Skin {Deep} – Dermatillomania

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Todays post is a guest post from Ellie at A {Life) twintastic. Ellie is a friend of mine from our University days (way back when!), a mum of three, wannabe perfect housewife, and is now our first Guest Post on The Stevenson Life – where she talks about Dermatillomania – something that Ashleigh lives with too. Quite rightly, Ellie has asked us to include the following trigger warning – please do read this before you continue to read the post.


{Trigger warning}
Dermatillomania \ A skin picking disorder related to mental illness and obsessive compulsive disorder {OCD} which involves repetitive and compulsive picking of one’s own skin resulting in skin lesions, tissue damage and significant disruption to life.


Background

I started picking my skin as a child.  I remember having a skin tag I was unable to leave alone until one day I picked my skin raw to remove it.  Fast forward through teenage acne to adulthood and I can’t actually remember a time I didn’t pick at my skin.  I thought it was just me.  I hated my “bad” skin which itched to be touched.   Episodes of mindless picking would be followed by the inevitable feelings of shame and embarrassment.  My lesions and scars were visible no matter how much I tried to hide.  I felt resentful of those with clear, beautiful skin and would hide myself away from seemingly piercing stares and comments. 

Skin Picking and Mental Health

I first experienced what I would call serious depression in my early 20s but in fact I had probably suffered with poor mental health for many years before that.  The link between mental health and skin picking never occured to me.  It wasn’t until the start of 2020 that my GP noticed my aggravated skin whilst I was being treated for a severe bout of overwhelm and anxiety.  Around the same time I also heard the term Dermatillomania on a podcast which prompted me to undertake some research and learn more about the disorder. It was only that I realised the true potential extent of my lifelong habit. 

There were times I could control the picking – if I had a big event coming up, like our wedding, I would force myself to not touch my skin but I still see the scars on photographs.  I would usually focus on my face, arms and thighs but during severe bouts of low mood I would pick my scalp and the skin on my feet so raw that I struggled to walk.  I would wake up with bloody spots on my bed sheets where I’d been scratching in my sleep.  I’d use tweezers, scissors, anything I could lay my hands on to try to satisfy the need to remove blemishes.  I would pick as if by attempting to remove a perceived flaw I would feel better, even when it ended in a bloody, bruised mess. 

Triggers

For me triggers can be quite simple.  Low mood, tiredness, times of stress or overwhelm or times of quiet.  I try to keep active to keep busy because when I stop I inevitably start picking.  Waiting for the bath to run for the kids, getting ready for bed or watching tv on the sofa are all times I start my mindlessly fidget with my skin. 

The disruption to life is clear.  From dictating what clothes I wear, avoiding social situations such as swimming to avoiding seeing friends or going into work and dodging being photographed.  My kids ask why my skin is bad and tell me to stop when they see me picking.  Having your 4 year old say “please stop mummy” is heart wrenching.  The fear of passing on my habits to them soul destroying. 

Coping with skin picking during lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rollercoaster of emotions which make it feel harder to manage skin picking.  Pickingme.org has some great suggestions for decreasing dermatillomania during isolation.  For me lockdown at first caused extreme anxiety, then feelings of being highly motivated and throwing myself into homeschooling, getting jobs done and creativity before the inevitable drop in mood again.  As a result my skin actually improved but now is probably the worst it’s been since the beginning of the year.  We’re now on week three and my mood is starting to rise again. 

Here are some mechanisms I’m using to help me cope with skin picking during lockdown:

  • Staying active:  For me keeping busy is key.  If I’m focused on something else my hands are less likely to start picking.  If I’m typing or painting or cooking or gardening then I’m not picking.  Getting outside in the sunshine also helps – a bit of vitamin D does wonders for my mind and also helps clear my skin.
  • Diet:  My skin is super sensitive.  It doesn’t take much to cause a breakout which will inevitably trigger picking.  I find going dairy-free really helps my skin and my digestive system in general.  It’s not always easy when you love milk chocolate and cheese but cutting it out definitely helps.
  • Keep it simple:  It’s always tempting to buy every product under the sun to try to clear your skin.  For me I know deep down the best things are water, aloe vera, sunlight and minimal make-up.  If I start using harsh products or laying on the make-up my skin can’t deal with it. 
  • Address your mental health:  Acknowledging the link between skin picking and mental health is huge and addressing your mental health is key to managing your dermatillomania.  This is obviously easier said than done but knowing that you have a condition which is more than skin deep can be enlightening.  If something helps your mental health, chances are it will help your skin picking. 
  • Adjusting your triggers:  Move or cover mirrors, dim lights, keep your hands busy with fidget devices.  A good one I’ve been using is to wear fake nails – they make it harder to pick and because they feel different can snap you out of unconsciously touching your skin {noting the advice not to wear them at this time as it can be harder to keep your nails clean}.  I also find using fake tan helps me feel better and therefore helps manage my picking. 
  • Community:  Community has arguably never been more important than now {for our generation at least}.  Reaching out for support from friends, family, online communities or charities such as the British Skin Foundation can help you feel supported and less alone.  As with so many conditions it can be hard for people to fully understand.  “Just stop picking” is not an option.  Talking about your mental health isn’t easy but my experience from being more open and honest about how I’m feeling has been nothing but positive and be rest assured there is a safe place out there for you to ask for help too. 

Remember – these are unprecedented times.  A time of surviving if not thriving.  If you use lockdown to do something new, get creative or productive that’s great but try not to feel the pressure to do any of these things.  This is a National crisis.  A time of extreme anxiety and stress.  The aim is to survive.  To do the best we can and support those around us to do the same.  Stay safe, keep surviving and this too shall pass. 

Ellie xx

www.alifetwintastic.blog

Instagram: @alifetwintastic

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5 thoughts on “Skin {Deep} – Dermatillomania”

  1. I’ve never heard of this before or even aware of such thing, it doesn’t sound very pleasant. The constant need to pick and scratch must drive you crazy. Hope you can keep it under control especially in these stressful times.

    Reply
    • It’s extremely unpleasant, especially in times like these where you struggle to find ways to distract from it. But Ellie’s mentioned something really good coping mechanisms!

      Reply
  2. Thankyou Ellie, Mark & Ashleigh. I was directed to this post by Mark following my own writing on this debilitating disorder and it is really interesting to read how others are coping, particularly in these uncertain times. I too am finding the stress of lockdown to be a huge trigger, and soothing mood lighting can really help. I’ve had to limit my exposure to the news as much as possible, but Covid-19 is everywhere. In adverts, in the news, in pictures for our blog posts. I do understand the anxiety that it causes right now. I won’t tell you to stop because it’s not a simple as just stopping, but please be gentle on yourselves in this difficult time. We’re stressed as it is, now is a good time for some self-acceptance and forgiveness. Thinking of you all.

    Reply
    • Hi Helen, thanks for your response. It’s hard not to feel anxious in a time like this for the best of us, let alone people who suffer with something like Dermatillomania. I completely agree, rather than getting frustrated at myself (Like I normally would) I’m trying to be kinder and forgive myself for doing it. I hope you can be kind to yourself as well, we’re all doing the best we can x

      Reply

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