my body is a nuclear reactor in which I alchemize grief into rage // shedding as hazardous byproducts unstable atoms of // anxiety, compulsion, paranoia // which I store away deep in my belly where they // cannot leak out and harm innocent bystanders // or worse yet, embarrass me // but such transformation requires a complex and delicate machine // and I am only one person // the lights in the monitoring panels start to blink and // I am only one person // the alarms on the walls start to shrill and // I am only one person // an explosion rocks my core and as everything goes dark I am // only one person
Tag Archives: anxiety
what a pink-fleshed thing I am
all soft meat and squinting eyes
flinching at every sudden sound
out in the world I am horribly exposed
clothes offer no comfort from others’ perception
buildings no shelter from the world’s ugliness
only in my home biome am I safe
armored by evergreens and blackberries
secure in my shelter of seawater and songbirds
yet as glaciers melt and wildfires rage
and every day the chainsaws close in
I feel the cracks in my shell spreading
the beast inside me isn’t dumb
it smells the burning, it knows
its forest home has been razed
and that you come for it next
Acute pain is a problem of the present but chronic pain is a problem of the future. If I go to this event, will the length of time give me a headache? Or the human interaction? The bad weather? What about the lack of accessible bathrooms or the food provided, will it give me a stomach ache? Will the physical exertion trigger my carpal tunnel syndrome? Will I be in so much pain that I want to go home early but can’t? And if so, will the pain be worth it or will I be too miserable to appreciate the experience? If I bail, though, will everyone be mad at me? Will I be a disappointment? Every future event and upcoming activity triggers the anxiety loop again: fear shame guilt, fear shame guilt, fear shame guilt, an endless repetition of dread for the future. And what does the anxiety even solve? Does the prevention of future pain guarantee an end to the pain? Unlikely. Does it even guarantee a lack of pain on the day of the missed event? Of course not. So what’s the point? Fear shame guilt. Fear shame guilt. Fear shame guilt. It solves nothing but you can’t break free.
feel like i’m going crazy, i keep seeing absent ghosts everywhere, pseudo-specters, nothing-theres, whatever you want to call them, the empty spaces of missing trees that i could swear were there this morning but are gone now this evening, it’s like the city swallowed them whole while i wasn’t looking and left behind more vacancy, more vacuum, more v o i d . . .
or maybe there was never a tree right there in the first place and i’m just too obsessed with ecocide, maybe i’m going crazy from grieving all the trees i couldn’t spare the chainsaw, whole forests weighing on my conscience, i don’t know i just swear there was a tree in that space before and now there isn’t and i’m afraid that if i look away for too long there won’t be anything green left when i turn back
After a night spent tossing and turning, grieving the endless noise of humanity and the oppressive heat of summer, the pale September dawn extends a peace offering of thin fog hovering over dewy fields dotted by stands of evergreens and clusters of sleepy cows. This isn’t quite reconciliation – evening traffic will still clog the city’s arteries with exhaust fumes and once white-capped mountains are still disturbingly barren – but perhaps it can serve a noble purpose anyway. Whether it’s a true promise of approaching autumn or only the last vestiges of that dying liminal season, soon to go the way of Tahoma’s dwindling glaciers, I take the gift for what it’s worth and tuck it behind my sternum for safe keeping. Some future night when I’m half mad with mourning all we’ve ruined in the name of progress I’ll pull this memory out and wrap it ’round myself like a blanket, breathing in the scent of damp soil until I finally fall asleep.
I don’t know how to not be a writer. I don’t know how to let thoughts and feelings drift by without trying to craft them into beautiful passages. I don’t know how to experience a dream or fleeting memory without capturing it and preserving it in amber metaphor. Worse, I don’t know how to be okay with not creating; I don’t know how to not tear at my hair, to not beat my breast, to not whip my back bloody in penance for every unwritten sentence. When the words won’t come I can’t just let them go, I keep scrabbling in the dust until I’m bruised and bloody and have nothing to show for my struggles. I don’t know how to not be a writer. I don’t know how to give up on this thing that tears me to pieces. I don’t know how to stop. I don’t even know how to want to know how to stop. But it’s killing me.
