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My Skin Hurts

a short reflection re: dermatillomania/trichotillomania

By Rebekah ConardPublished 27 days ago • Updated 26 days ago • 5 min read
Top Story - March 2024
My Skin Hurts
Photo by Angélica Echeverry on Unsplash

You know what goes with madness? Mania. I've been having trouble coming up with something to write on the theme of "madness" all month. Up until a few hours ago I was pretty determined to write a fiction piece about having fever. Then, in the afternoon, someone brought up a few mental health conditions that we both experience to some degree.

I don't usually need reminding. It's always with me. It's been here longer than I've had words to describe it. I have a few words now: BFRBs, body focused repetitive behaviors, most commonly dermatillomania and trichotillomania. (That's skin-picking and hair-pulling, respectively.)

The first time I clued into it, I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. In music class I had scratched open a scab on my chest. Some weird urge of curiosity made me press the fabric of my shirt into it, making little blood stains. It was a blue shirt with a heart design that sat about where my scab was. I thought maybe the blood would blend in with the heart, but it didn't. I asked to go to the office because "my chest was bleeding," and I remember the moment my teacher stood with a look on his face that said, "what? how?" before he verbalized the "yes."

I thought pulling my hair out was a neat trick. Actually, I still do. I love the shock value I get out of twirling a too-thick section of hair around my finger and ripping it out of my scalp, roots and all, without giving any indication of pain. It doesn't hurt. I would do it right now, just to show you. Then, if I'm somewhere without a trash can, I'll roll it up into a little ball and stuff it in my shoe to throw away at my earliest convenience. Once in a while I'll pull some out just to make sure it still doesn't hurt. It makes me smile.

But one time, when I was 9 or 10, in the hallway outside the gym, the other kids got me to do it in front of a teacher. I didn't realize she was behind me. She didn't think it was fun, but I don't recall any consequences beyond the embarrassment.

I remember the first time I had a zit on my nose. Somehow, and I really wish I could invoke this level of discipline again, I didn't poke at it. I left it alone, AND it didn't bother me. I had read somewhere on the Internet that you're not supposed to pop zits. (It was some PG-13 blog with questionable teen advice and "true stories.") The Internet told me I'm not supposed to do it, so I didn't do it. I was determined to let it run its course, whatever that meant.

It didn't work out that way, though. The spot got pretty bad, like, to the point that a medical professional probably would advise you to drain it. I was hanging out with my parents in their room one day and they took notice. They said I needed to take care of it. The "I'm not supposed to!" feeling was pretty strong, and I cried about it. I didn't want to break the rule I'd adopted. My dad grabbed a tissue and popped it for me. I was unhappy about it, but I also learned that nothing world-shattering would happen if I popped a zit.

I don't have many clear memories of my manias during high school. I think I had at least one "bad spot" on my face nearly all the time. As soon as one healed, another one would get going. I developed my stealthy "clean up" techniques for when I'd cause visible bleeding while in public. (I'll spare you the details.) I had a few spots in other areas of the body that I was grateful nobody could see.

There was one incident with my hair, though, specifically my eyelashes. Overall, I don't think my compulsion as it relates to hair-pulling is at the level of "mania," but there was a week or so where I couldn't stop pulling my eyelashes. It felt good. It relieved stress. It didn't hurt. I could do it in class without drawing attention. But then one day I looked in the mirror and realized I could barely see my lashes. They've always been light in color, but I had thinned them out enough that I could barely find them in my reflection. I was able to force myself to stop, but whenever I have a stray eyelash that needs plucked, the temptation to keep going is there.

It's gotten a bit worse in adulthood. Unfortunately, the acne hasn't gone away and I don't have the energy or desire to take care of my skin. I did take care of it for a month or two. That was pretty cool, but it didn't really help. Sometimes I refresh my stock of skin care stuff just in case I wake up one morning and spending time in the bathroom mirror doesn't feel like a chore anymore. I'm starting to find more buildup of sebum in my scalp, too, so that's new and "fun". A scabby scalp to go with my scabby face.

