills.
That year, however, I was in a novel and bizarre situation: Things were pretty good. There was no crisis. I’d landed a job at the best company in my field, my life was full of rewarding relationships, and I could pay my bills. My basic needs were being met, so I could focus on making changes that would make me feel good. It felt like a luxurious departure.
As it turned out, my home-grown method managed to hit many of the top recommendations for changing a habit. I started by focusing on how many of my fingers were bleeding at any given moment, and I gave myself a letter grade. One or fewer fingers showing blood got me an A; two, a B; five or more, an F. I got a lot of Fs at first.
Part of my technique also involved spending money on regular manicures.
This was more challenging than it may seem. Not only was I living in New York City on a journalist’s pay, I had also grown up in the kind of resource-short family that only Republican presidential candidates find romantic, where back-to-school shopping happened at thrift stores, fast food counted as eating out, and medical care was reserved for stitches and casts. Dropping an amount equal to my phone bill to have somebody paint my nails was distinctly outside my comfort zone. Once I splurged on nice nails, though, I couldn’t go and immediately chew them up.
Plus, I’d never put much energy into my appearance; I still rarely go beyond “soap” as a beauty routine if left to my own devices. I grew up around women with bare nails and ponytails, and beauty practices always seemed to take time and money I wanted to use on something else – until then.
I bought expensive cherry-blossom scented hand cream, which felt like an extravagant addition to my bag. (It also tasted bad enough to get my attention when I put my fingers in my mouth.) Smoothing hand cream worked as both a carrot and a stick. I replaced the vicious, anxious gratification of biting, drying, peeling with the satisfaction of increasingly pristine cuticles. The smoothness itself soothed against the anxiety of the difficult-to-control impulse of a bad habit. And for the ones that were less than pristine, the lotion delivered a sharp chemical sting.
After a year of working on the habit, I had a lot to show. I rarely had any bleeders anymore, and when something threw me off my game – a week full of deadlines or a holiday with my family – and my hands fell apart, I had a reliable playbook for getting back on track. But I didn’t reward myself with a pair of name-dropper shoes to wear to the clique’s next gathering or a dazzling ring to commemorate the achievement. I simply felt real, true satisfaction from achieving something I’d actually committed to and struggled with and stayed with and failed at and stayed with.
My manicure is a couple of weeks old now. It’s looking a little tired. Sitting here, writing introspectively and listening to my radiator clank as it bakes the moisture out of my apartment, it’s easy to start looking for a new slip of skin to pull. But I can’t look up from my screen without seeing a giant bottle of hand cream. For now, at least, I get to keep my A.
Sonja Elmquist is a writer and communications consultant. She lives in Chicago with some very nice kids, a very nice dog, and a very nice man.
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