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Ending the War

Guest Author: Laura

This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.

Looking at me, you’ll probably see something is different, but you might not be able to pinpoint it to mental illness.

Your eyes might travel over my scar-dappled skin, wondering what on earth caused these rounded areas of variant pigmentations from head to toe. There is literally over two decades’ worth of accumulation all over my body and I expect to accumulate many more decades of scars over my lifetime.

I live with dermatillomania.

It’s not a self-harm behaviour because the intent isn’t to injure.

Diagnostically it’s called excoriation (skin-picking) disorder, which probably gives you a better idea of what the disorder entails if you’re not familiar with Latin. It falls under the obsessive-compulsive related disorder section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, meaning it’s similar to OCD, but not close enough to that disorder to be categorized fully that way. It also falls under the umbrella term body-focused repetitive behaviours (BFRBs); you may have heard of its sister disorder, trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder).

I pick my skin and have since I was five years old. To the best of current scientific knowledge, it’s a genetically-derived, over-grooming behaviour that originates in our brains. Exact causes are unknown, but it can be triggered or activated by things such as trauma. It also seems to have a link to stimulus control as people pick when bored or tired (under-stimulated) or stressed or anxious (over-stimulated). It’s not a self-harm behaviour because the intent isn’t to injure; that’s just a by-product of the behaviour. (And if you are picking to self-harm, it is diagnostically not this disorder.)

One thing’s for sure, dermatillomania and other BFRBs have a penchant for destruction.

That may seem like a misnomer considering I just said it’s not a self-harm behaviour, but the truth is this disorder can bring a lot of grief and absolute suffering for those who have it.

Up until about four or five years ago, I was a wreck when it came to my skin picking. I didn’t understand what I was dealing with and more importantly I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t stop, even though I so desperately wanted to. I hated that I had no control over my picking and that my skin was constantly torn up and in pain. I hated that I was too weak and didn’t have the willpower to just stop this destructive force. It contributed to some of the darkest times of my life, including my stroll with suicidal ideation.

Oh, and did I mention that I also have depression and anxiety?

Each of the three illnesses waged war against each other.

This trio made my life hell. On top of the skin picking, my mind and body were warring with spinning thoughts that wouldn’t shut up coupled with paralyzing fear and envelopments of deep sadness or pure nothingness. Each of the three illnesses waged war against each other while also feeding into each other’s negativity.

I was picking because of anxiety and depression, anxious because of the picking and depression, depressed because of the picking and anxiety, and it circled. And then sometimes they weren’t even working together at all and just existed in disruptive harmony.

Suicide or a cure seemed like the only ways out, and there were (and are) no cures in sight.

I found another way to calm the madness, though.

I’m an academic at heart and soak up knowledge like a sponge. For me, that was my saving grace. Learning about each disorder — putting names and symptoms and modus operandi to each of them —helped me accept them and played a big part in pulling me back from the edge. It helped me understand that dispelling them completely wasn’t the only way to have control.

I learned I could live with my mental illnesses and still live.

It’s a tough reality to swallow when you’re used to all-or-nothing mentality, but I now know that I can still have a full, successful life whether or not mental illness is coming along for the ride. Depression, anxiety, and dermatillomania make life a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable anymore. It’s not impossible anymore.

I’ve learned that these disorders are not a reflection of my character.

And more importantly I’ve learned that these disorders are not a reflection of my character. Rather they just are.

Sometimes my mental illnesses still suck the energy out of me and I feel like doing nothing more than watching mind-numbing television or sleeping for hours on end, but they don’t overtake every aspect of my life anymore.

I don’t worry about my imperfect skin and know I can handle my imperfect brain.

My mental illnesses are what they are, and I can live with that, whether they’re here or not.

If you or someone you know is looking for support for skin picking, hair pulling, or other body-focused repetitive behaviours, please visit Canadian BFRB Support Network or TLC Foundation for BFRBs.

facebook.com/LauraBartonWriter and @Laura_Barton

Comments

David
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You told your story so well, Laura. Thanks for writing it. It’s another aspect of mental illness I was never aware of, but it always seems that recognition and acknowledgement are the important first steps. It’s wonderful that you’ve found ways to cope. All the best.

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