More Than A Habit

By Claire Golden

Content warning for discussion of mental illness and skin-picking.

Did you bite your fingernails as a kid? Maybe you still bite them now, or maybe you grew out of it. For most people, it’s just a bad habit that they can stop with enough concentration that  doesn’t affect their  life in a significant way. But for a small percentage of the population, skin-picking is a big problem.

I’ve picked my fingernails and lips since I was a kid, only I never outgrew it. “Stop picking” was a constant refrain from my parents, who were just trying to stop me from injuring myself. I didn’t want to hurt myself; it simply felt impossible to stop. Like how you can’t stop yourself from scratching an itch, I couldn’t stop myself from doing the behavior. My grandma once took me for a manicure, which was painful on my tender fingertips, but the pretty nails didn’t last very long.

I picked my skin constantly, for hours a day, regularly wearing three or more Band-Aids at a time to cover up sensitive spots on my fingers. One day, when I was 14 years old, someone looked at my hands dotted with five bandages and asked, “Oh my gosh, what happened?” This was a wake-up moment for me because I honestly hadn’t realized this was out of the ordinary. My friend’s shock at my beat-up fingertips clued me into the fact that this wasn’t right.

When I was 18, I learned that this condition has a name: Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior, or BFRB. There are a multitude of BFRBs, and the TLC Foundation for BFRBs is a great resource to learn more. The most common is trichotillomania, or hair-pulling, which you may have heard of. Or you may not, because BFRBs aren’t very well-known. Too often they’re seen as just a bad habit that someone will grow out of. I was fortunate to attend a therapy group for people with BFRBs, and receive Habit Reversal Training therapy, which essentially focuses on recognizing the urge to pick and redirecting it to something else.

Now my work desk is laden with fidgets for me to play with instead of taking my stress out on my skin. You can’t cure a BFRB, you can only learn to live with it — but mine is much more under control than it was several years ago. Now I only have to use a Band-Aid a few times a month instead of several times a day, and I’ve learned to reach for Chapstick instead of picking at my lip. (Sort of. I’ll admit I’ve been picking while I write this, but perfection is unattainable.) 

If I can get one thing out of my experience with a BFRB, it would be to share the knowledge with others. If you, too, are a BFRB sufferer, please know that you aren’t alone and there’s nothing wrong with you. Your mind just works a little differently, and that’s okay! There are ways to cope and people who understand what you’re going through. I encourage you to learn more about this condition, whether or not you have it, because increasing awareness c helps people. And now, I’m off to apply some lip gloss so I stop picking.

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