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Dermatillomania–Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP), a subset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
There is no way to make this funny or to make you laugh when I talk about these things.
The story begins in 3rd grade. My anxiety already existed at a high level. In car rides to various locations, I would ask, “Do you know where you’re going?”
“Yes, Whitney,” My parents grew accustomed to this tradition.
“Are you sure?” My tiny hands would be clasped together with concern.
“Yes, Whitney,” They’d reply.
“Do you have directions just in case you get lost?” And my parents would nod and continue driving.
In the middle of third grade while riding the bus home from school, I was molested. A person thought that a game of Don’t-Touch-Me-There was really fun and held my arms down and violated his or her (I will not specify which) way around my body. It was unintentional cruelty; this person clearly was unaware of the consequences of the game other than the squeals it elicited from some boys on the bus. But I started sobbing, and no one helped me. I would ask to sit with my friends, and they would refuse. Eventually after crying for most of the bus ride, my friend let me sit up front with her. I told my father once I got off the bus, but my brother said I was lying. After shaking and crying the whole way home, my dad knew something was wrong. He and my mother called this person’s parents and they verified with their child that he/she did indeed violate me on the bus.
That was the first time. When someone I don’t know well grabs my arms–or when I’m really stressed and anyone does it– I have a panic attack, or I feel like I’m going to throw up all over them. It’s my trigger. I have done EMDR and gone to therapy and written about it in journals, but it always resurfaces.
Then, when I hit puberty and my acne got really bad, my father told me I needed to either a) not wear make up because it would clog my pores and cause more zits or b) wear make up because I was ugly without it. This was said in the same breath. I was already picking at this point, seeking release in physical pain years before I would scratch at my skin to get the hurt out of my heart.
It has been ten years since I started picking, give or take a few months. In high-stress situations, it gets worse. When faced with my molestation or dealing with a similar situation, my scars skyrocketed as I picked my way into a trance. Then I started doing it when I was bored. Soon, I would wake up picking at my skin.
There were times when it got remedially better. I’d go a week without doing it, but then quickly revert to pinching at my shoulders, upper arms, and forearms when something bad happened.
My junior year of college saw the worst month of my life and the rebirth (with a vengeance) of my picking: an arrest, a death in the family, verbal abuse by a professor, and finally–the thing that made it so much worse–another incident.
This time, a man in a position of power and strength physically restrained me from leaving his presence. He wrapped his arms around me, and each time I stood to get up, he pulled me back down into his lap.
“I’m tired. I need to get home,” I’d say, and stand, only to feel his arms grab mine and pull me forcefully down. I’d try it again. “My dog needs to be walked,” I’d offer, and he would chuckle and respond with, “Just a few more minutes.”
One of the times he pulled me back, he held me too close and his hand wandered up my shirt. “You seem scared,” he breathed.
“That’s because I am.” I had turned off my emotions. I felt dead again, like no one would help me, like I did on that bus so many years ago. I was seven years old: scared, helpless, screaming in my head for my brother but not letting it show on the outside.
Since then, the picking has fluctuated. I have realized that it’s directly associated with my arms–they are what failed to protect me twice in my life, so they bear the burden of my obsessive-compulsion.
I want it to be over. I want to not recoil when someone places a hand on my arm. I want to wear tank tops and not be afraid of having red half-moons from my fingernails on my shoulders. I want to sleep peacefully through the night and not wake up after a nightmare with my hands pinching my skin. I want to feel like my arms can (and will) protect me from anyone that tries to hurt me again. I want to have faith in my strength. I want it to stop. It simultaneously eases my anxiety, causes more, makes me hate myself, makes me embarrassed, soothes me, and scars me.
“What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” Everyone asks me at some point. Because, if you must know, I don’t feel safe, and it helps.
Dermatillomania- Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP) a subset of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, also thought to be linked to substance abuse disorders, also more common with women than men.