Mortifying habits


I just finished three Mortified shows this weekend and I’m feeling those lovely, post-show warm fuzzies about humanity. If you don’t know, Mortified is a live show where adults share “their most embarrassing childhood artifacts (journals, letters, poems, lyrics, plays, home movies, art) with others, in order to reveal stories about their lives.” The slogan is “Share the Shame.” But when it’s all said and done, Mortified is more about blessing the shame. Forgiving it. Saying it’s okay. It’s funny how we work so hard to hide our vulnerabilities—yet an evening at Mortified reminds us that it’s our vulnerability that brings us together.

As I’ve been thinking about vulnerabilities and being a teen for the past month, it made me want to share something personal—and frankly, kinda yuck. It’s a thing I’ve always hidden, but as I’m entering my late 30s, I’m starting to feel like it’s time to share things so others out there can find solutions and not feel so alone. So here goes:

I have (suffer from? Experience?) dermatillomania.

Twenty years of bad face days

One of the more pathetic lines in my Mortified performance was the journal entry, “Does one have to be beautiful to be loved? I am so alone.” Followed by another dated three days later, “When I wrote that last entry, I was having a bad face day and feeling like I would never be loved. Still feels the same, but my face seems to be a bit better.” Ha ha! Pimple joke!

But turns out…not really.

Since I was in 5th grade, I’ve struggled with dermatillomania (a less gross but scarier word for skin picking). However, I didn’t know this word until my late 20s. I just thought I had terrible acne that I couldn’t stop touching—and I felt extremely ashamed. My face, head, neck, chest, back, upper arms, and thighs were…uh, kinda a mess.

As a teen, I was on a lot of prescription soaps for acne; some burned, others dried me out, but most did nothing. I kept covered as much as possible. I tried to keep my hair in my face. (I have a vivid memory of a summer theater incident: I was inside this giant, 10-foot tall puppet, wearing a tank top because of the heat, and I’d unconsciously made my back bleed. I couldn’t come out from under the puppet at the end of the play, even though I was sweating, overheating, and finally, crying. I remember asking my high school boyfriend, What is wrong with me?)

In college, I couldn’t figure out why everyone else’s skin cleared up while mine did not. Around my senior year, I asked a boyfriend to help me stop touching my acne and making it worse. That didn’t go well. Since it’s an ongoing, subconscious thing, his admonishment was constant…and so was my shame. The only thing I knew was that I had no control.

The power of naming

It wasn’t until after grad school when I taught English abroad in a coal mining town in China that my “acne” cleared up. I’d definitely expected the opposite. The city was so sooty, I could literally feel my fingertips all the time; they were too dirty to touch anything, let alone my face. It wasn’t until that moment, in my mid-20s, that I realized I didn’t even have acne. I was simply causing skin issues by touching my body all the time. But that’s okay—I’d beaten it!

Or so I thought. When I returned to the U.S., the cycle returned. Clean hands meant a return to touching my face. So for the first time ever, finally knowing my problem wasn’t acne, I started Googling. And at 27 years old,  I discovered the word dermatillomania.

Derma for skin, till for pull, and mania for…well, obviously, mania. Madness. I was so relieved, even though I had a “madness.” I had a name for it. There were others like me. I wasn’t crazy. I mean, maybe I was, a bit, but I wasn’t unique crazy. Me and 2% of the population–and maybe someone was working on a solution for it.

Highway to my danger zones

I found a professional in the field (who ran the totally calm sounding Panic and Anxiety Clinic). I was horribly disappointed to find out this wasn’t curable. Treatable, yes, but not curable. I recall asking him if I could just take a pill or get hypnotized or something.

“This is going to take a lot of work,” the doctor said. “You’re going to have to want this.”

I wanted to want this. I mean, I was newly single. I wanted to wear strappy dresses in the summer time before I was too old. I wanted to go without makeup. But the work scared me. I was afraid I would fail. But I signed up for whatever the doc thought would help. It was better than the alternative.

First, the doctor had me map out my “Danger Spaces,” the times where picking subconsciously happens (reading, typing, driving, movie watching, etc.). He had me journal where it happens, and the feelings I’m having when it happens. The idea is bringing awareness to the actions. If I’m aware when I’m about to enter those danger spaces (or having the feelings that lead to it), I could take a moment and remind myself that “I choose not to pick.” That seemed doable.

Next, he had me prep these spaces with a variety of preventative items: a sticky note, reminding me that I’m entering a dangerous space; physical barriers, like band-aids for my fingertips or gloves (nothing weird about watching TV while wearing gloves, right?);  and fidget items to keep my hands busy, like rubber bands, bracelets, or what turned out to be my favorite, a big ball of Thinking Putty. (He also recommended I get manicures if they helped. They did, but I garden too much to keep them nice—and I’m too cheap to make that an ongoing thing in my life.)

