Gina Florio
October 10, 2016 2:03 pm
Julian Hibbard / Getty Images

In honor of World Mental Health Day, we’re highlighting stories from voices that deserve to be heard. These voices remind us that we are not alone. Never alone. #WorldMentalHealthDay

“Oh my god, what happened to your toe?!” My friend Jodie nearly shouted in shock as she held my right foot in both of her hands. A scorching wave of embarrassment shot through my chest and radiated down to my kneecaps. I had been careless. I had been sloppy. I normally never let anyone see the bottom of my feet, let alone see them up close and personal. I yanked my foot out of her hands with so much might I nearly kicked myself in the face.

Although Jodie is a very close friend of mine, as well as my housemate and massage therapist, I felt entirely overcome with humiliation. On a Sunday night, we were with friends, lounging around in our hot tub after a day of sunshine, wine, and shopping. Jodie had been generously giving foot rubs to everyone in the tub, much to our delight, and as I was sipping on my second ginger beer, I must have been feeling too woozy and too comfortable to keep a close enough eye on my bare feet in the hot, bubbling water.

“Babe, seriously, what happened to your foot?” she inquired again, as she looked at my right big toe. The hot water had softened my skin and made everything pruney, which unfortunately made the severe callouses on my feet more visible than ever.

The skin on the bottom of my toe looked shredded, completely mangled, and, frankly, quite disgusting. It was white and bumpy to the touch. It looked like something out of a horror movie.

I could feel everyone else’s eyes on me. I felt like crawling out of the hot tub in shame and locking myself in my closet.

When I had my foot back in my possession (and back under the water), I simply shrugged it off and said, “I have really bad callouses.” Caught up in genuine concern, Jodie kindly insisted I see a podiatrist and suggested that maybe I had been walking wrong my whole life. She thought I’d been putting too much pressure on the balls of my feet and my toes with each step, because that could be the only explanation for such a frightening sight of callouses.

I promised her I would see her podiatrist friend. That eased her worry, and we were able to continue our evening in the hot tub without a word about my feet.

When I climbed into bed that night, I inspected both of my big toes. I rubbed my fingers over the rough ridges, which had turned hard again after I dried the water off of me. I momentarily hated myself.

I hated myself for picking at and peeling off my skin every time I felt stressed.

I hated myself for allowing my toes to get so mutilated that I didn’t even feel comfortable being barefoot in front of others, for fear that they would lay eyes on my foul habit.

I hated myself so much I started to feel the familiar pangs of anxiety pulsating through my body. So I did the only thing I knew how to do in a situation like this — pull and tug at the callouses on my toes, until I ripped off a sufficient enough amount of my stony skin to feel like I was less alone.

I’ve suffered from anxiety disorders since I was a teenager. For as long as I can remember, my mind has been a dark place that’s full of heightened worry and concern. Everything is a struggle. Everything is tense. This battle has been coupled with a fight against binge eating disorder (BED), so most of my life has been spent feeling like I would never be able to fully enjoy a healthy social life.

I’ve always wanted to appear “normal,” though, so I was good at putting on a certain front. I tried to be lively and quick to laugh, and I tried to make it seem like I was always having a good time. For the most part, my friends believed that I was doing okay. But deep down inside, I was tormented. I was deeply uncomfortable with myself and wildly depressed about the state of my life. I felt like nobody would ever completely understand me or the turbulence my mind was constantly going through.

In high school, I developed a few strange habits behind closed doors that allowed me to release some of my pent-up emotions.

For one, I started biting my nails compulsively. I also started chewing off the skin around my fingernails, which is a condition called dermatophagia. It’s a debilitating compulsion that can lead to bleeding and discoloration. It’s a habit that’s often associated with anxiety disorders or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I picked it up at an early age and, before I knew it, all 10 of my fingers were bloody and halfway chewed up. Every day, like clockwork, my fingers ached in a dull pain because the skin had been brutally torn off the night before. It even became hard to hold a pencil during extended exams at school because the throbbing was so intense.

Soon enough, the dermatophagia moved from my hands to my feet. Anytime my feet were bare I was pulling the skin off my big toes, my heels, and even the sides of my feet. Because the picking was so constant, I developed extremely hard callouses on my young feet that stayed there for years to come. It was my most embarrassing secret, and I even managed to hide it from most of my boyfriends over the years.

When people think of an anxiety disorder, they picture someone who is like a character from the movie Napoleon Dynamite — a person who is awkward, quiet, and not very good at understanding other people’s jokes.

While these characteristics can be true for people suffering from an anxiety-related mental illness, there is sometimes so much more than goes on behind closed doors.

People with anxiety disorders often engage in harmful, sometimes nauseating habits they try their best to hide from others. Whether it’s pulling their hair out or scratching patches off their skin, these private horrors haunt them when they’re alone, yet they’re one of the only ways they can feel in control of themselves and their bodies.

For nearly 10 consecutive years, I tore away the skin on my delicate feet and hands on a daily basis. I pulled off and chewed and spit out remnants of my skin. There are some scars on my toes that I will never be able to get rid of. This has simultaneously been my most mortifying and my most comforting habit. I would have died if anyone had ever found out, but I also didn’t want to give it up, because it was the only way I felt like I could make sense of my physical body.

It wasn’t until a year ago that I reached out for help and began the long road of healing.

My anxiety disorder will never go away (although I have wished upon a million stars that it would), but I finally made the decision to treat it so I wouldn’t have to be a slave to this harmful compulsion anymore. It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve fallen back into the terrible habit many times since I tried to leave it behind, but at least now I can make sense of where the urge to chew off my skin comes from, and I can find more productive ways to answer my anxiety.

So for this World Mental Health Day, I hope those of you who have never suffered from a mental illness can be kind to someone who has. Try not to judge them or think of them any less if you witness a strange habit like the ones I’ve harbored over the years. We’re already dealing with enough crap in our own heads, so we could really use a break from the unnerving chatter. If you know someone with a mental illness, take this day as a reminder to treat them with lots of love and affection. The smallest gestures can go a long, long way.

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