It was becoming clearer that I was causing the problem. But I just didn’t know how to suppress the impulses.
Feeling uncomfortable in my skin began when I was around 13 years old, as those around me started to feel and look different. Growing up in a world of tight jeans, make-up, and a merciless social hierarchy left me feeling slightly on edge. The feeling of eyes all over me sussing me out and judging my worth was something that I still struggle to shake. Pretty soon after, the skin on my face became my complete and utter obsession.
My obsession with picking started with pulling out eyelashes, then when they were all gone, eyebrow hair. They thankfully grew back, but the obsession to pick and pull simply shifted to scanning the skin on my face. As a teenager, having spots is of course an incredibly normal thing, but this was something I took refuge in, blaming my continuous “flare-ups” on teenage hormones.
The first time I remember registering I might be doing something “wrong” was when a family member commented on my skin picking. “Your face looks like a calculator,” they said. I knew the spots weren’t acne. It was becoming clearer that I was causing the problem. But I just didn’t know how to suppress the impulses.
“A short lived but free run of therapy sessions shed some much needed light on my impulses and I learned that that part of the problem was how I talked to myself once I damaged my skin”
Hair grows back and skin heals, which for years served as a sort of security blanket engulfing me in what I later found out was a coping mechanism for the skin picking condition I was suffering from: dermatillomania.
The pervasive urge to scratch off what my mind calls “dirt” is something that I still struggle with almost daily. These impulses play on my mind as I get out of the shower or simply as I go about my day. They even make me occasionally inspect other people, wondering how they’ve managed to achieve the elusive goal of clear skin, or if the slightly textured surface of their face bothers them like my own bothers me.
During the slightly more peaceful periods of clear skin, it’s extremely easy to fall into a superficial sense of security and safety with myself. It’s incredibly fragile and only takes one moment of ‘weakness’ to bring me back down to feeling utterly broken and shattered. Suddenly, the mere idea of facing my own reflection weighs me down, let alone having to face the outside world.
Work, socialising, wearing a mask, feeling attractive, confident, worth the space I take up – all of this feels so unbearably out of reach of what my mind tells me I can do with ‘bad’ skin, and it’s too much of a heavy burden to carry in a functioning adult life.
A short lived but free run of therapy sessions shed some much needed light on my impulses and I learned that that part of the problem was how I talked to myself once I damaged my skin. A big part of my road to healing happened when I managed to be gentle with myself in those delicate and raw moments. And, to me at least, that part is even harder to learn than simply trying to touch my skin less. It means that until I start to learn how to regularly disrupt my behavioural habits, I need to be extra careful around mirrors and reflective surfaces.
“What I have started to understand for the first time is that dermatillomania doesn’t need to be such a lonely experience”
I have just recently started the process of going through the NHS to see a dermatologist, and have finally found a therapist who offers Body Focused Repetitive Behaviour therapy (or ‘BFRB’). Although I don’t think that there is a straightforward solution to my impulses, I know that I can’t just keep up the old patterns and survive on the highs of having clear skin until I crash into another wall.
As anyone who shares this type of disorder knows, it’s utterly exhausting. I’m exhausted from the intense feelings of guilt, stupidity, self-loathing, and the fear of facing others because having “bad skin” leads to me simply not feeling my usual relatively confident and happy self. I clearly have a long way to go on the whole ‘being more gentle’ with how I talk to myself, and what I ‘allow’ myself to do when I’ve created new lesions on my face.
What I have started to understand for the first time is that dermatillomania doesn’t need to be such a lonely experience. Talking about it has always led to burning feelings of shame and embarrassment, even within my close circle who may ask or see what I do, whose reactions and remarks can accidentally make me feel slightly alien and isolated.
But part of my road of recovery started when I began to allow myself to do things that simply soothed me, mentally and physically – baths and showers are personal favourites – and stopped feeding the negative spiral. It’s taken time to find that sense of recovery, but every single step of it is worth it.
“In hindsight, having lost or wasted time is a lot worse than facing the world, and as someone who is still very much in the thick of it, I can’t stress this enough”
Rather than waiting ‘until my skin is clear’, going for walks or reading in coffee shops have been little victories in my own healing journey, and the respect I give myself regardless of my skin’s state. In hindsight, having lost or wasted time is a lot worse than facing the world, and as someone who is still very much in the thick of it, I can’t stress this enough.
Perhaps my biggest problem is that I’m still struggling to allow myself happiness out in the world with damaged skin, as the feelings of self-consciousness and guilt peak intensely even under high coverage make-up.
After a few weeks of BFRB therapy, I have genuinely started to allow space for acceptance of the less desirable and more twisted parts of myself, and it feels like coming up for air after being underwater for too long. I have found beauty in the slow process of recovery, of which the first step is accepting that my skin’s clarity doesn’t define my self worth. I’m not sure that step will ever be entirely reached or ticked off, but these days I know to at least try and be kinder to the skin I’m lucky enough to call home.
Eloise is a copywriter and freelance journalist based in London. @eloisecwright
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