I really wish I could end this somewhere happy, but it wouldn't be madness then, would it? It's just plain worse these days. I have active scabs on my face and scalp, as I've said. I've got some on my chest and shoulders, and occasionally on my upper back. I bought some red tank tops to sleep in to help disguise the blood stains. It's really bad on my backside. Some of those spots, I'm starting to wonder if they'll ever heal, even if I leave them alone. There's a lot of bloody underwear in my laundry. Again, I'm thankful nobody can see those.

There are several spots around my hairline, behind my ears (sometimes even on my earlobes or on the cartilage), and on my neck. I spend a lot of time on those, and I worry it makes me look like an addict. In some respects, maybe it is an addiction. But as far as I can tell, nobody knows how to treat it other than to "get me to stop doing it." They say medication may affect it, but I haven't noticed any correlation in either direction with any of my meds changing.

My therapist encourages me to redirect my attention to a fidget toy. It wouldn't work. I can't convince myself not to do it. I can't stop the compulsion. I can fidget AND pick. I've tried gloves. I've tried pretty little metal claws that fit over my fingertips. And then I go, "I bet I can still pick with these on." And then I do. So then I stop trying.

I clearly want to do it, right? I clearly enjoy it, right? That's gotta be why I spend literal hours awake in bed scratching... right?

But it sure would be nice if I could stop, because my partner would really appreciate if I'd quit trying to scratch their skin, too.

By Romina Farías on Unsplash


About the Creator

Rebekah Conard

31, She/Her, a big bi nerd

How do I write a bio that doesn't look like a dating profile? Anyway, my cat is my daughter, I crochet and cross stitch, and I can't ride a bike. Come take a peek in my brain-space, please and thanks.

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Comments (14)

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  • 𝐑𝐌 𝐒𝐭𝐨𝐜𝐤𝐭𝐨𝐧15 days ago

    This is absolutely relatable, Rebekah. For me, it started with picking at my food and loose paint chips. I have an obsessive personality. Nowadays, I cannot stand to have ear or nose hairs, so I pluck them as quick as they grow. The slower I pull them, so that I can feel the moment of "release", the better. I also remove my skin tags. At first, I used floss. Eventually, I "graduated" to just cutting them off with nail clippers. That is essentially what the skin doctor would do, but I don't bother to deaden it. Thank you for sharing! It is good to know we are not alone!!

  • Your willingness to share your own problems is very admirable. Thank you for bringing light on such crucial issues.

  • Blake Booth25 days ago

    This must have taken a high degree of vulnerability to write. Well done. Congratulations on TS.

  • Ameer Bibi26 days ago

    Congratulations and I really appreciate your effort about sharing something personal and it's very informative

  • Andrea Corwin 26 days ago

    Congratulations on TS. You shared something so personal!

  • One of my Ex-girlfriends had that unfortunate hair-pulling urges. I feel she has made much progress it sounds like such a strong urge and hard to deal with

  • Anna 26 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • Cathy holmes26 days ago

    This is fascinating. I'm not sure I've heard of the scratching affliction, but I knew someone who pulled their hair out. Thank you for sharing and congrats on the TS.

  • Christy Munson26 days ago

    Insightful and raw. This piece feels voyeuristic. Congratulations on top story! 🥳

  • Lindsay Sfara26 days ago

    Wow. What a profound piece. Thank you for sharing this so candidly. What a way to discuss the concept of madness.

  • Oh my, thank you for being so transparent and sharing your story. Congrats on the top story prize

  • Caroline Jane26 days ago

    Oh my. I have never heard of this before . Really brave and open of you to write so frankly about it. ❤️

  • Babs Iverson27 days ago

    Sounds dreadful and you have the ability to stop and that's a good thing!!!❤️❤️

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