You know how when a tooth hurts you imagine taking a pair of pliers and just yanking it out, and that mere thought of removing the source of the pain brings a small measure of physical relief? It’s like that. If I imagine vomiting up a torrent of black sludge I feel a little less weighed down by the darkness pooled inside me. If I imagine clawing open my breast I feel a little less like a cage of flesh and bone for something greater than myself. If I imagine hacking off these hands which so offend me and casting them away I feel a little less pressured to use every second to create, to narrate, to commit to the innately limited nature of text the wordless vortex inside me. It’s just a brief reprieve, hardly more than a heartbeat, but there’s no root canal or surgery that can provide anything better.
Not to stress the point or anything, or get too graphic, but it really is like gutting myself, like reaching in and pulling loops of intestines out onto the floor to divine the meaning of their pattern, like smearing my cut palms on the walls to paint a Rorschach test (what do you see?), and every finished piece, every precious word of every hard-bought sentence is a chunk of flesh or a shard of bone hacked off my ever-dwindling body for the masses who do not care enough about such offerings to come bear witness. Perhaps I make it look too easy, perhaps they suspect a trick of corn syrup and food dye or a magician’s sleight of hand, but I promise there are no mirrors here, no trap doors or invisible strings, my meat is real and so is the knife and if still you suspect deceit then watch me tear with my fingernails, watch me gouge with my teeth, watch me rend myself apart with my own hands to dig out the words hiding deep within. I’m used to putting myself on display anyway, and oh how I long to prove with what agony each syllable is purchased, so come, pull up a chair, I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up so you better catch the show while you can.
Name me Alexandria for I am always burning up from within, my ribs a charred cage to cradle this conflagration of words which was once a heart. Watch the embers smolder behind my eyes; watch me open cracked lips to breathe out ashen smoke thick as a funeral shroud. Call me Alexandria for I am a tower of fire and ruin, and only by the black clouds of my pyre might you divine the true worth of the works lost to the inferno.
in these dark days I am grateful for sages and oracles, Greek choruses and seers, for I am bereft of the hope necessary to play such roles anymore, no, now I am too weary, too full of mindless rage to provide good counsel, now I am a banshee and all I can do is wail we are dying, we are dying, we are dying
But I lied; of course I’m haunted. Only all my ghosts are just the shit I said and the shit I did or the shit I didn’t say or the shit I didn’t do, and I promise you I remember them all, how can I not when I drag them around with me Marley-style? It’s too late for me, but maybe I can visit some other poor fucker on a lonely midnight and provide that oh so crucial cautionary tale that turns their life around. Only honestly I might just tell them to skip right to the end, to the stone and the six foot hole, because I’m not sure there’s any other way to get through the years unscathed no matter how many good deeds you attempt to make up for what you can’t take back. Do you think ten years from now they’ll remember that one Christmas goose, no matter how fat, or all the cruelty that came first? We are all just chains until the grave.
So I’m minding my own business, just a Container Store full of nicely labeled boxes and jars and tubs and cubbies and storage cubes and vacuum seal bags all sitting prettily on their shelves and display stands with the shrink wrap still on, and in she walks – cursed Pandora with her clever fingers – and open she pops all my carefully organized containers and out pop all the things I’ve hidden away in them, hoping to never see again in the light of day: my various anxieties and angers and fears and shames, bad memories and unwelcome realizations, guilt complexes and mother issues and latent mental illnesses (oh my!), how they come flying out in a hurry, and there she stands in the middle of the maelstrom with a mild look of apology like sorry, but it had to be done, and oh my troublesome Pandora, I’m not mad, I find, not really, because she’s right, it’s time I actually went through all the crap I spent thirty years shoving into boxes and jars and nooks and crannies and you get used to the chaos, she says, and I figure she’s probably right but that doesn’t make the disaster zone look any less overwhelming.
these days my anxiety and depression come with a free side order of paranoia, your friends secretly hate you, your coworkers talk about how much of an antisocial freak you are!, which i guess makes it a good deal, buy two get one free, but really i’m already too full of crazy to eat even one more bite, i’m just stuffed, maybe i can get the rest in a to-go bag to have later when i start feeling good about myself again
Sometimes I am Scylla and sometimes I am Charybdis and sometimes I am the thin strip of safe water between them with teeth snapping on one side and vortex gaping on the other but most days I just hope I survive, it doesn’t much matter how, and I often wonder what it would be like to be a monster so hideous and fierce that everyone avoids you, so insatiable you become synonymous with certain death, and it occurs to me that I don’t think I’d mind trading my humanity for the ability to swallow down the world until either it left me alone or there was nothing left in it to eat, that’s a pretty sweet deal if you ask me, so uh do I submit an application or do I need to get myself cursed by a witch or what?
