Since I was a kid I always had the “bad habit” of picking at my sores. It was a compulsion that I didn’t understand, I just knew I did it and in result I would get peroxide or alcohol (whichever was available) doused over my raw areas to keep them from getting infected. My mom used to tell me “your going to get infantigo!” I figured this was bad but never had any idea what it meant. So at a young age I started creating scars on my arms and legs. You can only imagine what a severe case of the chickenpox’s did to me! My desire never really went away, my focus later changed to nail biting and cuticle biting and pealing. I thought this was normal behavior as well, just another “bad habit”. One my mom would tell me “your going to get worms!”. Again, it sounded gross but my compulsion was stronger than my moms words.
As an adult in my late 30’s I had a minor mental breakdown that resulted in a diagnosis of Bi-Polar II, OCD and social anxiety. The more I learn, I realize this is a common cocktail of problems for a lot of people. During my breakdown I used outbursts of rage to expel my feelings and experience release and control. Not the best medicine I can tell you that! But after I was properly medicated and the tornado inside of me came to a low churn and I was no longer angry, I had no outlet for my anxiety (which even with medicine does exist). I noticed I was picking again. A grown woman, picking her sores! Grow up!
I think what I have experienced is that medicine takes care of the major swings, keeps the extreme anxiety, depression and OCD tenancies at bay, but there is still a lot left to behavioral modification and self control. I have never had a drug/alcohol, smoking or any other type of addiction, but I understand the undeniable, uncontrollable urge that it takes with every ounce of your being to talk yourself out of giving in. It’s a mental battle that I often lose.
So now i’m 42 and over the past year the picking has gotten worse. I have accounted it to the amount of stress in my life with one of my daughters going to college, a new job, and life in general. It has gotten to the point where my arms and wrists are a plethora of open wounds and gnarly scars, and thanks to pesky mosquitoes assisting me in opening new wounds they are also on my legs now as well . It got so embarrassing that I actually wore gloves at work trying to keep from picking at them and also using that as an excuse to hide them from people that may not understand. I try make-up on them, which never works, I wear long sleeves in the summer, and I am terrified of what people will think at the public pool, or even the Walmart cashier when she sees me hand my money over. It’s embarrassing and just plain gross.
Another thing that I experience is what I call “phantom itching” which in my case is directly anxiety related . There are no bites, no topical reasons for the itch, yet it gets in my head and I cannot control the desire to scratch. I experience an itch that is so deep under the skin that it’s impossible to satisfy, resulting in scratching layers of skin off to try and reach it. Sometimes wrenching my hands and feet will sooth it, but often times I just have to compulsively itch it until I feel that it’s gone, leaving “rub burns” and open areas to later pick at. Seriously, who can ignore the most annoying thing in the world, to have an itch where you can’t scratch it.
The act of picking to most people is absolutely disgusting, painful and they avoid it at all costs. For me, the compulsion comes in a few of different ways. ONE: I mindlessly search my arms and legs while I am preoccupied watching t.v., talking to someone or driving in the car. I don’t even realize I am doing it, I find a nice easy scab that is raised off of the skin and without even acknowledging my behavior I pick it off and end up in a bloody mess. There is no purpose to this other than “idol hands do the devils work”. TWO: This one is directly anxiety related, if I am under a lot of stress and can’t seem to get release, I will close myself in the bathroom and literally pick every thing I can find. Not only does the amount of pain it brings “hurt so good”, but the letting of blood makes me FEEL better. It lets out a relief that allows me to calm down and regain control (man, this sounds really sadistic). The THIRD thing is directly OCD related, when I come across a scab that isn’t easily accessible. Generally it’s deeper in the skin, with no raised edges. It’s like a challenge that I cannot turn down. I become hyper-focused on picking it out. Not because i’m stressed, but merely due to the obsession. I have gone to great lengths, such as using tools, needles, tweezers, or any other objects that will help accomplish my mission. These generally hurt a lot, but pain does not seem to bother me while I am this focused. After I finish the dirty deed, these tend to the be my “go to” sores for weeks to follow, making it very difficult to heal, and leaving the worst scars.
In a less intrusive but still very aggravating compulsion that has the same release is choosing certain areas of my body and over cleaning it. Not my whole body, and I’m not a germa-phobe but I will get in my head that this area is not clean enough and I will rub it until its raw, which feels SO good at the time, then soon after I regret. The more irritated it is, the more I want to scrub, it feels good, then bleeds, then hurts like hell creating a vicious cycle.
I have recently done some research and found articles on this disorder called Excoriation (see link below). It was very interesting to read and be able to FINALLY have something that described EXACTLY what I was experiencing. Its in the OCD family of issues, but it’s classified as Skin picking disorder – a type of repetitive “self-grooming” behavior called “Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior”(BFRB). Other types of BFRBs include pulling or picking of the hair or nails that damages the body.
If you experience any of these issues, you may want to research and learn why you do what you do. I am not at the top of the scale in this compulsion, but nonetheless, it’s damaging to my skin, my confidence and my social interaction with the general public and even my family.
So if you happen to see me or someone else, and wonder “geesh is that person on meth?”, which people laugh and say to me all of the time, consider it might be a disorder that can’t be easily controlled and there is more to the story than you realize.