But all that is just for the unconscious picking. For the conscious picking (I hate even typing that, but it’s a big part of it), things are tougher. The doctor suggested covering the bathroom mirror or replacing bathroom lightbulbs with dimmer ones, plus putting a note on the mirror with an inspirational quote or photo or something that reminds me why I care to stop.

So I followed his orders: I put up notes. I bought manicure gloves and band-aids and putty and beaded bracelets and put them in my danger zones. I told a few people about it, thinking I would be embarrassed enough to stop picking. After a couple of years, everything improved again: my skin, my self-esteem, my feelings of control. I started wearing tank tops. I felt comfortable enough to finally cut my hair short so my neck could be seen. I felt free.

The point of probable return

It turns out OCD is like any other bad habit; it just waits to pop up again when your attention is elsewhere. And I’m only human—I usually can only focus on one self-improvement task at a time.

I had maybe a five-year reprieve, but in the past year, picking has crept back into my life. At work, at home. My husband raising his eyebrow at me at dinner parties as I touch my neck in a way I thought looked completely innocent. I find myself having to check how I’m dressing again. Higher necklines. Scarves. Spending mornings figuring out the perfect blend of coverup, corrective tint, and foundation to cover a blemish on my chin (hint: there is no right blend).

Sometimes, I feel again like there is nothing I can do to stop myself, despite the fact that I have the tools to address it. But I want to be completely honest: sometimes, all of the tools don’t help. There are times when my mind haywires and tells me that I don’t care about the outcome. This is who I am. I can’t stop myself. It doesn’t matter. Even, This feels good. Because, when you get down to it, this is something my brain manifests as soothing. As self-care. But that’s what I hate the most. When I can’t make myself care. That’s the lowest.

Being vulnerable

In January, I stumbled across an article, Dermatillomania: The Skin Picking Disorder You’ve Probably Never Heard Of. In it, the writer shared the moment that I’d forgotten.

“…just having a name for it was immensely helpful. To know I was not alone, that it is a disorder, that other people feel these same urges.”

That’s right. I’d forgotten the moment when I realized I had a disorder. That I wasn’t alone. I’d forgotten that feeling of hope, when I learned I could control it. But as the doc had said, I “have to want this.”

Do I want this? I thought back to my wedding day, my friend covering my bare back with foundation and concealer. I looked at the scars I’ve given myself. I thought ahead to summer. To swimming with friends and not worrying that they will see my secrets.

I do. I do want this. I’ve overcome it twice—I could do it again. And besides, wrinkles and zits at the same time? No, thank you, world. I’ve had enough. What’s more, I hadn’t ever considered that I could use my voice to share this. To be vulnerable and make this disorder a little more visible. There are adults and teens kids out there, just like me, living with this and many don’t even know its name.

This idea shook me out of my defeatist funk. What if I make this not entirely about me? Could that stop that cloud of what does it matter? I think it could. Maybe it’s a bit grandiose and self-indulgent, but I always respond better when my motivations feel bigger than me. So if you’re reading this and you found it in a search, I’ve stopped picking for you. Kinda. I mean, a bit. I’m trying. Really. I am.

Starting over

I’ve gone after this with new zeal. I put my notes back in my danger zones. I got out those stupid manicure gloves again for movie watching. I ordered this thing called HabitAware; it’s a habit tracking bracelet that can be trained to monitor hand motions. It vibrates when you do the actions you want to stop. It’s particularly good for those unconscious movements. It was a bit spendy, but I always respond well to the guilt of spending money on something in order to make big changes. (When I went vegan, I invested in a Vitamix, figuring that was too much money to spend on something to improve my life and then not follow through—and it’s worked.)

(This may seem unrelated, but at this same time, I also just read How to Break Up With Your Phone. I’ve found that being more mindful in general—and reducing my phone-induced anxiety—reduces my unconscious actions. The book also encouraged meditation, which I think has helped a lot.)

I swear this isn’t an ad for the bracelets, but so far, they’re totally working. I’m more aware of my hands. I’m not sure if long term, they will stop the motions—or even how long it would take if they could. But three weeks in and I can sit still longer. I can put my hand down. The mindfulness has made me feel more in control.

I’m not cured, however. Even as I type this, I’m getting notifications that my hands have strayed. But every day is better than the one before. Every minute is a new chance to take control. To seize the minute—or the next one. Each moment is mine to take back and make it my own.

Baby steps.

If you have something similar—nail biting, hair pulling, self-harm, substance addiction, OCD, a phone addiction—whatever your deal is, you’re not alone. Much love to you if you’re in the same boat. We can do this.

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