Dermatillomania: How OCD Has Left Me Covered In Self-Inflicted Scars

On top of setting kitchen timers to 5:55 and pulling out all of my eyelashes to make wishes, I obsessively pick my skin till it bleeds.
Publish date:
October 7, 2013
scars, skin picking, dermatillomania, issues, OCD

I have OCD, and not the kind that people jokingly say they have when they clean too much or make their bed perfectly every morning (though I do these things too). I’ve tried a long list of medications, most of which made me feel like a robot or just made me sleepy all the time, seen a number of therapists, and even spent a week under observation in a psych ward during my irrational teenager phase.

My compulsive behaviours are harder to spot than some because they're more emotion-related, making it easier for me to live a relatively normal life. That being said, I am extremely pushy with plans, friends and relationships, and when things don’t follow my expectations, I fall apart completely and lose my grip on reality. I scare a lot of people away with my intensity, and this makes things harder--but not impossible.

For the most part, I’ve learned to adapt, turning my strange obsessions into positive actions in my life and explaining to the people I love that I just really obsessively care. But in many ways, my difference bleeds through quite clearly.

Literally, it bleeds through.

In fact I can’t remember the last time I had a shirt in my closet without blood stains on it. On top of setting kitchen timers only to 5:55 and pulling out all of my eyelashes to make wishes, I obsessively pick my skin till it bleeds, slowly covering my body in tiny circular scars.

Most of the time, I don’t even notice I’m doing it until someone quietly mentions the blood to me.

“Did you get a bug bite?” they ask.

Too ashamed to explain I did it to myself, I usually go along with the bug story, explaining, “It must've been those pesky mosquitoes!" or something along those lines.

When I'm nervous, sad, excited, anxious, shaken and scared, I pick. Because I usually don't have a mirror handy, I focus mostly on my arms, but the roadmap of scars from my scratching and squeezing can be found from head to toe on my body. Sometimes I dig craters so deep into my face that they take weeks to heal and look like I was hit with a sharp object, all bruised and scabbed. Sometimes I look up from my shoulder and 20 minutes has passed.

Although I haven't been officially diagnosed with it, there is a separate word for this skin picking disorder (which is really more of a byproduct of my general OCD): dermatillomania.

Although it is often found in conjunction with OCD, it is also a stand-alone impulse-control disorder. When I take this online test, I select more than half of the boxes. This puts me in the "high probability" category, which means I spend a significant amount of my time checking and picking my skin.

Yup, that sounds about right, and everyone in my life would agree. My friends and partners from over the years have noticed the picking and have all tried to stop me, knocking on the bathroom door when I disappear for far too long to drag me out and away from my daze. It drives me insane, but my skin and I silently thank them for it.

The most dedicated protester to my picking frenzies however has always been my mother, probably because she has the same scar maps I do.

For as far back as I can remember, my mom has had the scars; hundreds of tiny blemishes on her back and arms. Unlike me, she has never been diagnosed with OCD or seen a psychiatrist, but she's struggled with compulsive picking her entire life.

When I was younger and had very bad acne on my back, we made a ritual of meeting on the couch each night and "applying the medication," which really meant her picking my skin and then applying my prescribed acidic cream of the month afterwards. She'd constantly tell me not to pick, watching me in the rearview mirror of the car and taking note at the breakfast table.

"You're going to give yourself horrible scars," she'd say, though both of us knew she really meant she didn't want me to have the same scars she had herself.

But over time, I did build up scars, just like hers. My skin improved vastly as I got older, the acne fading away, but I still found a way to continue making a mess of even the tiniest bumps.

Today, my arms are dotted with big white spots of discolouration, and some areas are permanently raised. Even as I wrote this, I was lifting my shirt sleeve to check for something to squeeze, even the most microscopic of insignificant bumps, without looking up from the page.

I've thought about scar removal, but chances are I'd just scratch myself up all over again. I know deep down I can't help it, though I'm working hard these days to catch myself and stop before I cause any more damage.

I've come to accept my scars, to admire them as a small visible sign of all the mayhem going on in my mind. Plus, like my blue eyes, my scars run in the family.