Making decisions is pretty tough for me at times. I joke with my friends that I'm so anxious about making any decision, that I'm the person who orders something at a restaurant, then sees a plate go by, or even imagines food envy in my future, and chases the server down to change my order. But it's not really a joke. It's true. I've done it. More than once.
I think of myself as a person who is generally very happy with my life. Certainly extremely grateful. I don’t take things for granted. I stop and smell the flowers, quite literally.
And yet, I am often haunted by all the wonderful lifestyles that I inadvertently rejected by choosing mine. It is a truly privileged position. I’m aware of the amount of entitlement required to feel this way. How nauseating is the sound of the lament of “I can’t live in Amsterdam because I live in San Francisco” or “I can’t live in a house in the country because I live in a condo in the city”. It's not lost on me that I’m incredibly fortunate to have crafted my life on my own in the city of my choosing, thousands of miles from where I grew up- something my ancestors and many of my living family members even now aren't able to do (and something I myself wouldn’t even be able to afford to do if I’d moved here today instead of 2002). Not to mention all the folks who suffer unspeakable things simply due to the area and situation in which they were born.
Still, when I was visiting my parents during Christmastime, I was jogging past some beautiful old homes blocks away from my parents’ newer townhouse in the area where I grew up, and a pang of longing hit me. I briefly envisioned a life wherein I owned a small beautiful old home and walked to my parents' house in the mornings to have tea with my mom. Not ten minutes before, I'm sure I was thinking about how grateful I am that it's generally 30 degrees warmer when I'm running in San Francisco. Thoughts like these pop up in my mind at least monthly. And when I'm traveling, hourly. It's rare that I meet a town in this world that I don't fall in love with- even while not a day goes by when I don't marvel at the beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area. Well, ok, maybe three days a year go by.
To be clear, I’m not saying to never move around. Or to choose based on weather, or the size of the housing. If you are fortunate enough to have a non-toxic family and health that can withstand most types of weather and most types of housing, then it’s probably a great idea to live some of your adult life near your family and some of it more on your own, and some of it in an urban area and some of it not. If you can. But maybe you can’t. Either way, I’m saying this to you: You’ll probably drain all the joy out of wherever you live, if you spend a lot of your time with your body in one place and your heart and mind in another. Holding the tension of being a nester who also has wanderlust can be a real challenge, I know. Sometimes after a trip, I have to remind myself to step away from the Trulia site- or at least limit it to two hours.
When I'm feeling gentle and caring toward myself, I can see that, at least in part, my feelings of uncertainty about where I “should” be, stem from my empathic nature. I feel strongly connected to lots of other people and lots of other places, like I could slip into anyone's home or life and find so much to marvel at, to relish. But when I'm feeling judgmental of my restlessness and indecision, and interpreting it as ungratefulness, I want to... well, run. Out of SF, and even out of my own skin. But you can't run from yourself. So I try to evaluate what it is in my life that needs to change. And what doesn't. I try to stay. In the moment. In gratitude. On my mat. In my chair at the restaurant, happily eating what I already ordered. And, sometimes, enjoying feasting my eyes on the myriad other plates as they pass by-or taking a quick vacation over to the ones that land at my table, in front of my endlessly patient friends.
My husband is my rock. I mean all the nice sappy things that come with that. Stable. Dependable. I also call him that for all the other reasons that so many married women married to men say it. The other side of the coin. Stoic. Distant. All of the things that society celebrates- and demands- of masculinity.
I shouldn't be surprised with his affect. I've studied the patriarchy. I've studied the patriarch: His father is a man marked by calm and understatement. His highest praise of a meal he's thoroughly enjoying is "Está bien", coupled with a shrug.
The guardedness of my father-in-law has served him well in his life, no doubt. Sheltered him from the full sting of the racism and xenophobia and unfair treatment and just pure exhaustion he's faced in the fields, in the factories, in the meeting rooms. He can gather up any sentimentality and lock it away until he's alone watching telenovelas or singing rancheras romanticas. My husband, however, doesn't sing. And he doesn't watch telenovelas. And he doesn't need to labor long hours. Neither of us do, thanks in part to the privileges our parents’ toiling has afforded us.
No, my own parents and grandparents didn't have time for sentimentality either. They didn't even have time for mistakes. Nor being vulnerable to uncertainty, nor the rejection or elation caused by romantic love. What a luxury my emotional pain must be to them. My ancestors’ eyes must be rolling over in their graves when they hear me crying. ("Are you even related to them, Cheryl?", you might be thinking. Yep. I ordered the kit. I mailed my spit. I got the results. I'm just as surprised as you are, sometimes).
Neither my husband nor his father, nor my own parents nor brother, have ever once begun a sentence with "I feel..." My husband and the other men in his family never even say "Wow!" or "That's amazing." It's always "Uh huh", "Of course", and "I knew that". Wonder equals weakness, I guess.
