(first published at https://www.elephantjournal.com/2019/01/dermatophagia-lets-talk-about-it/
I don’t remember when it started, and I don’t remember a time in my life without it. Since my youth, I have suffered from dermatophagia and dermatillomania. That’s “finger biting” and “finger picking”.
Of course, back then, I didn’t know what it was called.
I just knew that my comfort was in biting/picking at my nails and fingers. I didn’t know why. Now I know it’s a habit of self-harm, an OCD behavior and some say a mental illness. I’m still not certain. Ironically, the habit started by wanting to have perfect fingers, or so that’s how I remember it.
I have no idea why, but I didn’t want any dry spots or hangnails.
Sounds simple enough right?
“What would people say?”, my young and anxious brain would ask.
I was so scared that people would make fun of me for having dry, imperfect fingers that I had to “fix” them before they were noticed. I wanted pretty fingers like the “pretty girls” had, which I think back then was to be noticed by boys. To that end, I would pick at the little piece of hanging skin, or bite off the corner that didn’t sit right, and this until my fingers were “perfect”. It seems that the child version of myself never thought of hand cream at the time! That might have avoided all sorts of issues. haha! #HindsightIs20/20
Of course, this picking did not “fix” anything or provide me prettier fingers. More often than not, I would end up with fingers far more embarrassing than I had started with, but now with added redness, pain and often blood. Eeeww. I would end up walking around hiding my fingers or rockin’ band-aids on each of them in order to hide my shame. Would anyone notice the band-aids? Maybe. There was really no winning to this practice. Over time, this became how I coped with my anxiety. I would get anxious, and I would immediately go to my fingers and pick/bite for comfort and ease. This became a habit LONG before I even realized that there was a problem. As a kid, I just thought it was normal, I didn’t realize I wasn’t part of the norm in doing so.
How was I to know that I’d be battling this same evil 30 years later?
Though I did often wonder how girls could walk around with their beautiful nails, and I was walking around with a bloody mess of bitten finger tips and uneven nails. This did not help my already low self-esteem, which was likely the catalyst for this habit starting in the first place. (Sadly, I was 30+ when I realized that.) This was a vicious cycle which caused me even more anxiety, over the years. I was developing a habit and behavior caused by anxiety which in itself created further anxiety.
I did my best to live my life all while hiding my hands from those around me as much as I could, so that no one would know my secret.
(Plot twist: They all knew anyway!)
This continued for all of my teenage years, and well into my adult life. I tried to stop, many times, but nothing worked. I would find any and all excuse to pick at this finger or bite that nail, in order to get the weird relief of the habit itself which was only relief until the pain of my self-inflicted abuse kicked in. Ouch. This affected my self-esteem with boyfriends, jobs, friends and overall. This affected my life in every possible way; this was my way of life.
Do you think it is “sexy” to watch a girl looking all pretty, and happy and attractive… with a mouth full of finger? Picking at the corner of her skin? I’m not sure how I thought I could actually hide that.
Over the years, as I grew older, I grew more anxious (for many reasons about which you can read on my blog! Haha) but this caused this habit to get worse. And as the habit grew worse, so did the shame.
I was drowning in my own self-inflicted shame.
Why could I just NOT pick when I saw that little piece of dry skin in the corner? Why not use a nail file? Hand cream? ANYTHING other than picking or biting at them. I couldn’t stop and I was ashamed of that.
I created this habit and I could not break free of it. I even picked while driving. (Plot twist, I drive stick It’s not a good idea, though I did it skillfully.)
That’s when I started doing more research… the internet was becoming more prevalent so I thought: “is there anyone like me?” Oh yes. There is. That’s when I discovered the words: dermatillomania and dermatophagia, and found out that I was NOT alone. This, for a long time, scared me more. I didn’t want to have this issue. I didn’t want the shame, the anxiety, any of it. I wanted out.
That’s when I tried gel nails.
Wait, I know it sounds silly, but it actually worked. For 3 years, it worked. It IS silly but here’s the thing – with gel nails, you can’t scratch anything. Ever. (Those who have had gel nails all agree!)Not being able to scratch an itch is annoying as heck, but it’s glorious when you have the habit of picking at your fingers and nothing has ever stopped you… til now!!!! I was finally done. For now.
I had gorgeous nails and finally, my fingers were healing.
OH YEAH. I felt on top of the world! It takes a lot of time, but they looked amazing.
For 3 years, I got my nails done every 3 weeks and they looks stunning. My fingers were healing and I DID NOT PICK! I was so proud of myself. This was actually was brought me to stop the nail biting too. This, I thought, was the solution. I hadn’t picked in a couple years, I was okay!
I was no longer a victim to this habit.
Wrong. I finally had to stop getting my nails done due to the cost of it, so I went back to my regular nails with the confidence that my problem was no longer my problem. I was cured!! And this, I must say, stands true for the nail biting. I never learned the official word for that one as the gel nails actually broke me of that habit, permanently. Sadly, my dermatillomania and dermatophagia monsters reappeared quickly. I have no idea why it worked for one and not the others, but I wasn’t cured. YET.
That was a few years ago.
Now, I sit here, at 38 years old, trying my hardest to break a habit which psychologists are calling a mental illness. I still insist that it’s a habit and like any habit, it CAN be broken and I can retrain my brain NOT to have the compulsion. I’m just unsure how, as of yet. I firmly believe that I can heal this. I believe in me. Usually getting a manicure and having pretty nails helps, but the cost isn’t always an option. I want to heal it at the source, not just cover it up with pretty glitter, though that doesn’t always hurt.
I want to heal.
In the last couple years, I have incorporated into my life a good practice of journaling, meditation and yoga which has helped tremendously. I realized that I couldn’t fix the habit of picking at my fingers when I’m anxious, unless I fixed what was making me anxious. I had to take on this issue at the root and heal it from the source, to unravel the habit in all of its mysteries and HEAL it, for good.
This is what I’m doing now – working on healing myself of these monsters. Part of the healing for me is sharing my story.
Opening it, journaling, and blogging about what I live is my best vitamin! I’m not coming to you with giant solutions as I haven’t found them yet, but I am coming to you encouraging you to share your truth, to talk about your shame, to open up about your struggles and open the door to your healing self, your better self. I know I can heal this.
I don’t know how yet, but I know that I absolutely can.
And talking about it, for me, will help. If you are suffering, don’t hide it. Share your truth, as you will realize that others share in a similar pain and that’s how humans support other humans in healing. We are all struggling with something – it’s time to talk about it! Thanks for reading.