I turned off the light, slowly ran my hand up my shirt to peel it over my head. I unbuckled my jeans as they dropped to the floor. Goosebumps ran across my body because my room was always cold. Naked, I sat down against the wall and slowly started to run my hands all over my body. I had to hold my breath because if I was too loud, my mom knew what I was doing and then I would get in trouble.
With my muscles tensed, toes curled and fingers wet, I jabbed my tiny fingers deeper into my raw, red, swollen cuts. I loved watching the blood bubble under the scab and then ripping it off fast. It was a full body experience, almost orgasmic. But I was eight and had no idea what an orgasm was, I was just glad a piece of happiness finally found me.
Picking wasn’t like sex with someone I loved. It was more of a one-night stand or a tequila shot I wish I never took. It was happiness for five seconds then crawling back under my blanket of shame and waking up the next morning with regret.
Like many others who suffer from body-focused repetitive behaviour (BFRB), no one could understand me. Picking and scanning my body for bumps consumed hours of my day.
Angela Hartlin, the author of Forever Marked: A Dermatillomania Diary, has been struggling with picking since she was a child. She remembers locking herself in the bathroom and her family banging on the bathroom door because they wanted her to come out, wanted her to stop picking, but most of all wanted her to be okay.
Everyone has their own reasons for hurting themselves, but what should be known about someone who lives with BFRB is that it’s not like self-harm where we actively and willingly try to hurt ourselves. Even though BFRB falls into the category of self-harm, it is in large part obsessive compulsive disorder.
BFRB is hard to diagnose and affects more people than we realize, because self-grooming like picking, hair pulling or nail biting is considered just a bad habit for the majority of people. That doesn’t mean just because someone pulls at their hair, they have BFRB though. Physiologists have yet to define it as either a compulsive or impulsive disorder.
“When it is a bad habit, the patient realizes what they are doing and knows it’s bad,” said Dr. Clare Gray, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at CHEO. “But when it is self-harm it’s really in the context of being used as a coping skill and even though they might realize it is not a good coping skill, they still may think what they are doing is helpful.
It started when I was in grade four. My parents were going through a divorce. The pain that lived inside my throat was too hard to swallow, so I just let it rot inside until I imploded. Loneliness attacked me every second of being alive.
Have you ever screamed so loud your bones shook? I have.
When the all-consuming sadness and anger had finally rotted out my insides, I would take my mother’s steak knives and slash the walls. Shaking the paintings, I yelled and yelled hoping someone would hear me. But all they ever heard was a misbehaving child.
At this point, I didn’t care if my mom caught me picking. In fact, most days I would run downstairs and say ‘watch’ as blood dripped from my limbs.
The radical behaviour landed me in the hospital, where I stared at white walls. The doctors would ask me how I was feeling and what the problem was, but I never liked to answer.
Every day was a rollercoaster. I had lost complete control over my life. My family was getting ripped apart and by the time I hit middle school, kids were telling me I didn’t deserve to be alive. All anyone could do was feel sorry. But I didn’t want sorry, I wanted someone to listen and understand. I needed someone to hold my hand and for one second stop telling me to stop, because I mentally couldn’t.
“When you are stuck in any behaviour you can’t break then there is something not registering right in your brain, and there is no stop-button in the brain to turn it off,” says Hartlin.
I turned to picking time and time again because it grounded me. It was the side of me no one ever saw, the side that kept all my fears, all my losses, all my regrets and memories buried. With every scab I ripped off it was a relief, like I had done at least one good thing that day. The feeling was addictive; it was my tool to regulate negative emotions.
“There a lot of endorphins released, it’s relateable a runner’s high. You want to keep running because it feels so good,” said Dr.Gray.
But there is a lot of shame experienced with this high because picking isn’t like running, scars are left behind.
“I was making sure I was wearing shirts that had high necks. Even in grade five and six, in my school pictures I was wearing the same turtleneck because I didn’t want any of the marks from my chest, shoulders or upper back to be seen by peers,” says Hartlin.
I was the same as Hartlin, always covering myself. I stand in the mirror and can see more scars than skin. It has been that way my whole life, but I have learnt to live with it.
My scars used to be bright red and I looked physically sick. I hated myself but that was the problem. So, I started looking in the mirror more and instead of crying, I forced myself to smile.
The scars are now white, except for my left arm, they turned black but that’s okay. And my friends still like to comment on how I look like a drug user every time I wear a tank top, but I know not to internalize it.
Am I recovered? No, not fully. Not yet but my body no longer aches with anger.
I still pick at the age of 21, but nothing like before. Every day I scan my face and even thinking about ripping a scab makes my whole body have a heartbeat. I have learned to calm myself down though and just distract my mind to get through the day.
Recovery isn’t linear. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, but I choose to have a relationship with myself like a romantic novel instead of a one-night stand and that makes my world better.
“One thing about recovery I don’t think a lot of people really focus on is that recovery isn’t an end goal. It’s something that once you get there and everything is good, you have to keep maintaining it or you will keep going back to the old vices,” says Hartlin. “…It gets ingrained into who you are.”