Written by: Veva
I view the journey I’ve been on through the lens of Persephone or Inanna’s myth – the story of a young girl who descends into the darkest corners of the underworld to confront her most vicious, unrelenting demons and emerges from that hell changed, resurrected, and a woman in every sense of the word.
My descent started in high school. Like many young girls, I began to worry about my appearance. It wasn’t vanity – it was an obsession. It got to the point where it took me three hours to get dressed. I would wake up at 4 AM to do my hair and tear my closet apart looking for clothes that never satisfied me. I became very depressed. My father, a family physician, started prescribing me anti-depressants at 14.
I didn’t think taking pills was strange at the time. Several members of my family suffer from bi-polar disorder or anxiety, so I had grown up hearing the names of the latest SSRI’s and anti-psychotics being passed around the dinner table like salt and pepper. It was just life; at a certain age, people became sad and needed to take medicine for it.
My first memory of picking is very clear: my mother was driving my sister and me home from the airport. We had just been on a month-long trip to Spain and Portugal, touring with the youth orchestra in which we played violin. I dug my nails into the seat as the urge swept over my body like a tidal wave. My mother pulled the car into the driveway. I didn’t even grab my luggage. I ran into the house and locked the bathroom door. Picking felt so unbelievably satisfying, like a high. I couldn’t stop it – I didn’t want to stop it.
Around that time, I started a romance with a boy I had met on the trip. It was a very confusing time. I admired him greatly, and loved him in the way only a naive fifteen-year-old girl possibly could. I very much wanted to impress him, but all I could do, hour after midnight hour, was mutilate the skin on my face. Once, he kissed me and my make-up rubbed off. He tilted my face up to his and I could feel his eyes scanning the marks, the dried wounds. I thought, “God, I want to melt into the earth. I want to be invisible.”
The skin picking became steadily worse. I would fake being sick and stay home from school whenever my make-up couldn’t cover the picked areas. Once, I didn’t leave the house for a week. Finally, enough was enough and I Googled my symptoms and told my father about my ‘bad habit.’ He diagnosed me with BDD and ADHD, and the pills just started coming. My father was so sure that if he found the right cocktail of drugs, I would be cured. The regimen changed every few months, sometimes every few weeks. He explained that my brain was more sensitive than others, and in some ways more hyperactive. “It’s just chemistry,” he’d tell me, and I knew that those words were supposed to reassure me.
But our brains and our bodies are not separate entities. Whatever happens to one, inevitably has an effect on the other. My body was in full revolt. I gained weight, I couldn’t stop shaking. At one point, my breasts started lactating – all side effects of the medication.
Winter with Hades
I was in a lot of emotional pain as well. It wasn’t just the skin picking that set me apart from my peers. I was socially awkward and had trouble communicating thoughts or feelings without the assistance of a pen or computer keyboard. Busy places like airports, malls and even parties just made me freeze. The sensory stimulation was overwhelming. At the same time, no one took very kindly to my increased absences from school and other social events. A few friends turned, and even my mother grew fed up with my recluse behavior. So when the opportunity came to get away from it all, I did.
I met a man a few years older than me. He was in college, and to a girl of seventeen that seems awfully important. He was sweet in the beginning of our relationship – he brought me flowers, wrote me love letters, visited me every day. But soon things began to sour. He turned dark. He had his own demons – a father who was murdered, a violent and neglectful mother – and he took his anguish out on me. I was Persephone, and he was my Hades and we were there in the underworld together. He really wanted to keep me there, too. He bought me the clothes he wanted me to wear. He wouldn’t let me talk to any of my male friends, and hacked into my email account a number of times just to make sure I stayed faithful to him.
My libido was shot to death by the pills, and he hated that. He didn’t trust me, and figured that if I wasn’t getting any with him, I must be getting it with someone else. He’d insist on entering me dry and I learned to disassociate right away – get the hell out of my body and out of the room. I stopped picking at my face, but I was tearing apart my breasts and bikini line instead. I didn’t understand why my body couldn’t just give him what he wanted.
He walked in on me picking once. He just barged into the bathroom and grabbed me by the shoulders. My breasts were streaming blood. He shook me like a ragdoll. “What the fuck are you doing?” he yelled. He became increasingly violent – punching the wall, throwing objects. One time, we got high together and he didn’t listen when I said “no” to sex. I felt so weak and stupid – I just lay there and took it. We never spoke about it afterwards, and both of us pretended it never happened.
After I broke up with him, something in me completely snapped. To lose weight, I started to jog and eat healthier. Everyone complimented me and said I looked good. Their compliments were like a mini high, and soon I wanted more.
The picking decreased, but in its place I started jogging and working out on the elliptical obsessively. I made sure to never eat more than 500 to 600 calories, and I weighed myself 2 or 3 times a day. All the pent-up anger I had towards my body was being used to control it. I went out with these guys and drank beer, smoked pot and stayed up until 4 in the morning with them. I started sneaking brandy up to my room and drinking it alone on the weekdays. No one had a clue what was going on. People would say, “You’re so skinny!” It was sickening. They were congratulating me, and the effect was like a jolt of pleasurable electricity crawling up my spine. I think we’re brought up to believe that individuals with eating disorders are emaciated, skeletal. But those suffering from ED’s come in every shape and size.