But I don't think of myself as a weak woman. I am often grateful for the many ways in which we don't have a stereotypical hetero partnership, in fact. I proposed to my partner, a fact that I'm usually proud to tell people. It's an incredibly romantic story, how it all happened. The whole story, though, involves a truth that's been hard to admit to myself: The romantic gesture was all on my part. He knew he wanted to marry me long before I felt ready to marry him. But, of course, he could get rejected. And so he couldn't take the emotional risk of asking me. Or even of telling me how he felt, until one time when he shouted it to me in a fight. That moment was both confusingly jarring, and- sadly-the most passionate romantic gesture he's shown me to this day.
I know that the romance of movies is a lie that has embedded false hope in my psyche. That doesn't mean I don't sometimes ache for it. Or at least for something halfway there, every once in awhile.
I know that I'm a highly sensitive person, an empath, and a partner that takes up a lot of emotional space, someone whose level of feeling things and expressing them is hard to match. I also know that if I were married to someone like me, we'd probably be divorced or dead by now. We'd have exploded into a thousand pieces. Or melted into a big syrupy puddle.
I don't think I can survive without sharing wonder with my person.
Without moments were decorum is forgotten and he grabs me in an embrace.
Without emotional vulnerability.
Without ever once hearing my person say how he feels.
THE. ABSOLUTE. SEXIEST. THING. ,to me, is this: the ability to express wonder and vulnerability, to try new things and take risks, to be overcome with emotion- any emotion- and to allow that emotion to be witnessed by others.
Even as I write this, I know that no one person can have everything. I know how fortunate I am to have a kind and loyal and smart and clean and employed feminist husband. I want all that to be enough. I want to stop wanting more. To stop badgering him about something that may be a part of his personality that he cannot change, no matter how many therapy sessions or how many times he enters "Be Romantic" into his calendar- with a reminder.
I wish my heart didn't feel so lonely and unnoticed when I'm with him. I wish his heart didn't feel so far away.
Or maybe I wish for my heart to be just like his. Blissfully complacent, ensconced in sound-proof foam so that no one hears it's yearnings- including him. The silence means he sleeps like a baby at night.
If you’re a nice old lady who brings your heirloom recipe rum cake to the office every month or so, sit down and strap in. This one might hurt.
You know how when someone is in need of some extra care-they just had surgery, gave birth, or someone in their family died- folks don't usually bring them a cake or brownies? I mean, sometimes. But most of the time, they bring a lasagna, dal, some chicken soup or pho, a casserole, or a big ass salad, right? It's because, across cultures and generations, we've known that filling our stomachs with food that is hearty and nutrient dense and, well, real, helps heal our bodies and minds. And when we are hurting or busy or both, chopping vegetables and soaking beans and making broth and roasting chicken and even just boiling eggs can seem just too damn hard. We need help. When we’re stressed and hungry, it's easy to grab a donut or a candy bar at the corner store. We don't need any help with that. Help with nourishing ourselves is much more useful.
Well, we're all in need of a little care way more often then those deaths, births, and surgeries come up.
If you're the kind who brings a cake because someone left it at your daughter's birthday party this weekend and you can't deal with the temptation living in your home, so you are shuffling it on to your coworkers, you suck. Or maybe you "don't eat that stuff" and instead provide it for the plebs at the office who'll eat it because they can't pay for your personal trainer or Crossfit class or organic market or self help gurus about how to treat your body like a temple. If you're that kind of person, then your intentions are purely evil. ("But throwing out food is evil!" you say. No, it's actually not. YOU ARE).
But maybe you're one of the good folks. Your intentions are mostly pure. Bringing that bread pudding you made highlights your skills and wins over your coworkers. It gives them a rush of giddy happiness. The problem is, effect is more important than intentions. Eventually, they'll feel worse mentally and physically. (And then they may even secretly feel spiteful toward you. I mean, not me. But some people. Just sayin). You know those students or first year workers and interns can't afford to turn down free food. Give them something that’s food as medicine, not something that will skew their palate toward more sweetness-and more diabetes.
"But it's for a special occasion!" goes another excuse. Except that when you have an office of 60 people, everyone's birthdays plus holidays plus promotions plus sales spikes plus "it's Friday after a really hard week!" equals a lot of occasions. Not so special anymore.
