This is what it’s really like to live with an anxiety-induced skin-picking disorder

I started getting weekly manicures when I graduated college back in 2011, hoping perfectly polished nails would signal that I was a polished job candidate. In the years since, I’ve kept up the habit, because I love the look of a fresh mani. I don’t feel like “me” with bare nails, I guess.

For most people, manicures are a luxurious and relaxing experience. But for me, they come with feelings of dread and anguish. Allow me to explain.

As long as I can remember, I have been a skin picker. Particularly, a cuticle picker. But sometimes, I’ll pick at my face and other parts of my body.

And yes, it’s as gross and weird as it sounds.

On a regular basis, I gnaw at, pick at, and otherwise mutilate the cuticles on my fingers (particularly my thumbs) until they are bloody, sore, and inflamed. I do this mostly in situations triggered by my anxiety or when my brain is swirling with nervous thoughts. Which means I “pick” multiple times a day.

Most people (i.e. my lovely manicurists) assume it’s just a bad habit, and, trust me, I realize the irony of needing to have perfectly polished nails next to ragged, ripped cuticles.

Some manicurists will chide me or seem concerned about my “dry skin,” and I’m always silently relieved when they don’t comment at all. Before you say anything, know that I’m well aware of how dangerous it is to use nail salon tools near open skin wounds.

But I can’t help it — my skin picking is a physical manifestation of a much deeper issue: severe anxiety.

When I’m gnawing away at my cheek or attacking my cuticles, my husband simply looks at me and asks, “What’s wrong?” He knows by now that even though I’m not saying a word, there are a million things going on in my mind.

If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes with me, you’ve probably noticed me doing it, too. In fact, I’m doing it right now, terrified by the thought of sharing my experiences with the world. I’ve been doing it for so long, most times I don’t even realize I’m picking until my finger is starting to bleed.

My habits would most certainly horrify a dermatologist. If I’m not bothering my poor fingers, I’ll be biting the inside of my cheek. And if I’ve got a breakout? Forget it — those zits are getting picked like they’re Ed Sheeran’s guitar strings.

Skin picking disorder (real name: excoriation, commonly referred to as dermatillomania) is a compulsive habit associated with anxiety (similar to obsessive compulsive disorder), in which the sufferer repeatedly picks at their skin, potentially causing damage like bleeding, sores, or scarring. Skin biting disorder, a similar condition, is commonly referred to as dermatophagia. Plenty of people do this on occasion, but for people like me, it becomes a routine, unending cycle.

Like many sufferers, I “pick” to relieve stress, but then become more stressed when I see how awful my hands look. It’s often subconscious and I really have no idea I’m even doing it. I’m also not kidding when I say I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember — I can recall being in elementary school, nervously gnawing at my hands and cheeks at my desk.

Anxiety like mine often gets dismissed or even praised. After all, aren’t we all stressed out? Don’t we all have our quirky habits that we consider “so OCD?”

The problem with this is that joking about or downplaying anxiety disorders enforces the stigma that comes with speaking out and asking for help — the same stigma I hope so badly will cease to exist one day.

For me, personally, the journey to healing has begun — with the help of my therapist — by identifying the underlying cause of my anxiety, to understand which thoughts and feelings are driving me to “pick.” By getting to the root cause of the stress, I can begin to learn how to handle it. She assures me that this coping mechanism is something I shouldn’t judge myself for, something I’m admittedly not very good at.

It’s simply a reminder that no matter how flawless someone’s manicure is, that we often have no idea exactly what someone is going through. If you’re someone who struggles with the same habits, please know that you’re not alone and that there is plenty of help out there for you if you feel like you need it. And don’t let anyone dismiss your feelings or make you feel ashamed.

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