If I ever meet you, you'll know what kind of week I've had by whether or not I shake your hand.
Good Week: Confident hand extended in which I firmly take your hand in mine, allowing for the probable contact of your hand-skin on my hand-skin.
Bad Week: Big broad smile (Focus on the face! I'm even probably wearing lipstick!), loud "HELLO! NICE TO MEET YOU!" and lots of head bobbing and nodding in an effort to appear enthusiastic. No handshake initiated. I only will if you really want to. Don't want to take any chances.
Gut-wrenching, Sweaty, "Who ate all the Kraft Singles?" Haven't-changed-my-underpants-in-five-days Kind of Week: My fingers will be swaddled in bandages (if I haven't torn through them already) and ain't no way in hell that we're shaking hands.
You see, I tear the shit out of my fingers. It's Dermatillomania!
What is Dermatillomania?
Dermatillomania is an impulse control disorder characterized by the repeated urge to pick at one's own skin, often to the extent that damage is caused.
Basically I'm always consciously or unconsciously picking my fingers. My fingers and hands are rarely free of telltale little nicks and scabs. Sometimes it's minor, and if you aren't looking, you wouldn't know I've been picking. Other times my fingers are clawed down to bloody, stumpy, flesh nuggets. My fingers are always devoid of cuticles.
I have a love-hate relationship with my hands.
I am at once so self-conscious of people seeing or, EGADS, touching my often rough, gnarly hands that I'll go out of my way to avoid simple things like letting my hand rest on the dinner table at a restaurant (I'm a hand sitter), or like I said, shaking someone's hand (How I Became A Hugger).
When I got engaged and everyone and their gyno wanted to see the ring, I would take it off and hand it to them, "So you can try it on! Go ahead! I don't care!" The fancy lady at the engagement ring shop literally recoiled at my fingers.
However, I can't stop, try as I might. The picking, as fucked up as it may be, brings me comfort.
When my mind is racing over fears, neuroses, stress or even the occasional gluten-induced stomach ache, my bloody and bruised little soldiers go to work on their own attempting the tear away all the pokey, rough, fleshy little bits of detritus attached to my fingers only by a scabby thread. There's something grounding to it, visceral, gratifying. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it feels like I'm achieving something.
That is, when I know I'm doing it. I've sat through meetings where I think I'm sitting quietly and when I stand up to gather my things, I realize my hands are tender and bleeding.
People sometimes will catch sight of my digits and -- while gasping -- ask, "Oh my god, what happened to your fingers? It looks like you took a cheese grater to them!" I usually laugh it off and either give them the real reason, or make up some dumb excuse like, "Shaving accident!"
Tearing at my fingers and hands has been a life long thing. My dad does it to a lesser extent, and some of my earliest and most nostalgic memories are of me sitting in front of the TV with my dad on the couch, the gentle "tick, tick, tick" of his skin picking gently heard under the drone of "Nick at Night" or Pete Sampras throwing up at the U.S. Open.
I've tried to stop myself, really I have. I mean, let's face it, it's kind of gross.
Band-aids are just that, only a Band-aid. I will tear through those suckers faster than you can say, "But you have such lovely hands!"
Cutting or filing my nails down to nubs only serves to make me more determined and since I don't always know I'm doing it, often causes the tips of my fingers, once protected by fingernail, to bleed. Try typing with scabby fingertips. Or don't.
I've tried making my hands as pretty as possible so I'll be extra vigilant about destroying them -- nail polish, rings, manicures, fancy lotion. I'll hold out for a little while, but then the Derm always wins.
The therapists I've seen have connected it to my anxiety disorder and obsessive tendencies. My need to be in control and the perfectionism that clamps down on my life sometimes. They've tried meds, talking about it ("I like to pick my fingers. What are your hobbies, doctor?"), and cognitive therapy.
Here and there, I've stopped for a time, but as soon as my boss yells at me or my bank account dwindles, the picking begins anew.
I'd like to stop, really. I hate that washing my hands with such caustic materials as, you know, soap, can hurt like hell and that after a day of picking, using a hair rubber band to flip my hair up into a ponytail can be yelp inducing.
But as with many compulsive behaviors, I'm almost afraid to lose it. I've been told by many a therapist that people with compulsions often are afraid to "fix" that compulsion because it's a part of you, and to stop doing it isn't as simple as stopping a behavior, but losing a part of yourself. It's a piece of who you are.
Yeah, I realize picking at my fingers and hands isn't life threatening and is on the relatively shallow end of the destructive behavior pool. However, it still legitimately throws a kink in my life, and with that, I am not okay.
Over the years the picking has grown from my fingers to my hands, to my upper arms, to sometimes my lips. Am I destined to spend my geriatric years as one big scab?
I check out other women's hands often. I envy how they can hold a pen like a human, not a monkey. I envy how they can freely flash their manicure or ring or sixth finger without any inhibitions. I do want that. But how?
I've heard hypnosis can work wonders, but I've yet to take the plunge. I keep putting it off, I want to, but I don't.
There is some relief that this is a real thing, not just one more bizarre thing that is going on with my body that I can't fully explain. What is up with me lately? What is my body telling me?
Even as I sit here typing, all this yammering on about my fingers has caused me to stop several times and pick at a fresh wound. My pointer fingers are especially tender right now so typing THESE WORDS RIGHT HERE hurts a little bit.
So that's my deal. I've had a weird roller coaster of a month and my hands look like body-part props from "The Walking Dead." It hurts my heart to hear anyone say they hate any part of their body, but right now I kind of hate my hands more than I love them. Sigh.
Are you there, Compulsive Skin Pickers? It's me, Louise.
Are you out there? I can't be the only one.