there’s this scream in my throat i’ve been swallowing for years and i used to be ashamed of it, you know, tried to hide it, to bide it, to bury it deep, but now i’m thinking maybe it’s here for a reason and i ought to embrace it, maybe i’m some sort of modern banshee for a modern world and i’ve come to tell everyone that we’re all gonna die, that the end is and has been extremely fucking nigh, and if so then i have a duty to let everyone know, a destiny to detail the destruction entailed, ’cause if you don’t think we’re there yet then oh man do i have a dirge to sing for you, come listen, friend, there’s no melody but i promise it’s a doozy
What will you do with the deck tilting ten, twenty, thirty degrees under you? Look around; there are no lifeboats left, they’ve rowed away with those privileged enough to buy their safety. The rest of us losers better figure out something else fast. Will you chance the frigid waters that lap about your feet? It’s a long wait until dawn and that light on the horizon isn’t real hope, you know, just a mirage. Certainly there’s no saving this sinking ship; I think we can all admit by now that we’re far beyond the point of no return. So in that case, what’s left to do but grab a glass of champagne, hook an arm around the nearest rail, and listen as the band plays on? If we’re well and truly fucked – and we are – we might as well greet the end in style. It’s a lovely night for a concert anyway.
this thing happens when i travel where my mind loses its grasp of past and future and i feel like ive only ever been in this shitty airport, i wasn’t even born ive just always existed in this stretch of fluorescent lights and fast food restaurants and people who can’t be bothered to recycle their plastic water bottles, thanks for contributing to the death of our planet, and the longer im in this stasis the more it feels like im dead and this is purgatory or maybe ive gone crazy, who knows, is there even an outside world? im starting to doubt it, maybe im in a closed loop and if i get too suspicious of my reality the people all around will start to notice me and realize I’m an intruder and mob me to protect the fragile structure, im trying to make an inception reference if you can’t tell, but everything i write these days is just awful, truly awful, and anyway what i was trying to get at is that when i travel im always just like a little tiny bit on the edge of hysteria and that’s why i freak out when some small inconvenience happens, security tells me to take out my tablet or my headphones get stolen, really i just like totally fucking lose it cause what if im stuck here forever waiting for a plane that will never come, we apologize for the inconvenience, another hour, another minute, and i can’t go anywhere without lugging all my baggage with me and if that’s not a real hilarious metaphor for my whole fucking life then i dunno what to tell you, after all im just trying to take up space and pretend im a writer when what i really am is full of shit (both literally and metaphorically)
I go through the five stages of grief every time you leave; by now I’m such an expert I can pass through them in record time. Denial – I search for you in music, in books, in dreams, in words, but you are nowhere to be found. Anger – I think how dare you how dare you how dare you how dare you how dare you how dare you how dare you? Bargaining – I apologize profusely for imaginary slights and consider leaving you offerings of whiskey and cigarettes to curry your favor. Depression – everything goes gray and silent and meaningless, and I stop writing completely. Acceptance – I realize this is it, this is the end, there’s nothing more to fear because the worst has actually happened and there’s nothing I can do about it. And then without warning you return, acting as if you’d never left me to fend for myself, and I am expected to play along. And I do, because the alternative is to risk you never returning and I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
my mind is a house full of hallways full of doors and some of them are open and some of them are locked and some of them are upstairs and some of them are downstairs and some of them lead to other hallways and some of them lead to other floors but none of them lead outside the house and none of the rooms have windows and sometimes i want out so bad i tear at the wallpaper until my fingers bleed but most times i forget there is an outside at all and maybe there really isn’t one anyway so why go to the trouble in the first place?
I am a corpse filled with rot
yet look how I dance!
Problem Glyphs – Autumn Always Comes
Consider me a pale snowdrop sleeping cozy beneath the soil through autumn and blooming happily in the still depths of winter. I dread the coming summer, how it will trap me in my fragile body until I wither under the sun’s glare. There is no gentle transition from spring now, only an endless succession of lengthening days until even the brief night holds no refuge from the heat. The stale smell of ash and exhaust lingers beneath a hard, cloudless sky; gasoline rainbows glisten on stagnant water. Many other flowers bloom in this time, but I only shrivel and hope the seeds I leave behind survive until autumn arrives again.
It’s “the holidays”, so let’s talk about… eating disorders! (Wah wah.)
I’m about to throw a big ball of crazy at you, so fair warning. Possible triggers: eating disorders, anxiety, OCD, and chronic illness.