Consider this. If your friend just quit smoking, you probably wouldn't invite them to a dinner party and then put a huge bowl of single cigarettes and fancy lighters on the table in front of them, would you? They'd hardly be able to think straight or converse with other guests or enjoy the food, their mind would be struggling so much to practice restraint. Well, this relationship that some of us have to nicotine is a relationship that a ton of us have to sugar. (And for some of us, cheese. I can't keep cheese in my house. If I ever bring a wheel of cheese to work to give to everyone, kick me in the teeth, because that would be me being evil). Yes, yes, personal responsibility is important- we love to harp on that in the US, land of individuality and isolation. Sure, if the ex-smoker lit up, it's ultimately on them. But entrapment is real. And community support is a big important thing too. And- remember?-that's why you wanted to bring food to share in the first place, instead of just bringing a stash of cookies for your own desk drawer. Because community. You wanted to help others, right? So help them, don't hurt them. And don't go all moralistic douchebag on me by telling me that well then you are helping them by giving them opportunities to practice restraint, just because you are desperate for a counter argument. In today's world, we have plenty of experience having to push through temptations everyday just while walking down the street or surfing the web.
In 2004, Dan Buettner joined National Geographic and the world's best longevity researchers to study Blue Zones, defined as geographic areas of the world where residents have greater longevity. Their research revealed, among many things, that one of the important common factors in these healthiest of places in the world is a healthy community. An environment that makes it easier for folks to make healthy choices. Think walkability, bike lanes and rental bikes. Think more produce markets than corner stores. Think more parks than bars.
When you bring a box of cupcakes to work and put it under my nose, it makes it infinitely harder for me to make healthy choices. You are creating the opposite of a healthy and calm environment at work. What's opposite of blue on the color wheel? Orange? You are creating an Orange Zone. We don't need any more orange zones or orange assholes in this world right now, know what I mean? If you love orange so much, bring in a bowl of citrus fruits.
Often on the first Friday of the month, I trek out to an open art studio event in the East Bay (which is pig Latin for "beast", a fellow San Franciscan always like to point out). My friend and I jokingly call the event Suburban Mom Craft Night. One night we ended up having a discussion with some of the other ladies about my minimalish lifestyle, during which I'm pretty sure everyone concluded that I'm insane. To be fair, even in SF, where many folks live in small spaces, and where you can come out as a swinging pansexual vegan aerialist burner without anyone batting an eye, minimalism is treated a bit like a disease. Anyway, Suburban Mom Craft Night is a bit of a misnomer, because it's technically coed-last time there was one dude there-and maybe there are even some other kidless folks present. There certainly aren't any other urbanites, though, and thus I am a bit of an odd one out.
The two women who own and run the studio are lovely, and it's a chance for a date with a dear friend of mine from high school, who is the only one from my hometown who has moved out here to the Bay Area to stay. She's often the only woman of color at the studio, unfortunately, so she is actually the odd one out in a much more visible way. But it's a great opportunity for creativity (we've done stuff we haven't for decades or ever- watercolors, screen printing, embroidery, glass etching) that would cost a gazillion dollars in the city and allows us to make messes in someone else's place- a bonus for two neat freaks. So even though it can involve a two-hour drive for me (a route that would be 40 minutes if it weren't a Friday evening), and the cost of a toddler-sitter for her, it's worth it. On the way, I usually catch up on a podcast or some 90's hip hop on 102.1, and feel very American in my Ford Escape cruising over the Bay Bridge with the Friday commuters. As a daily bike commuter who lives and works in SF, this monthly ritual holds a novelty for me that I hope never wears off. I mean, a novelty that lasts forever is probably an oxymoron, but hush. Don't jinx it.
That particular Friday I arrived and left my car on the street, which is 100% vacant. She has a driveway (so luxurious!), but I never know if her husband has pulled in yet from work, plus I gotta show off my parallel parking skills to these suburbanites. I generally run past her to the bathroom when she opens the door, then sit down to whatever amazing Indian dish she's made me that month. Or if it's not ready yet, her toddler and I have band practice (me on the ukulele, her on the xylophone) or a dance party.
Though it's true that a large home and suburban life are not things I'd choose for myself, I'd be lying if I said that I don't enjoy the contrast when I visit my friends and family members who are pursuing the American Dream in a more traditional way than I am. Sure, it often reminds me of what I don't want (more rooms) and why (more isolation, more costs, more cleaning), but also gives me a chance to stretch out and indulge in things like using more kitchen gadgets and watching TV in one room while someone is playing video games in another and attending cookouts with a long list of guests who provide a huge variety of tasty treats.
A few months ago, I hosted the coworkers who are in my weekly ladies ukulele lunch circle (I swear I also hang with non-ladies sometimes too). They came over for an evening jam sesh. Though I am really happy with how our home looks since we recently redecorated, I always feel a little embarrassed about how small it is (a 490-square-foot studio). Also, one of my many stereotypically feminine habits is that I apologize profusely for shit that I need not. So I kept thanking folks for coming and cramming in, saying sorry if it wasn't comfortable. But my guests kept oozing compliments, a few of them saying that they would love to have a smaller space, less stuff, etc. How relaxing it is. So much so that I decided to believe them. I mean, another stereotypical woman thing is that we love to affirm each other no matter what, but they seemed pretty genuine. And I ate it up. Because the truth is, I could sing the praises of tiny home living, minimalism, and capsule wardrobes till your ears fall off.
