Inside Skin Picking: Personal Tales Of A Mysterious Condition


“It all started when I went back to work full-time,” my single mother used to say. She was talking about the scabs that started showing up on my arms, legs, and face. I was eight years old and I had a picking problem, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. The wonderful thing about childhood is the lack of shame—shame one might experience when doing such horrible things as scratching dime-size holes into her still-poreless complexion. Being asked if I had chicken pox became a daily occurrence for me, and little circular bandaids in neon colors were my day-to-evening accessory.

A doctor’s appointment and a biopsy for what the physician assumed was eczema or early-onset psoriasis is what it took for both my mother and I to realize that I had a problem. A large scab appeared on my hand, and I told my mom I didn’t know where it had come from, even though I knew very well I had put it there myself. To this day I have the scar from where they cut it off of me to test it. Needless to say, the results came back negative on all counts—it was just a scab.

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I found out from Oprah that the weird thing I had been doing all my life had a name: dermatillomania, aka an irrational habit of picking one’s skin. I couldn’t decide if giving the condition an identity made me feel more or less insane. Before, it was just a thing that I did. But that day it became a thing that I had. Unfortunately, unlike a cold, I didn’t understand how to make it go away.

I work as a model today, but I’ll forever be shadowed by my earliest perceptions of myself—a confused 13-year-old middle school student with a full-blown case of skin picking. My teen years were shrouded with self-inflicted blemishes to the point where I would go to great lengths to cover my scars under makeup and clothing. Family and friends began to perceive the worst. People thought my long sleeves and arm warmers were covering track marks or scars from cutting. Once, I was asked if I’d been doing methamphetamines. None of those were the case, but I remember thinking that any of them would be better and more logical than the truth—that I just couldn’t stop picking my skin.

It’s amazing to me that so many others suffer from this disorder as extremely as I do. That other people, too, have wasted hours ruining their complexion in front of the bathroom mirror after everyone else has gone to bed. That so many of you have also hidden pins, needles, and even small blades in the medicine cabinet to use on your faces and bodies. That maybe as some of you are reading this, you’re picking right now and don’t even realize it.

Do you make excuses, too? “Damn, this eye makeup is taking forever to get off” has been a favorite of mine when someone would knock on the bathroom door after 30 minutes. Sometimes I let people come up with their own conclusions. “Are you still scratching your skin?” a boyfriend would ask me. “Does it hurt?” I’ve been asked on shoots as a makeup artist smears concealer on my forearms. I never want to talk about it, but until the scars are gone, it will forever be a part of my life.

What gets me about dermatillomania is that there is really no cure-all treatment. So far, medical professionals are still at odds over how to classify the condition. Some say it’s an obsessive compulsive disorder, others argue it should be considered an addiction. And watching Youtube videos and reading message boards online has left me with more questions than answers. All they recommend are gloves and bandages. Who wants to go to bed wearing gloves? Sticking bandaids on your fingers to prevent scratching? Not my idea of a good time. The YouTubers and message boards also tell me to stand away from the mirror when I’m in the bathroom, but that’s not exactly practical. The last resort always seems to be Prozac, which sounds like a whole new can of worms if you ask me.

I’m uncertain if this is a condition that me nor anyone else will ever completely overcome. I’ve found ways to reduce the damage significantly. Wearing dull acrylic nails has helped me immensely. What people forget is that the main issue with skin picking is infection. If you’ve ever gone to get a facial, you’ll remember the “extraction” part. It’s a funny feeling, having someone else poke and squeeze at your skin—it feels kind of wrong. And if you’re a skin picker, it’s almost perverse. But when a trained aesthetician or dermatologist performs extractions with a dull metal instrument and/or a clean pair of gloves, you know what? You wake up the next day with clean skin, not a face full of sores.

It’s scary to think that this is a condition I’ll probably just have to live with for the rest of my life. Finding “clean” ways to pick is not what I call a solution, but neither is barricading myself from doing it. Everybody has scars. Many friends have shared the proud tales behind their own, thrilling stories about fights or accidents or operations. I’m not nearly as ashamed of my scars as I once was, but I still find my story too tragic, and bizarre, and downright embarrassing to share with gusto.

And while I’m writing this story anonymously, I hope in time it inspires others and maybe even myself to open up and come clean about this condition and share their stories. They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The trouble is, I’m not yet sure what the next step could be. All I know is, I’m not alone in this, and if you suffer from dermatillomania, neither are you.