Let’s talk about self-harm
- Mental Illness
- Excoriation Disorder (SPD)
Introduction, or whatever.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my fucked-up relationship with food for the three or so people in the world paying attention.
It was a long read and full of way, way too much information. But, apparently, I’m not done with oversharing because today I feel like writing about something else that’s probably best left under wraps.
As in, mummy wraps.
While there are some who might take a perverse sort of pride in having an eating disorder these days (such are the times we’re living in), no one in their right mind wants to expose themselves for having engaged in self-harm.
So, now that we’ve established that I’m probably not in my right mind…
It’s not what you think
Whoever you are, I bet you have this idea in mind of knives and razors and bleeding wrists or a latticework of pale scars across arms and thighs. This seems to be the popular, media-reinforced notion of what self-harm is all about.
And you’re not wrong. I mean, I’m not doing any research for this post, so I don’t have any actual facts or figures to cite from reputable academic sources, but I think we’ve all seen those scars. Maybe it was a friend or a complete stranger, but you knew what they were as soon as you saw them.
I know some people like to burn themselves. Flick a lighter and pass the flame under their palm, perhaps hold it steady until the skin starts to bubble. Those scars may be less common or easily recognised, but they’re out there.
What I’m talking about, though, is a lot less ‘cool’. Something that’s probably just as prevalent – maybe even more, as I said, I’m not doing any research here – but likely more shameful for those who do it.
Hell, I suspect a lot of people doing this don’t even realise it’s a form of self-harm, but it stems from the same or similar mental and emotional conditions.
I think the most common term for it is…
Now, if you think that has something to do with plucking out hair, I’m afraid you’re still off track. At least in the context of this entry.
What I’m talking about is actually called Excoriation Disorder, or Skin Picking Disorder (SPD). And as that last name suggests, it’s all about picking at the skin, usually until it turns into a bleeding sore.
I don’t actually know a whole lot about it, and if you’re actually interested in learning more than I write about here, no doubt Google will provide. But what I do know is that the face is a common target for these attentions, and that sufferers (like me) turn to it as a source of comfort, or a means to de-stress.
Yup, when we’re stressed or anxious we go to a mirror, find a slightly enlarged hair follicle, then go to town on it. Should we find an actual pimple or black/whitehead, we zero in and rip it (and surrounding tissue) apart.
If you’ve read my earlier post about my fucked up relationship with food, you’ll already have an understanding of my stressors at particular points in my life – bullying in particular. Nothing like being the chunky kid already mocked at school then turning up the next day with sores all over your face.
I recently found some school photographs from those years. There’s a desperate smile, hair recently cropped off in a fit of impotent protest, and sores on my chubby face.
Those photographs have since been shredded.
Why did I pick, not why did I shred the pictures; I think that’s obvious!
Bullying was definitely a trigger, but I had anxiety from early childhood so it never took much to send me to that mirror to dig and pick and scratch. It perplexes me when I try to understand exactly why I felt so much better when I did it, but I really did feel calmer, more relaxed and in control. Much as I felt better and more in control of my life with anorexia. Picking my face and controlling my food was punishment and control at the same.
I hated everything about my body and my face and it must be punished for being so fat and so ugly and so completely not who I thought I was. Who everyone seemed to think I was. The sum total of a teenage girl’s identity is in how she looks to the world, therefore I had to be such an ugly person inside as well as out.
I really hope that that isn’t something you, dear random internet person, had to go through as part of your right of passage known as adolescence.
But, yes, I mined for sebum like it was gold.
Every sore was, in some way, a triumph. I’d dug something unwanted out of myself and washed it away. The sore was deserved, it was ugly like the rest of me. Somehow those two ideas made sense both at once, digging out the ugliness and leaving another ugliness on the surface.
I’m sure a psychiatrist would be able to unpack that and make it make some kind of sense. I sure can’t. All I can say is that that was my psychological reality.
And it lasted for years.
I think my earliest memories of picking were around the age of 12 or 13.
I think the last time I was picking regularly I was in my mid-30s.
For at least 20 years I managed my anxiety by cutting at my face. Some days I’d get in front of the mirror and never leave. On other days I’d visit the mirror up to 10 times, possibly even more often than that.
Most often I’d just use my fingernails, but I wasn’t averse to needle-nose scissors or tweezers, pins/needles, or even the tip of a knife on occasion. And I wouldn’t always stop at blood if I believed there was still something left to dig or squeeze out of there.
I did learn to manage it – sort of
It wasn’t until I was about 17 years old that I first tried make-up. I can tell you now, without the benefit of YouTube tutorials back then, I looked like such a clown! I didn’t have anyone I could ask for help so I had to muddle through as best I could.
But it proved so very useful at covering up the wounds I kept leaving on my face. And more importantly, I wouldn’t pick while wearing makeup! I didn’t want to mess it up (any more than my efforts to apply it were already messed-the-fuck-up).
I mean, as soon as I got home I washed it all off and went crazy creating new sores, but while that mask was on it protected my skin from picking. Unsurprisingly, I at least wore foundation as often as I could. I was coming to realise the damage I was doing to myself but couldn’t find a better way to stop it.
The need to pick would build and build and build until eventually I just couldn’t stop myself anymore. I might be sitting on the bus home squirming in my seat and having to sit on my hands to stop myself from pulling at an errant skin tag. The compulsion was powerful and irrepressible.