Simplifying my life is something, like many folks, I've always said I wanted to do, but it wasn't until it was sort of forced upon me that I committed to it. It is simply way out of reach financially for anyone other than the very rich to own a single-family-multi-bed-and-bath house in San Francisco. And for now (and maybe forever), my feeling is that I did not move across the country to live two hours outside the city. I moved to live in SF. So ten years ago when my partner and I were incredibly fortunate to able to get a couple of grants (one for teachers, and one for having relatively low income) and purchase a condo, we should have known that it would not be a "starter home" for a just few years. Because in San Francisco right now, there is no moving up to something bigger. Only moving out.
So what do you do if you want more space and you can't move out? You move your stuff out. I really wanted to say "you throw shit out", because it sounds rebellious and punchy, but it doesn't accurately illustrate the situation. And it perpetuates a misconception about minimalism: that you only get rid of garbage. (Clothes that you've grown out of or grown to realize are hideous. Happy Meal toys you never wanted in the first place. Bike tires with holes in them that you thought you were going to use to make belts, like that eco-designer you know). The truth is, you also have to get rid of perfectly nice, useful, and sometimes very expensive stuff. We all accept that there is perfectly nice, useful, expensive stuff out in the world that is just NOT FOR US. What seems to be harder to admit, is that there is perfectly nice, useful, expensive stuff in our own homes that is also NOT FOR US. And thats ok. Maybe it used to be for us. Maybe it never was. But it's time to let it go. One of the helpful lines I've heard in the minimalism social media world is "Don't cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of money making it" (a saying I've also heard with "time" instead of "money"- both work). I've also found it useful, when I'm struggling to get rid of something, to think of a happy new owner of a particular object or article of clothing I have- a person for whom the item IS right for. Sadly, the real truth is that many clothes we donate do not find a new owner (it's best to talk to friends and try to find that new owner on our own, and then buy less in the future), but that doesn't mean it does us any good to keep things we don't need or truly love.
I'll write more periodically on this topic of minimalism, which can really be adapted to any lifestyle- suburban family life included!- and which has truly helped keep my space and mind clearer, and has been one of the pillars of keeping my mental and emotional health stable (clutter, and even overpacked Tetris-like organization, is a big trigger for stress and anxiety for me). Equally important is that I now get that "wearing my favorite clothes feeling" every single day, because I only keep my favorites. (Incidentally, "only keep your favorites" is good rule when minimalizing friendships as well, but that's a topic for another day.) In the meantime, if you are interested in getting those "wearing my favorite clothes" and "on vacation with one bag simplicity" feelings every day, there are tons of great books and resources online that can help you. I recommend you start with what I consider to be the two holy books of minimalism, Marie Kondō's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Courtney Carver's Soulful Simplicity: How Living with Less Can Lead to So Much More.
Every year I make the resolution to dance more. And every year I fail.
This year has been different, due to a few things, not the least of which are hangover-free weekends and the support of others. Still, since I stopped doing dance performances as a kid (shout out to my mom for sending me these sweet hilarious pics today, and for starting my dancing journey at age three), my dancing career has consisted of lots of solo work in my living room, two flash mobs, a handful of Zumba sessions at the gym, a smattering of one-time studio classes, and going out to a club a couple times a year with friends, for experiences ranging from wonderful to horrendously grabby, most landing on mediocre.
So when I was invited in February to attend rehearsals with a group to prepare to dance in San Francisco's Carnaval parade, I balked, despite the fact that I knew a weekly commitment would make this the first year that my resolution had a fighting chance. Is this something I could do, with my anxiety disorder? Is it something I should do, as a white person? Would I be pulling the group down, with my gaps in dance experience? Would I be taking up space that should be occupied 100% by people of color?
When I was finally successfully encouraged (coerced) to show up each Sunday, I soon found an addictive and radical and electric community in Latin Dance Grooves. A place of hard work, shouts of joy, tears of pain, and honest conversations about race and gender and injustice and ancestry and spirituality.
Still, I told next to no one about it, figuring that freaking out and dropping out was inevitable for me.
Fast forward to yesterday's parade, and one of the greatest days of my life thus far. I am so grateful to have danced alongside so many amazing humans. I'm grateful to my friend Christine Maog, who is inspirational in her own dedication to the art of dance, and who listened again and again to my doubts and gripes with tenderness and without judgement. I'm grateful to my encouraging neighbor Lindsay Penrose, who has lived above me for ten years without our ever knowing each other prior to this, who practiced with me in our home and the hallways of our building. And I'm grateful to Elizabeth Soberanes, who created this amazing community long ago- where women of color are at the helm and on the mic- who models unapologetic fierce love with power and emotion, and who refuses to do what so many others do: Separate art away from history and politics and social justice, just to make her dance classes palatable to folks who show up only to get a workout or feel sexy (her students get that too- trust me! But they also get so much more).
