If you ever want a glimpse into what is going on in my head, take a look at my hands.
No – I don’t mean trembling, shaking, sweaty hands. I get those on occasion, too. But I mean, actually LOOK at my hands.
I’ve been picking at the skin around my nails for as long as I remember. My thumbs are often a bloody, oozing mess. My cuticles are ragged and raw. I will never be a hand model, that’s for sure.
(This will never be me… sigh)
When my anxiety goes off the rails, one of the first signs that something is wrong is skin picking. Often, I do this act subconsciously. I honestly won’t even notice the picking until I look down and I’ve managed to draw blood. I’ve been doing this since childhood. My parents even noticed, but since it was the 90’s no one really thought twice about weird habits like this. Apparently my dad does the same thing. When I was quite a bit younger, it was paired with thumb sucking and nail-biting. Luckily, I’ve outgrown those two.
As a teen, I started to pull my hair out as well. This was LONG before my formal anxiety diagnosis in my late twenties. This behaviour went on for years without any outward visible signs. I had thick hair and was pulling from the middle, so it never really made an impact. One time I pulled a chunk of hair out from the front of my hairline. Like a big one. It was incredibly noticeable when it was growing out – so much so that people noticed this wispy growth of hair that couldn’t be pulled back in a ponytail. I, of course, had a cover story. It got caught in a round brush when I was blow-drying my hair. Duhh. End of story. Case closed. No weird stuff going on here.
But the hair pulling continued, I just got better at hiding it. So did the skin picking. This sounds nuts, but these actions were something I could control. I could pull my hair out or pick my fingers raw, and I was in control of the actions and the pain. I mean, to a certain degree. While I couldn’t really control my racing thoughts, I could control this wear and tear on my body.
Times of high anxiety – travelling, tests, moving, turmoil in a relationship/job/my health – mean more picking, more blood, more band-aids. It also has grown into pinching myself – my inner arms, legs, etc – to suppress feelings, emotions, and tears. Trust me, I know these aren’t healthy coping mechanisms. But sometimes it’s all that I’ve got.
I’ve been on anxiety medication for over a year now and have been working with a psychologist since the beginning of February. Do I still partake in this behaviour? Oh man, you bet I do. But it’s gotten better. My hands typically don’t look like they’ve been run through a meat grinder. I’ve been getting better at noticing when the picking starts, then checking in on my anxiety – getting to the root of what is actually going on and working on self care.
This skin picking condition is officially called dermatillomania. It’s been written about before (here) and (here) probably more poignantly than I am doing here. Yep, it’s a real thing. Yep, I know it’s gross. But I can’t stop it.
This may seem really vain and ridiculous to be writing about. I’m a 30-something woman who picks her fingers, pulls out her own hair, and pinches herself – and not just to make sure things are real, like they do in the movies.
This is real. Trust me, I wish it wasn’t.
Why am I pouring my heart out and talking about something that is so obviously embarrassing? So I won’t feel alone. Silly, right?!? Until recently, I had never seen anyone talk about this. I thought I was just weird. I thought this behaviour was just my secret shame, bound to be buried forever and never talked about. But I’m done with shame. I’m done with feeling ridiculous.
While I’ll never be a hand model, I’m learning how to be a healthier me. This means being honest and open. Not hiding behind my band-aid covered fingers. If you ever see me, or anyone else with gnarly, picked apart fingers, maybe check in with them and see how their doing.