I don’t want to bore you with my whole life story, so I’ll try to give you the relevant highlights. I have always had stomach problems: cholic as a baby, a lactose intolerance diagnosis in elementary school, and an IBS diagnosis in high school. Add to this an anxiety disorder that makes my stomach rock and roll whenever I’m nervous, excited, angry, or upset and you have a bad, bad combination. Basically, my stomach hurt all the time when I was a kid and I rarely knew why. Food became dangerous and untrustworthy; something that was fine the day before might upset my stomach the next day. I was miserable (and frequently still am).
In college, I added to all this a healthy dose of body issues. I was a chubby child but it never bothered me, as I eschewed most of society’s expectations for the female body. Sometime in college the bad body vibes hit me, though, despite my best efforts, and I’ve never been able to shake them. My food anxiety and OCD combined with the shiny new body issues and morphed into a stronger, faster, meaner obsession. I counted calories, carbs, portions, and anything else that was trackable. About a year out of college, I had managed to get my body, which likes to be between 132-135 pounds, down to 111. I had even managed to cease my menstrual cycle completely, which was awesome but not super healthy.
Nowadays I’m back to a proper weight, but still in a weird limbo where my anxiety-ocd-body-issues monster is constantly at war with my queer, feminist side that strives to cast off all the gross social conditioning and love my body exactly how it is. Every single day I expend so much energy worrying about my weight, my IBS, what I should eat to be healthy, what I should eat to be skinny, what I should eat to be comfortable and happy and not-crazy that I exhaust myself. If I have one cookie on the weekend, I mentally berate myself for it. If I take a day off from exercising because my stomach hurts, I swear I’m already a pound heavier. Even this very moment, while I write this, I’m craving Chex Mix but no, it’s so many calories, what if it makes my stomach hurt, I shouldn’t! Rinse and repeat forever.
All of this is to explain why Thanksgiving and Christmas have gone from being my favorite holidays to ones I dread through all of September, October, and November. See, I love eating and the winter holidays have the best food – pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, candied yams, mashed potatoes, honey rolls, hot chocolate, donuts and cheese danish on Christmas morning… mmm! More than anything, though, I love eating my mom’s stuffing. It’s soaked with butter and chock full of dried and fresh fruit, and I would eat it every day of my life if I could. But stuffing isn’t a good food according to my OCD brain. It’s bad for my stomach; it’s high in calories; it has no nutritional value. How dare I have even one bite?! So for the last ten or eleven years, the holidays have involved far more anxiety and internal panicking than enjoyment of the dishes I love. I drink water to fill myself up to the point of pain, and I eat a big, healthy breakfast so I’m not tempted by the Christmas donuts. When I have one anyway, I then spend the day wondering how I can sneak away from the festivities to work out. It’s pathetic, honestly, and majorly depressing.
I am going to change that this year. Or at least, I’m really going to try. I want to eat a nice dinner without worrying about my stomach beforehand and hating myself afterward. Wouldn’t that be nice? It really would. And I deserve that. I deserve to enjoy the holidays with my friends and family. I deserve to nourish my body with food that is healthy and good, and to not feel guilty for giving it the fuel it needs (or the treat I want!). I deserve to live free of anxiety and obsession. I deserve to live my life, to be present in every moment, and so does everyone else in similar situations. There are so many of us hurting out there, starving our bodies and souls to meet impossible ideals, and there’s just no reason. We weren’t put on this earth to make ourselves suffer.
I think this will be my goal for 2018 – to be kinder to myself and to love myself, not despite my various burdens but because of them. Maybe 2018 will be the year that I get to know my body again. We’ve been at war for too long.
are we not old friends?
but you make it so hard
we fight over everything
and you cry so fucking much
can you please get a hold of yourself?
I want to love you
but you make it so hard
you’re cold and breakable as porcelain
and anxiety riddles you like hairline fractures
do you even have a backbone?
I want to love you
but you make it so hard
you can’t do anything totally right
and mostly you just fuck things up
would it kill you to accomplish something?I want to love you
but you make it so hard
you are flawed through and through
and have been from the start
must you always disappoint me?
I want to love you
but you make it so hard
I’m tired of giving excuses for you
and accommodating your whims
don’t you think you owe me by now?