Just like when I was that cute (awkward) kiddo, dance brings me joy and new friends. But as a 38-year-old woman, dance also brings me all kinds of things that the kid in those photos didn't know she would one day need from it: a way of working through grief and anger, a way of working with new understandings of my own and others' cultures and histories, a way of working out the weariness of this world.
And, yes, a way of working off cheese and bread.
I smile so big when I think about how much more dancing and learning I have ahead of me in this life.
Best resolution I ever made. (And made. And made. And made again.)
My curls look pretty good today. Maybe I'll take a confidence-boosting selfie.
Ugh. My hair looks so dry and frizzy.
My mouth is just huge. And crooked.
My skin maybe looks a bit smoother after the treatments on my scars. They were worth the money.
My hair is so greasy.
How does anyone ever look past this ginormous nose to make eye contact with me?
My skin actually looks pretty dewy and clear.
This is the longest I've ever gone without picking my skin. It shows. That feels good.
I look old.
I look sad.
I look tired.
My body feels and looks strong.
My skin is so bumpy.
This haircut really feels like me. I'm going to keep it forever.
Everyone must just stare at that scar all the time. I guess it's nice that they've never mentioned it.
I like my outfit today. I finally really like my wardrobe. Feels like me.
Should I get plastic surgery? How much would it cost? Could I bear the humiliation of the consultation appointment? There is no plastic surgery to make mouth or head smaller or my face less long and wide, so I might as well save my money. A smaller nose and mouth would just look stupid on this ginormous face anyway.
My teeth look straight and white.
My teeth look huge. If I don't smile, it looks better. No huge teeth, and my nose isn't stretched as wide.
All of these 30 or so photos look completely hideous. Every. Single. One. I'm done.
I share these very personal thoughts I had recently (all in a matter of about 10 minutes) because, though they don't represent reality all that well, they are very real. At the time. And powerful. Wow are they powerful. So convincing. Day-ruining. In fact, week-ruining, if followed by a skin picking session, like they almost always were, in the past. And though thoughts like these are not constant, they are frequent. Maybe they ring true to some folks out there. And the shame I feel at the vanity and frivolity of them (the wasted time alone! UGH) when facing them in black and white like this, may be relatable as well. Relatable to my fellow folks suffering from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (an estimated 2% of the population). Relatable to my fellow folks suffering from the patriarchy (an estimated 100% of the population). But maybe they aren't relatable to you. Just believe me, then. That's all. And know that for SO many folks- folks who suffer much worse from our racist sexist ableist gendered thin-centric sociatal rules of how to look- it is SO much worse. Just trust. And don't feel bad if you laughed a little at me, at the roller coaster ride of positivity and insecurities in my brain. I can sometimes laugh a bit too, when Iooking back. If I'm looking back from a good place.
This morning at 10:30am I had a dance class. Which meant that my first brainwork of the day was listing all the things that could go wrong, all the ways in which my dance skills don't measure up, and all the solid excuses for skipping the class. (It's pretty amazing how swiftly I can compose three mental lists right after waking up. My brain is POWERFUL, y'all.)
And while I love all the pro-mental health memes about it being okay to cancel things to stay home and take care of yourself, the memes that tell you that believing every thought and worry you have is dangerous business: those are also true.
I don't know that there is anything in my life (save cuddling my dog) that brings me pure joy as quickly and consistently as dancing.
I have been prioritizing creativity more and more lately, and for the first time ever, have kept my yearly resolution of dancing (outside my home) at least once a week. And the rewards my body and mind and spirit and relationships are reaping are ENORMOUS.
Sending you positive vibes, dear readers, that you can carve out more time for creative expression, and push past the voices of doubt and insecurity.
Below, enjoy one of the undeniable wonders of capitalism. A commercial that makes my heart soar. (Full disclosure: I also love Levi's. So yeah.)
I was shocked when a number of friends reached out to me after I wrote about my skin picking disorder, saying that they suspect they have a skin picking disorder as well. Some folks who also pick at their faces, others who pick at their arms and legs, a few who tear up and bite the skin around their fingernails.
Maybe you yourself relate to the diagram above, maybe you are confused by it. Even if you are not someone with this or another disorder, if you are engaging in a behavior that you don't want to engage in at all, or at least it's more frequent than you'd like, and you are having trouble stopping, then that is a problem in your life (compulsive cell phone use, anyone??). Plain and inarguably simple. So I hope, as with all topics I write about, that my sharing can help a variety of folks, in some way.
