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.