Neurotic Excoriations: The Scratching Disorder
How I Found Clarity in My Mental Health
It started out as eczema.
Truly it was no big deal. Just a few dry, red patches on my arms and legs that used to leave scars. Eh, nothing a nice warm Aveeno oatmeal soak couldn’t cure. When you live with something for so long, it becomes a part of you. You become a part of it. As a kid, I would scratch, my skin would flake, then bleed, and I’d slap a band-aid on it. Easy fix. But as an adult, it’s not that easy.
I remember my first panic attack. I was a nervous kid. (Now I’m an anxious adult.) It was in my house and I couldn’t communicate with my mom at the time because she was busy with the door in her office closed and I just remember crying at the foot of the shut door. It took about three or more hours before she opened the door and yelled at me for crying. Which ensued more panic. My heart raced, my cheeks were hot, and I felt like I was suffocating. All of these feelings cause me to scratch. I dug into my arms until they bled. White streaks danced up and down my arms, but this certainly wasn’t prom. It was the beginning of a quiet battle between my anxiety and me.
From then on, my panic attacks would arise at the worst times: on vacation, at public events, even on my birthday. Loud sounds, crowded places, high levels of chaos—that was my childhood. Don’t get me wrong, growing up didn’t suck. It was actually pretty rad. But when your mom is a travel agent, and the clarity of having anxiety doesn’t hit you until your twenty-one, it makes for rocky adolescent years.
Around 2007, I was in San Francisco. Nothing but loud sounds, crowded places, and high chaos. I remember the tall buildings looming over me. When I’d look up, the world would start spinning, and dagger of fear would pierce my chest. They intimidated me. Buildings were something I couldn't control. I couldn't make them smaller or go away. They were everywhere. I thought it was just San Francisco, and that I was young. But over the years, my mom and I would travel to New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. The same thing happened every time. I didn’t realize it was a true phobia (Megalophobia, to be exact) until I studied abroad in Hong Kong alone.
Hong Kong was when everything started to crash and burn.
Both the phobias of tall buildings and anxiety collided in a catastrophic disaster that resulted in me going to the doctor twice because of stress-related illnesses. My 5’0’’ body couldn’t handle the constant smell of cigarette smoke, stagnant water, meat, trash, and smog. Crossing the street was an adventure in itself every time, and lucky for me, my university was located right in the heart of Hong Kong. I struggled a lot with my identity, trying to somehow fit into a foreign country where English is not widely spoken. It was hard to make friends. I mostly ate McDonald's and hardly got any sleep. The only time I was truly calm was when I went to Disneyland by myself. All while this was happening, I was scratching away at my skin. The scratching got to a point where there were dark patches on my neck and hands because my skin was damaged. I always wore long sleeves and had tears in my eyes because my skin was constantly burning. I didn’t know how to control it. So, I continued to walk the streets of Hong Kong in extreme pain, trying to find some solitude anywhere.
My skin didn’t clear until about this month (April 2018). I studied in Hong Kong from September 2017 to November 2017, then studied in Atlanta from January 2018-March 2018. I’d carried my disorder from the US and back. While Atlanta didn’t have as many “triggers” as Hong Kong did, I just couldn’t get my anxiety under control. Winter semester, I took on a heavy workload, with two photography classes and a printmaking class. My friends were battling their own mental health struggles. Things weren't going right in my personal or family life. A lot of friends and fellow students would always ask me, “why are you scratching all of the time?” The only answer I had for them was, “I’m stressed.” Indeed, I was. But by the end of the winter semester, I’d had enough. I was tired of scratching all of the time. Tired of the burning. Tired of the questions. Over spring break of this year, I decided to seek help.
I went to the doctor on a snowy day in March. I sat down with her and explained all that I’d been through in my life, but particularly stressing my experiences in Hong Kong. She looked at my skin. Then she looked at me and said, “you have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, clearly. But when you get anxious, do you pick at your skin?” I nodded shamefully, feeling like a child because it took me twenty-one years to figure out that it wasn’t just eczema anymore. It was a psychological disorder. She prescribed me with an anxiety medication and suggested that I enroll in Counseling Services at school. In order to better my mental health, I decided to leave my friends behind in Atlanta, and start a new journey in Savannah. I enrolled in Counseling. Started taking my medication every night. Began writing poetry. Made a few friends. Now, I’m becoming more open to talking about not only my mental health but mental health in general. I feel more confident in myself, because now I know what my limits are, and how to control my anxiety. I am no longer afraid to tell my friends when I’m anxious and need to go home. I talk to my grandma on a regular basis about my anxiety, and I have a solid support group.
But in the process of hitting rock bottom, and slowly building myself up, I have learned that you cannot always help yourself. You need some guidance. Life is not meant to be endured alone. There are people who have the tools to help you, you just have to ask, and believe that you will get better. I hope that anyone reading this who struggles with anxiety or is trying to cope with neurotic excoriations knows that it is possible to get better. You have to let people know, and share your story. It’s a scary journey and finding clarity through the pain is not going to be easy. Though, it is possible to endure.