And if your problem is more than just a little one, I recommend that you seek professional help. I've spent countless grueling hours and dollars gaining knowledge and tools from experts and from personal experience, and by all means, rake it in. But what I've received from working directly with doctors and therapists cannot be replaced by any blog. If you think you may truly have a skin picking disorder, or another BFRB (Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior)- which I introduced a bit at the end of a blog entry in the past- or any other habit which you are so caught up in that it is sabotaging parts of your life, please reach out to a medical professional. Truly. I know it can be a lengthy and daunting process to find the right person and maybe meds, and that access to care is not equitable. Perhaps it is some solace, though, that, nine times out of ten, some help is better than none. Also, as I've mentioned, skin picking was recently added to the DSM 5, the American Psychiatric Association's manual of mental disorders, so we know that the medical community is becoming more aware of it, and of related disorders. (It's even being featured in some celebrity-produced popular blogs!)
Important note for allies and supporters: sitting down to help research and call medical professionals is one of the most simple and concrete ways you can help a loved one who has a problem.
It's also important to note that skin picking, for me, is partially about my skin, but is also the output- the observable behavior and condition- that was cooked up with many other issues as the ingredients. These are specific to me (see my graphic above), but not unique (in fact, they are fairly common). You or other people, though, may have skin picking or another BFRB that results from autism, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), drug use, or hallucinations as a result of some serious mental illnesses. Point is, there's a wide range of folks who suffer from BFRBs, due to a myriad of reasons, and from various backgrounds.
If nothing else in my graphic applies to you, at least the human brain thing does. I'm sure you've experienced the feeling of a behavior providing you with some pleasure and satisfaction. The pleasure center of your brain has been lit up. Chemicals like dopamine and serotonin have rushed in. You've had an urge to repeat that behavior, to experience the pleasure again. Surely, we have to exert some level of control to stop doing almost anything that lights up our pleasure center. Eating potato chips is an example that resonates with a lot of people. And again, phone use. (The latter is an especially powerful one, as experts are specifically designing the hardware and software to manipulate your psyche and to activate that pleasure loop in your brain, and they're getting better at that every day.)
But back to skin picking. Just a few days ago, I heard my coworkers discussing the popularity of the YouTube videos of a dermatologist nicknamed Dr. Pimple Popper. It's just what you think. She records the work she does slicing, squeezing, and bursting all kinds of pussy skin bumps on her patients, and loads it on the Internet for the ogling satisfaction of hundreds of thousands. (Perhaps ironically, I have no interest in watching these). I think the fairly large universality of the appeal of skin picking means that many folks who don't have BFRB can relate to me and my condition a little more than they might relate to hair pulling (Trichotillomania) or even compulsive nail biting. This should make it easier for me to share about this, I guess...?? Anyway, so if satisfaction from skin picking is so normal, how do you know when your enjoyment of squeezing out your blackheads and whiteheads is no longer simply grooming? That's a hard question for me to answer for you, but I'm inclined to say, you'll know. Especially now that you are aware of the existence of these disorders. (When everything began in my teen years, I was not. I was convinced I was a disgusting freak with no self control, unlike anything the world had ever seen. It would have been nice if the Internet was around then, and I'd found blogs like this one).
Body Focused Repetitive Behavior disorders certainly involve a short-lived element of satisfaction and even sometimes enjoyment, (this is what separates them from behaviors associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which often involve no satisfaction- for instance, a person not being able to leave for work because they have to circle back to their street two dozen times to see if they've left a dead body in the road, because they are certain they heard a thunk when pulling out of their driveway). However, the satisfaction of picking or pulling a hair out is followed by an immediate "I need more", that is overwhelmingly powerful. We'll pick at anything- not just whiteheads and blackheads that are mature and "ready". And once a BRRB sufferer engages in more picking or pulling for a time, a trance-like state develops, during which we lose hours. After coming out of the trance-like state and surveying the blood, the wounds and the scabbing, the shame storm ensues. This stage is marked by horrendous feelings of guilt, panic, and self hatred. This stage can last for days, and is often especially powerful in the morning, when you wake and see a mirror or touch your face, and remember what you've done. This in itself can be a trigger for another picking episode. After awhile, often one can calm down and start making plans to achieve the goal of NEVER picking again. "That time was for sure the last time. I can never and will never do that to my body again." Maybe we'll even exact a punishment on ourselves to solidify the plan, and to feel like we are taking concrete forward steps. My punishments, as I've mentioned, were often "grounding" myself from a social event (which, if I really admitted, I wanted to skip anyway because I didn't want anyone to see my face).