Even when I lived in Sweden, where my anxiety was constantly high, I’d spend hours in front of a mirror. I’d get up after my fiancé had fallen asleep and pick and pick and pick. Then, in the morning, I’d patch myself back together with makeup.
I especially like the long-wearing sorts. I definitely didn’t want anything smudging off and exposing the truth underneath.
As I said, there’s something more shameful about picking than other forms of self-harm, and even today most people don’t understand. I don’t think there are sufferers of this disorder comparing scars after a few too many drinks.
And then came the Pill
Yup, I’m one of those many, many women who take a BCP for reasons other than preventing the having of babies. I mean, I really don’t want babies, but I actually started taking the pill as a means of a) minimising acne, and b) managing mind-altering endometrial pain.
I cycled through a few different types before finally finding and settling on Yasmin, which at the time had earned itself the dual reputation of getting rid of acne while not gaining weight, and killing people by deep vein thrombosis.
Obviously, I decided to take my chances. I’ve now been on that pill for probably 15 years, and I can assure you, dear random internet person, it has not contributed to any weight gain and I have barely suffered a hint of acne. My GP wants me off it, but I’m dug in and not budging on that front.
Not long after starting on the pill, I was able to gradually discontinue using makeup as a means of preventing my obsessive picking. Now, I’m not sure if it was the hormones in the pill stopping the acne altogether or the hormones in the pill counter-acting my obsessive disorder, but at about the same time my picking urges also went away. Completely.
This is why I’m refusing to go off this pill even though I’m probably knocking on the door of perimenopause by now. Nope! Do not want to go back to that place.
Unfortunately, so many years of digging trenches in my face has left my skin deeply scarred.
Fortunately, most of the time I just look freckled.
But they’re not freckles.
I’ve seen some acne scars on par with chickenpox scars, so I know I’m actually really fortunate to have healed over as well as I have, but I still see the damage I caused every time I’m standing in front of the mirror.
Still, I’ve been essentially makeup-free for a long, long time. So long that I’ve pretty much forgotten how to apply it and there are whole new products now on the market that I’ve never heard of.
Every so often I’d buy something in the sale bin and tell myself I’ll give it a try. I had to hack into one such bargain purchase (from five years ago) last week to get all dressed up for a friend’s birthday. I swear to you the first inch of what I squeezed out into my palm was clods of sludge in oil.
It was a good thing part of my get-up involved a mask for that night.
Getting reacquainted with my face
The experience did make me reconsider my relationship with makeup, though.
I mean, I’m sure every woman has looked at their makeup kit and called it their ‘war paint’ on at least one occasion. I know I’ve nodded vigorously along with those who declare they won’t open their door or visit the letterbox without ‘their war paint on’. You may be nodding along right now, knowing exactly what I’m talking about.
When it comes to a picking disorder, the idea of makeup as war paint or a war mask is actually very real. Sure, it’s more a war of subterfuge and concealment, but we’re applying our war paint to blend in and not draw attention to ourselves.
For me at least it was never about wanting to attract attention – I’ve never enjoyed it (and it was often a trigger that sent me to the mirror in the first place). I just wanted to hide the aftermath of what I’d done to myself the last time I visited the mirror and look like everyone else.
But, the other night I actually enjoyed the experience of putting it on, even if it was icky and gross cheap stuff years past its use by. For the first time that I can remember I found I wasn’t just covering up the scars, I was enjoying the experience of applying it.
You know those people…
…who swear to you that they dress for themselves and apply makeup for themselves? I swear I always thought they were full of shit.
I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that they weren’t doing it for some reason like hiding from or wanting to get attention. Surely they were trying to impress someone! Surely they were trying to get something for the effort!
Though I never said anything of the sort out loud to anyone ever, I feel like I should find every single person who ever sparked that line of thinking and apologise – profusely.
Because I think I get it now.
Today, as part of enjoying a modicum of self-care after weeks of letting it slide, I applied some fresh new (vegan) makeup, learned how to use primer at last, and loved it. I have no plans to go out. No one is coming to visit me. I have no gaping sores to conceal. I’m wearing it because I enjoy the process of applying it. I enjoyed washing my hair beforehand and it was like an extension of that, something that just feels good to do.
I don’t know if I’m going to turn into someone who applies it every day, but I’m definitely not going to be someone who can’t answer the door or visit the mailbox at the end of my path without it – never again.
I might need some tips for the eyes, though.
The urge continues
Don’t think for a moment that I don’t still have this ugly disorder. Yes, I’ve found some tools to manage it with hormones and makeup, but I’ve turned my picking nails to tear apart my lips rather than my face. Lips do heal quickly, though, so it’s not something I feel I have to hide so much. A little gloss and literally no one would know.
But I do have a new tool that helps me almost every day. It’s a wonderful de-stressor that ticks all the boxes of satisfying a picking urge without actually picking.
YouTube videos of acne treatments!
Yup, there are millions of us out there tuning-in to pimple popping superstars – not just Dr Pimple Popper herself!
Granted, these videos aren’t for everyone. I’m sure most people are utterly revolted at just the idea of watching pimples being popped, but there are videos out there with tens of millions of views, and not all of them are me.
I think that about wraps up another over-long dose of oversharing.