Dermatillomania: My Hidden Way of Self-Harming & How I Prevent It

TW: Talk about self-harm.

After a lighthearted post on Tuesday, I wanted to talk about something more serious. A couple of years back I heard of Trichotillomania (TTM). TTM is a hair-pulling disorder. People afflicted most commonly pull hair from their scalp, eyebrows, and eyelashes. Many people with TTM also have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Those with TTM consider hair-pulling a way to relieve stress. The action can produce a pleasurable, relieving feeling. It is also considered a form of self-harm.

After I heard about this disorder, I began to reflect on my own actions. Ever since I can remember, I have been picking at my skin. This is something that I shy away from talking about with others. I can count on my hands the amount of friends and loved ones that know that I do this. I began to research skin-picking and found out that it is an actual disorder — Dermatillomania (SPD).

What is Dermatillomania?

Dermatillomania, also known as skin-picking disorder, is classified as a Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior by the DSM-5. Like TTM, those with SPD pick their skin as a way to relieve stress. The most common area that people pick at is their face, and it often starts with acne. Skin-picking is a form of self-harm.

My realization

I was shocked to know that skin-picking was an actual disorder and was considered self-harm. I just thought it was a bad habit of mine. Unlike most people with SPD, I pick at the bottom of my feet. This started around the end of elementary school which is when my anxiety first became noticeable. I would peel the skin off of the bottom of my feet, sometimes until it bled. This was a mindless behavior; I did this while I was doing other activities, like reading or watching television. I remember asking my friend in middle school if she ever picked at her skin. When she said no and looked confused, I quickly changed the subject. I realized that it wasn’t normal, but I didn’t know what it was.

I never considered my “bad habit” to be something of concern until I found out it was classified as self-harm. Then, everything clicked. I realized that I only picked at my feet during times of stress. When I was upset, I could easily spend an hour peeling the skin off of my foot until it bled. It sometimes hurt to walk. During the summer, I shied away from wearing sandals so no one could see my raw skin.

My first attempt at treatment

This summer, after telling my boyfriend about my disorder, I knew it was time to get serious about ending it. Common forms of treatment are therapy and medication, but in my case, neither have worked. I see a therapist and take medication for my anxiety and depression, but I was still picking at my skin. It was time to get creative.

I made a promise to myself that if I didn’t pick my skin for one month, I could get the tattoo I wanted. I actually went the entire month without skin-picking and I got my tattoo. It was Ed Sheeran’s album symbols on my right foot. I thought it was symbolic: his music always makes me happy and the placement showed that I “beat” Dermatillomania.

Unfortunately, the skin-picking came back soon after I got my tattoo. I was experiencing a lot of anxiety at the time and I resorted back to my old ways. I felt defeated. How could I possibly overcome this disorder? I found my answer by looking at my roommate’s nails.

How do nails help treat Dermatillomania?

My roommate, Caroline, always has perfect nails. She gets them done professionally and has acrylic nails. I loved the way that they looked and wanted to try it out for myself. I ended up getting what is known as Acyrgel, a combination of acrylic and gel nails. The tips are acrylic but the rest of the nail is gel.

A couple days after getting them done, I experienced a high volume of anxiety. I tried to pick at my skin and I simply couldn’t. The tips made it impossible to do any damage. Who knew that the solution to my skin-picking disorder would be so cosmetic? I’ve had my nails done (and re-done) for about a month now and I have been clean from self-harm. Now I’m not saying that getting your nails done is the cure to Dermatillomania, this is definitely something that should be discussed with a therapist. Having acrylics is a deterrent — you physically can’t pick at your skin with them on. However, if there is a will, there is a way. I am in a place in my life where I am able to ween out skin-picking, but if you aren’t, this might not work for you.

It has certainly been interesting and almost cathartic to write about one of my best-kept secrets to post on a very public platform. I hope that this post helps at least one of you out there! If you need advice, always feel free to email me at hello@laurensjourney.com or tweet me @laurens_journey.

xo,

Lauren

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  • Tori Ennis

    First of all I just wanted to say thank you so much for talking about this. I too have dermatillomania and I’ve been skin picking since 6th grade (I’m 20 now and a junior in college). I recently started a mental health blog and I’ve been toying with whether or not to post about it, just because I haven’t found anything that helps. I have tried the nails thing and that works until I have to get them done again and I just don’t make the time. I’d love to connect just to chat about it if you’d like!

  • Leah G

    I wanted to thank you for sharing this on your blog! I had actually only just heard of this just before you wrote about it, and I guess I had just never thought of peeling skin in that way before. I have a couple habits, especially around my fingers and arms when I get nervous and with anxiety it’s gotten worse. Thank you for sharing your journey with it! It definitely has made me want to look into it more, and I like how you’ve set milestones for yourself to try and help you break the habit!

  • Jennifer Nodine

    I’ve tried the nail thing too, glad it worked for you. I wasn’t in the right place in life for it to work for me. In fact, I wont get my nails done because I know I won’t be able to pick.