In short, the stages are not subtle. The triggers can be a stressful day, a put-down from someone, the existence of a pimple, some alone time to process some thoughts about a long day, even a good day that causes excitement or nervous energy, and thus the need to perfect everything to make the day even better. But the other parts of the cycle usually aren't subtle. My pattern, which is a common one, looks like this:
If this pattern is not recognizable to you, though, and you still are worried that you or someone you know may have a BFRB, other red flags can include:
Also, this damn thing has been living in the draft folder for awhile, and needs to be set free. Monsters only live in the dark, right? Time to shed some more light on this sucker. (Note: Yeah, I've noticed that red line under "Dermatillomania" in the second diagram, that I forgot to get rid of. I'm going to leave it. An exercise in embracing imperfection seems appropriate here.)
Many of us humans spend an inordinate amount of time bellyaching over small decisions. We also spend a lot of time making the same mistakes over and over, having to spiral back to the same lessons repeatedly until we learn them. Allow me to free you from at least one issue tied up in both of these problems: Buy the damn concert tickets.
Just buy them.
This topic is a bit of a departure from my other posts, I know, and I'm sure you are all just dying to read part two of my skin picking story, but indulge me here. Because the universe is whispering "Buy the damn concert tickets" into my ear every day lately, even louder than it usually does. And so I'd like you, dear readers, to also benefit from that lesson.
Why should you buy the concert tickets? (Or gather around the street musician, or bring the guitar or the karaoke machine out onto your stoop, or go to the free outdoor show, or go to the sing-along musical at the movie theater, or go to the dance party at the festival, or go to the bar where your friend is spinning records).
Yesterday on my bike ride to work, I was listening to social worker and researcher Brené Brown's new book, Braving the Wilderness, which is basically a fiercely honest roadmap of the only way we might be able to dig humanity out of the mess of divisiveness we're in. I highly recommend it. I was listening with thoughts still lingering in my mind of my weekend of two amazing live shows- one of which culminated in the audience standing and singing We Shall Not Be Moved and Gracias a La Vida with Joan Baez and Lila Downs. (Not lying. I couldn't make that shit up.) It was a purely magical experience. I'd been thinking all weekend about how amazingly alive and connected I feel at shows. So much so that I was inspired on Sunday to commit a lot of money and travel a lot of miles to go with my friends to see Tori Amos play in Oregon in November. So I was riding my bike on Monday, and Brené's talking in my ear about the importance of connecting with strangers, now more than ever. The bridges that we can build with simple but emotional experiences. Then, like she's reading my mind, she begins talking about concerts. About all the studies indicating that experiencing music with others is one of the fastest, most powerful ways to build those connections. Music is so immediately visceral, it's no wonder it's one of the best and easiest ways to connect with strangers. To name and unearth our pain, and to experience joy. This information rings so true, because our hearts have always known it. Emotionally connecting with ourselves and each other is why humans make and share music in the first place, isn't it?
Soon after I arrived at work, I learned of Tom Petty's death. I thought of my brother and my friend who both saw him in concert recently, realizing a dream they'd long had. Of my friend's initial hemming and hawing over the price of the ticket, and how glad she was that she'd decided to buy it. (Even before he'd passed, but now more than ever.) I thought again of how I felt when Prince died, but mostly, of how I felt when he lived. Because he was truly alive. And he helped me and everyone around me to truly be alive.
And it was not lost on me that the Las Vegas tragedy was during a concert. The horror of it all. Was it made better or worse for people because they had experienced a heightened sense of love and connection with strangers, right before the violent hatred? Only the survivors can tell us. My hope is that their belief in humanity is kept afloat partly by some of the beautiful experiences they had, even immediately before they had one of the worst experiences imaginable.
I know that my own belief in humanity involves- requires, actually- dancing and singing and smiling and embracing. And all of that comes much more naturally when there is music.
So, buy the damn concert tickets. Buy them to support artists. Buy them because watching You Tube alone at home shouldn't be the only way you experience music. Buy them because it's called live music for a reason. Buy them because having something on the calendar to anticipate will immediately spike your happiness. Buy the tickets to the show because it is in line with your values of spending on experiences over material goods. Buy them because, of all the things you regret spending money on, going to a concert has never been one of them.
So, just buy the damn concert tickets.
Literally, for humans' sakes, buy them.
Me at 14. Before being affected by mental illness. Or hair dye.
