It wasn’t until halfway through my psychology bachelors program that I realized it had a name.
I always figured it was just an incredibly bad habit I’d acquired as a child; about as equally bad as biting your nails or popping zits. A habit that, for some reason or another, hadn’t gone away.
I mean, old habits die hard, right?
But I haven’t seen many people who pick and scratch the sides of their thumbs until caved indents are formed with little pools of blood in them. People who pick and pull any sticking bit of chapped lips until they peel it off and make it bleed profusely.
Who can ignore the sharp stinging and pain they put themselves through, but have to repeatedly pick at any uneven little bump on their body and even the scabs formed over as a recovery from the last assault.
Whose bodies are littered with the remnants of each assault, that just never seem to go away.
It’s way more than just a bad habit. It’s Excoriation Disorder. It’s classified under “Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders” in the latest DSM.
For many, many years, the sides of my thumbs have been mercilessly victimized by this problem. It still surprises me that considering how often my nails, no matter how short I cut them, have dug at the skin on my thumbs, that I haven’t reached the bones yet. My cheek, thighs and arms sport some patches of dark brown spots where an unfortunate pimple or ingrown hairs had shown up and even the hardened skin created over them was repeatedly attacked, like an enemy force trying to break through the walls of an impenetrable (and speedily rebuilt) fortress.
For me, I’ve noticed it’s affected by stress and anxiety.
As if I’m taking out all my pent up frustration and nervousness onto my own skin, putting myself through burning pain on certain parts of my body to put my overall mind at ease.
I guess you can say that excoriation is one of life’s many cruel ironies.
When the damage is done, the scars remain for a long while before time fades them away. The heart, mind, and skin are pretty much the same that way: little time and effort to hurt, but more time and effort to recover and heal. And definitely, a lot more time if they’re relentlessly attacked by no one else but your own self.
It really does hurt, physically and emotionally. But I just couldn’t stop.
Excoriation is a repetitive behavior of the negative kind that is carried out with little or no control at all. And like all other psychological disorders, you simply can’t tell someone to stop it.
But you can help them to control it.
My best friends have taken it upon themselves to slap my fingers away anytime they see that I’m about to itch.
As for helping myself, I keep my thumbs (or any fresh scab that can be picked) covered with band-aids for as long as possible. I’ve also found that covering up any darkened patches on my face and with a little concealer takes away my unneeded attention I give them when I look in the mirror, along with the urge to pick at them.
It also helps me not to feel bad about my appearance.
But I generally don’t like applying makeup if I don’t have to. So my objective is to avoid getting anything that can be picked on my skin in the first place: I try to consume as much water and healthy foods as I can, make a light exercise as part of my daily routine, and exfoliate so I don’t have any ingrown hairs on my body.
I find that it kills two birds with one stone since it reduces my anxiety, especially when I feel better about my overall person after some self-care.
However, environmental stressors are beyond anyone’s control. In that case, I ball my hands up into fists and keep my thumbs inside of them. Not only does it save their literal skin, but it prevents my fingers from picking on anything else on my body too.
I’m aware, of course, that this problem exists on various extents for different people who also have different (possibly better) ways of dealing with it. But my point is that no matter how strong the urge is, you are, you can, and you will emerge stronger than it.
I’d be lying if I say my compulsiveness has gone away, but I feel like I’ve managed it better than I have in the past. I’m still learning to do so, but I’m also learning to love myself through it and not be overcome by the guilt and regret.
It was beyond my control back then, through no fault of my own, but now I’m taking control.
And you will too.