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Dermatillomania, or Compulsive Skin Picking

Updated on July 3, 2014
Compulsive picking leaves sores and scars, sometimes in very visible places.
Compulsive picking leaves sores and scars, sometimes in very visible places. | Source


Dermatillomania, also known as Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP) along with several other names, "is an impulse control disorder characterized by the repeated urge to pick at one's own skin, often to the extent that damage is caused." (Wikipedia, Excoriation disorder) It's in a similar category as trichotillomania, or compulsive hair pulling. Experts argue whether or not it's a subset or symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but compulsive and/or self-injurious behavior are also observable in people on the Autism Spectrum.

I didn't know that this was an actual recognized disorder/compulsion until I was about 20 years old. I've been doing this to myself, with so far no success in quitting, since I was at least 11 years old.

This compulsion? It's gross. It doesn't feel very good. I have scars on various parts of my body that make it embarrassing to wear a bikini or tank top, and many of my shirts have blood stains. It's worst when I'm anxious, but it's something I do all the time and have thus far been unable to stop.

It started out just in my scalp. I was 12 or 13 in this picture, and hadn't moved to picking at my shoulders and back yet
It started out just in my scalp. I was 12 or 13 in this picture, and hadn't moved to picking at my shoulders and back yet


My earliest memory of dealing with CSP is from when I was in 6th grade. I can remember running my fingers over my scalp, through my hair, and finding places to scratch. This progressed to scabs all throughout my scalp that I would pick at, giving myself scars and having more than a normal amount of "flyaways" due to hair breaking off when I pulled the scabs out.

When I was about 13, my mom took me to a salon to get a perm. I was nervous the entire way there, knowing that my scalp was full of scabs and scars, but I didn't know then how to verbalize what I'd done to myself. I was ashamed and embarrassed and didn't want to admit that I had done it and knew I had done it.

At the salon, I made it through the hair washing part with no problems, but when the stylist started looking through my hair to part it for curlers, she noticed the scabs. My mom, of course, freaked out. Something was wrong with her baby, and since I wouldn't say that I knew why they were there, she worried about it for the next few hours. Shingles was suggested, but I was too young for that. Other things were thrown around, but finally it was decided that I must have been doing it in my sleep without realizing it.

I stuck mainly to my scalp through most of my teen years, though as I went through the normal hormonal acne outbreaks I would pick at any pimple or spot that showed up on my face which exacerbated the outbreaks. I didn't have a fun time as a teenager.

Being a Teenager to Now

At some point I started picking at my shoulders and back. They were easier to hide than my face, and because I somehow have very flexible arms, I could pick at any part of my back.

Once, in college, a bunch of my friends wanted to go to the campus pool. I was immediately nervous about wearing a bathing suit and showing my scars to my friends. They weren't as bad then as they are now, but they were still noticeable. I finally confided in one of my friends that I had this issue, and I was worried about showing it to everyone who may be at the public pool.

He brought me one of those spandex-y swim shirt things. I wrestled with myself over wearing it or not the rest of the day. Finally, I decided to wear my bikini. No one said anything about my scars or scabs. I had fun. It was one of the first times I realized that maybe it wasn't as big a deal as I had always thought.

Now, at 26, having done this picking for at least 15 years, my shoulders and back are covered in scars. Because I've been particularly anxious for the past month or more due to moving back to Virginia from Florida, my back is currently covered in spots. Some of them are deep. Every day that I do this, I'm risking some sort of infection, and I'm continuing to ruin clothes with my blood stains. I wear a lot of black t-shirts now.

I started to like how I looked, and experimented with hair colors (but continued to wear dark shirts to hide any blood stains from picking).
I started to like how I looked, and experimented with hair colors (but continued to wear dark shirts to hide any blood stains from picking).

Growing Self-Confidence

While I was in Florida, I started to accept a lot more things about myself. I had always hated shaving my legs, so a few months ago I stopped. No one ever noticed or commented. I kept my hair short, buzzed for a while, then let it start growing out. I dyed my hair half blue and half purple. I realized that although my scars are physical and, in t-shirts and especially tank tops, incredibly visible and noticeable, that I don't care.

My compulsion to pick at my skin has been with me for at least 15 years. The scars I have show that, but it doesn't mean that I have to be ashamed of them. It's something I can't help doing, and I'm no longer as self-conscious about how people will view me when they see them.

Someone I knew back in Florida had the same compulsion as me. We've both talked about methods of minimizing the appearance of sores (they suggested a sea salt bath, I said that I used to rub Neosporin all over my shoulders and back), and once we'd both seen a doctor about it, compared notes. This person was a bit younger than me, and I thought, "Maybe if I'm more open about all of this, it will help people who have the compulsion as well to feel less ashamed of their own scars and sores. Maybe then they will seek help as I have."


I've now been on an antidepressant and sleeping pill that both help with anxiety for approximately a month. So far, my picking hasn't slowed. I've been on Paxil, Lexapro, Clomipramine, and now Zoloft. Just because I haven't found the right medicine for me doesn't mean there's no hope. I'll continue to see doctors as I'm able, and continue trying to stop damaging my skin.

Until then, I have this compulsion. Even if I'm able to stop due to medication or therapy or anything else, I will still have my scars. But I will still wear what I want, whether it shows my scars or not, because it's part of me, and I'm trying very hard to continue the hard work I've done in the past year to accept myself as I am.


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    • profile image

      Danny 3 years ago

      Interesting article. I had no idea this could happen. I've heard about other things that people do to hurt themselves but had no idea about anything like this. There should be more awareness brought to this subject.

    • Madwriter1970 profile image

      Madwriter1970 3 years ago from Constantinople

      Without going into a lot of my own personal details, it sounds like you had a similar experience with Florida that I did with the brief time I lived in Northern Virginia: I'm glad I came back to SW Virginia, but I'm glad I went to NoVA too. I got more self-confident while I was living there, and it taught me a lot of things (especially about myself) that have been invaluable.

    • Lisa Keatts profile image

      Lisa 3 years ago from Virginia

      I had no idea such a thing existed. Thanks for being so open I am sure it will help other's dealing with this issue. Maybe it will help a mother that doesn't know this is what her child is doing. Thanks again! Loved your writing.