I don't remember when I first picked my skin, but I bet I liked it. I think for most primates, picking clogged pores, tugging at scabs, and extracting foreign objects from the skin can feel pretty satisfying, and sometimes even necessary. For most humans, it probably begins at a young age, and so it was likely the same for me. I don't remember. I do, however, remember when I really noticed my picking- when it began to feel out of control. I was fifteen. A few months prior, we had moved out of my childhood home, and I'd started high school: a private, Catholic, all-girls school after my years of public coed. All big changes for my yet small life. It was the first time I didn't have to share a bathroom with my entire family. The new house was smaller, but my parents had their own bathroom. My brother and I could share the other bathroom to get ready for school in the morning and for bed at night. It was tiny, though, and he was a senior in high school now. Gone were the days of standing in front of the mirror together, making faces while we brushed our teeth. Of him pulling his T-shirt onto his head and doing Beevis and Butthead's "Cornholio" bit, or sneaking in to pour ice cold water over the shower curtain while I was in there. Being kids and being close felt kind of... over. Most of the time my brother was playing guitar in his room or was out driving around with friends. And my parents were trusting me to get ready and get myself to bed at a decent hour, because I was old enough to do so, and exhausted from school and swim practice and homework anyway. And because it was 1994 and there was no Internet or TV or phone in my room. So everyone was just being reasonable and age-appropriate, it seemed. Everyone but me.
I now recognize feelings of isolation, and stress from transitions, and all kinds of other triggers that make me more likely to pick. I didn't then. In fact, from the time I was fifteen until age thirty or so, I think I still firmly believed that the only trigger for my picking was the actual physical presence of some imperfection on my face. And therefore I alternated between gratefulness that I didn't have truly severe acne (because surely if the blemishes were thirty or forty instead of a handful, I'd pick myself into hospitalization or death, right?), and extreme guilt and shame that my "gift" of fairly clear skin was squandered on me, a person who ruined it and managed to make that skin look repulsive.
And that's most certainly how I've often felt. Repulsive. Wholly convinced that I'm the most unsightly being in the world, or in the whole school cafeteria, which everyone knows is essentially the same thing when you're a teenager. Even when my teen years were over and I was a bit more aware of the existence and plights of others- that some people had serious scarring on their faces due to severe acne or car accidents or acid burns, for instance- I could still convince myself that I was actually doing harm to others when they looked at my face. That I had an ethical duty to spare them, to look down as they spoke to me or to stay at home and avoid interaction ("grounding" myself did double duty because I could both spare others and punish me). Even now, when an episode of picking has ended- especially one that was several hours long- the irrational thinking continues on. That's the power of the ego, I suppose. And if you don't believe me about the power of relatively rational and functional humans to create their own reality, well then I fear you haven't been paying attention to the local evening news. Or to family conversations at holiday mealtime. Or to history class. Or to your own thoughts.
But I think most of you do believe me. I think that most folks reading a health blog are likely aware and reflective enough to know that it is the power of our own thoughts and perceptions that shape nearly everything. And that we are usually our own worst enemies. And that our negative ruminations are often the quicksand that captures us in this life.
My journey to find an effective treatment plan began with my parents discovering me at age sixteen at 3AM on a school night in front of the bathroom mirror with a bloodied face, five or so hours into a picking session. And that journey was much longer, more arduous, and more costly than it ever should be in a country with so much wealth. But I'm here. Alive. And am incredibly grateful to them for taking me to a psychiatrist then, despite their own humble upbringings and limited experiences, and the messages they'd undoubtedly received that said shrinks were only for people who are rich or crazy or both. It is the reason I'm here and alive, and the reason that I didn't self medicate and develop a substance abuse problem as a teenager. I was fortunate. (Others in my family with mental illness were not so fortunate, and the consequences were dire). Maybe my parents had read something in the Akron Beacon Journal. Maybe my mom saw something on Oprah or Donahue. (In which case, thanks Oprah/Phil!). In any case, Mom and Dad drove me to my appointments-and paid for them, talked to me, bought me a book. My dad stayed up late at night sitting on my bed, monitoring me while I washed my face in the bathroom, over and over. I will never forget him crying softly one of those nights. (The only other time I'd seen him cry was the single tear he'd shed at my great grandfather's funeral. Both times broke my heart.) This late night, I'd probably said something about how I hated myself, and wanted the pain to end. Through his tears, he told me how much he loved me and saw in me, and how much he wished I could see that much in myself. His plea was a common one from a parent to a self-hatred riddled teen, I suppose. The ache I felt was one of guilt for the pain I caused him and the self-pity I dared to have while others were suffering more. It was also an ache of complete helplessness. Whatever mountain I had to climb in order to feel good about myself was insurmountable, I was certain. I was confused at how he could even think such a thing- that I might love myself like he loved me. It was a completely unreachable goal, self love. I didn't even want it, didn't believe I deserved it. I felt desperate to stop my dad from crying, to keep from causing him pain, though. This desperation to stop hurting others- my mom, my dad, and later my husband- with my disorder is what drove me to battle it. But of course, as much as I didn't want the cliché to be true, it ended up that I had to learn to strive for myself and love myself, before I could make any real headway.
is a health-seeker and health educator living in the US in San Francisco, California. She is also a former (and maybe future) high school English teacher, and she loves words. Maybe health seeker looks better with a hyphen, or maybe it doesn't. You should just get over it. Even if she cannot.