A New Beginning
I eventually met the man I am with today. I had never before experienced a love so encompassing or forgiving, but we had a lot of trust issues to work through. I didn’t want him to see me naked, bare, flawed or vulnerable – not like those other men did. But he really wanted to know me, every single hidden part. Together, we made it our shared goal to find healing for me without prescription medication. We found a great psychologist who specializes in treating individuals with anxiety and compulsive skin picking, and I started seeing an acupuncturist who taught me what healthy eating and exercise really is. Slowly, I began to work through the body image and self-hatred issues I’d kept locked inside for so long.
The skin picking, I’ve realized, was a blessing hidden beneath the guise of a crippling disorder. Without it, I’d have never learned what a fragile and sensitive soul I am, and I never would have learned to mother myself and take the time to be selfish. I have a lot more confidence in my decisions and beliefs, and I am very picky about the people I hang out with. At the slightest sign of manipulation or ill will, I let them go. I have a new lease on life, but it’s not the life I had before the skin picking started. It’s an entirely new journey and adventure. I wouldn’t trade my place with anyone’s for the world.
Artwork credit: Veva
Veva is a writer, poet and artist whose work aims to render visible the shamanic spirit in modern culture and society. Her poetry has been published both in print and online. If she’s not writing (which is hardly ever), you can usually find her hunched in a corner with her nose in a thick volume of fairy tales.
I can relate to so much of this. What kind of therapy helped you. I was doing somatic experiencing which was life changing for me in regards to anxiety, but when I moved, I couldn’t get a ‘T’ that did that. Now I’m working with EMDR. I know it helps but it’s intense and overwhelming. I dread it mostly.
Thank you for commenting, Zoe! The psychologist I see does cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as habit reversal training. This therapy helps me become increasingly aware of self-destructive behaviors and gently utilizes redirection techniques. Out of therapy, though, I frequently listen to hypnosis tracks (I suggest Paul McKenna) and do mass amounts of writing therapy and regular journaling.
I completely empathize with you. Therapy, whether done in private or with the help of a licensed practitioner, is absolutely frightening and can indeed be overwhelming. When I first started it, at the end of each session I was completely exhausted. Sometimes I still am. Know your limits, and give yourself plenty of time. Healing should never be a race to the finish line. All my love 🙂
Tammy Fletcher, LMFT
Veva, thank you so much for your story. I am glad to hear you have the support and resources to help you heal :-). I will share your article with my own therapy clients, if I may. I have a bit of info here: http://fletchertherapy.com/dermatillomania.htm
Veva, good writing, Skin picking is a subject not talked about so bravo for doing this story. I too used to skin pick and at times till do and also hair pulling which I do once in awhile.
There is so much in your story and I am sure will touch each person that reads your words in some way. Glad you are on a journey of hope and that you are so much aware.
CBT is what I can say, saved me life. It is automatic for me now and I wish more of it was taught at schools even.
Thank you so much for your kind and supportive words, Earla. I’m glad CBT worked so well for you! Wouldn’t it be amazing if awareness for mental health issues and their corresponding therapy options were discussed in school? Nothing would make me happier. Thank you again for your comment 🙂
Tammy, thank you for your comment! I have previously viewed your video on youtube, and was so grateful to find that there are individuals like you who are doing everything they can to increase awareness. Yes, definitely share the article with your therapy clients. That’s the reason I wrote it, after all 🙂 Thank you again for commenting.
Wow . . . this is really powerful (once again on mental health talk, a powerful post). It was interesting to see the “inside” even if just a bit, of a doctor’s family life. I have the feeling doctors are too quick to prescribe, and I never thought about what that might mean to the doctors family. That made me sad. I had never heard of picking, Veva. But you have adequately described the feelings that drove you to it. I am so happy to read that you found someone who loves you enough to help you get healthy–really healthy.
OMG! Just looked at the picture and read the poem you wrote! So beautifully expressed! Need more. 🙂
Thank you for your comment, Bethany. Though my father and I certainly have our disagreements about the prescription of medication, we have gotten to a point where we each deeply respect each others perspectives. He is my father, he loves me, and I know he only had the best intentions in mind and was trying to heal me the only way he knew how to. Looking back, that effort in itself means the world to me. But I do agree with you – many physicians are too quick to prescribe medication without understanding the full repercussions or side effects that it may have on their patient. I’m glad you liked the poem 🙂 Thanks again for stopping by!
For anyone in this comment thread who is interested, Veva wrote an excellent article on her own blog about her go-to process to help manage her skin-picking. Very informative if you wish to learn how it may help you: http://themaniacspath.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/knowing-your-triggers/
Thanks for posting that, Trish! 🙂
Thanks for talking about skin-picking. It’s been a habit of mine for years and always gets more frequent and aggressive when I’m very anxious. It’s something people never talk about and suffer in silence- which I guess increases the shame we feel. By talking about it openly you are helping to lessen that shame. Thank you!
Thanks for commenting here! Shame and silence only perpetuates intolerance and self-hatred — I genuinely hope that by speaking about the issues closest to our hearts with honesty, we can strive towards a better community and healthier relationship with everyone around us. Thanks again, Rachel!
Wow you went through so much, I am so glad you were able to overcome, ..I understand with having bipolar and anxiety when we feel we can’t control our surroundings we do things we can control, like the eating. Excellent, best of luck in your future.
Thank you for posting this i have had the same proble. As long as i can remember and i noticed it got worse when i had emotional pain that i couldnt find resolve to added with too much other sadness bot balanced with positive things. So it was as if i was turning that emotional pain into something physical to distract me or something.. i know i am ultra sensitive and the people ive been around to seem to respect that part of me. I guess i will try to get away from them and see how things go.