Thursday, November 10, 2011

Confessions of a Compulsive Picker

In honor of NaBloPoMo's writing prompt today, (write about a secret or not-so-secret passion) I am dedicating this post to my oldest love, to the compulsion that has carried me through thick and thin, the addiction that started in childhood and has lasted the better part of thirty years. My secret (and not-so-secret) passion is my obsession with picking at my face. Gross, I know. This is not something I am proud of, and it is in fact something that I am horribly embarrassed by (sometimes are worse than other), but what is most baffling about this disgusting habit is that I don't completely understand it. The picking (whether it be at acne, a scab, chapped lips, a bug bite) is painful and often times leaves me scarred, or gives me a much bigger problem than what originally was there. I do it all the time. I do it when I'm thinking about it, when I'm NOT thinking about it. I have even done it in my sleep. I have recently (as in Tuesday) started to bring this issue up with my therapist. (Surprise! Another 30 year-old woman in therapy.) She told me that "the picking" is on the same spectrum as let's say, cutting, although obviously not as severe. There is a certain relief or release I get (which were words I used to express the feeling after I completely pick something clean...or bloody) that the picking provides. It is a way of tempering my anxiety, stress, worry.

As a kid, my world was completely chaotic and for many years there was no order. My dad did the best he could to create a structure for us, but as a single parent, I think one of the hardest challenges is maintaining consistency in that kind of dynamic. He did amazing "dad things" like coaching my brother and me in soccer, and attending every one of my brother's soccer games in high school, and attending every parent-teacher conference (sometimes much to my chagrin) and taught me to drive, and then for a while he was making us breakfast in the morning and sometimes making us lunches. He was great. But during those years, where he was the only one for us, my dad went through his own series of losses. Not only had he lost his marriage and his co-parent, but he also lost his father. He suffered a severe illness that almost took his life and took two years to fully recover from. He lost his business and then took the case to court to clear his name which had been slandered against draining us financially and him emotionally. He was asked to pay more alimony. He was unemployed. And then there were long stretches of time where he was depressed and that very scary portion of time where he suffered debilitating cluster headaches. Needless to say, as the oldest child, and the only female in our family, I filled in as the other parent at times, I took on an enormous amount of responsibility, and I made it my job to take care of everyone in the house while the home we grew up continually felt like it was on the verge of complete collapse.

To say I am a "worrywart" is a gross understatement. To say I am a control freak fueled by an ingrained fear of  "whens the next shoe going to fall" with a compulsion towards "fixing" everything and everyone around me with a knack for suppressing extreme anxiety...is getting warmer. I have always been responsible. I have always been a serious person. And for as long as I can remember, I have always been a picker. Sometimes, there is no feeling, no great release that the picking provides, and sometimes I even get angry at myself. And then there are the days when I consciously try to stop myself and the compulsion always wins. Like an itch I can't scratch, a hunger I can't satisfy, I must  tear at that blemish. I have even torn a mole off. (I know, I know...this post is not for the weak of stomach)

There is an OCD disorder for this compulsion called Dermatillomania. When I looked at the OCD Center of Los Angeles's checklist for this disorder, I scored 16 out of 23. At certain times in my life, I probably would have scored higher, especially my freshman year of college where my picking was so bad, I gave myself impetigo not once, but twice. The good news is, there actually is treatment available. There is both Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and a form called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy  where you identify your triggers and try to learn how to sit through or cope with unwanted feelings. The idea is to let go of the burning desire, that need to control, how we deal with or even how we accept the hard knocks that come with life. The bad news is that while Dermatillomania is considered a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder it has also been considered a type of substance abuse disorder equating it with addiction, something both sides of my family are not in short supply. What does this mean? I have to WANT to get well. I have to WANT to stop picking. In the same way an alcoholic has to WANT for themselves to stop drinking. Then, and only then, can we treat the disease. 

As for this deep passion of mine, I have to say I am close to getting ready to want  to free myself of this compulsion...right after this zit on my chin clears up.

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