I want to love you
but you make it so fucking hard
I want to find freedom in acceptance
and yet I slip back twice for every inch I gain
are you as tired as I am?
o this fucking well
have I not learned my lesson
I abide in stone
“This Is Your Brain On Anxiety”
frozen like a rabbit
under the shadow of a hawk
I’m paralyzed at my desk
what did she mean by ‘incident’?
why can’t I email [REDACTED]?
am I about to be demoted?
am I about to be fired?
no, b r e a t h e
answer an email– no!
what if I’m about to be fired?
why didn’t they clean my cubicle out on Friday?
why didn’t she put anything on my calendar?
what does this have to do with [REDACTED]?
is this a dream? I think this is a dream
wake up wake up wake up
come on come on come on
okay, not a dream
wait – this wasn’t about me at all?
I feel like I’m going crazy. Literally.
Over the last two years, I’ve frequently felt like my own brain is gaslighting me. At work, I miss red flags that I specifically looked for; I calculate budget numbers but then can’t figure out how I came to those totals the next day; I forget tasks or duties I’ve never had trouble remembering before; I swear I started a project but then find no evidence in my files; my completed documents are riddled with obvious mistakes I thought I checked or corrected; emails I have a vivid memory of reading were never sent to me. I’ve even run two red lights – not because I wasn’t paying attention, but because I could have sworn that the light was green. Every day, I feel tripped up by false or missing memories, by basic math that makes no sense, by this frustrating “Past Elyssa” who keeps fucking everything up for the present me. Sometimes I find her mistakes the next day, when I can fix them before my boss notices, but other times I don’t find her mistakes until months later, when a tiny issue becomes a monster. I find myself apologizing over and over and over again, promising I’m a hard worker, dedicated, detail-oriented, that I’m not who Past Elyssa makes me out to be. But what if I am?
For two years now, I’ve felt like I can’t trust my own mind. This paranoia leads me to second-guessing everything I do. I double and triple-check information I’ve long had memorized; I have shadow systems for everything I might possibly need to track or remember; I leave myself sticky notes for the most obvious of tasks. I read and reread emails and documents before I send them, and I check my math however I can. But it’s not enough. Things still slip through at an alarming rate. And it scares me. It scares me because this isn’t who I am. I am detail-oriented. I am good at remembering deadlines and tasks. I am able to complete complex tasks. Yes, I’m bad at math, but I’m not usually this bad. I’m not usually inept.
When the brain weirdness first started, it had a definite cause. I had just gone on Topamax, a medication well known for reducing the user’s cognitive functions. And boy, did it slow down my brain. I was like a different person at work: forgetful, prone to missing obvious mistakes, and overall just slower at grasping even simple tasks. When I forgot to take another important medication for an entire week, I finally went off the Topamax. I assumed the side-effects would linger for a while, which they did… and did… and did… and do. I still feel like I’m on the Topamax, though I was only on it for a couple months and I’ve now been off it for over a year. At this point, whatever I’m experiencing simply can’t be caused by the medication. My doctor has suggested my migraines (for which I was taking the Topamax, ironically) might be causing my forgetfulness and decreased cognitive function. This is a good theory, but I don’t buy it 100%. This stuff just seems to happen too often to be the result of a migraine.
So what is it, then? None of my other medications cause such side-effects, and they’re all meds I’ve taken for years without issue. My diet and general health are good, so it’s not my body trying to run at half-capacity. The issues happen no matter what my mood, so it’s not anxiety or depression related. I don’t fit any of the other symptoms of adult onset ADD. I don’t love my job, but I’m dedicated and focused, so it’s not just that my brain is checked out. Plus, that doesn’t explain the times I’ve run red lights.
I feel crazy. That isn’t me co-opting an often misused word – I truly feel like I can’t always fully trust my mind or my perception of reality. These things have happened too often for me to just laugh off. Now every time I find a weird mistake or have a memory that apparently didn’t happen, I feel myself unravel a little more. It’s a creepy, frustrating, scary feeling. I don’t like being a bad employee. I don’t like being unreliable. I don’t like putting myself in danger by accident, or questioning even bland, innocuous memories. I already deal with anxiety, depression, and invasive thoughts; I really need my brain to otherwise work okay. If something’s wrong, I want to know so I can treat it with therapy or medication or whatever will work. It’s the not knowing, the not being able to act on a problem, that’s eating away at me.
[ I feel like this sounds really dramatic, and maybe I’m overreacting, but I’m going to make myself post it. Blurhg, brain bad. ]
Why I’m An “Apologetic Vegetarian”
This month marks the one year anniversary of my decision to become a vegetarian. Neat! Instead of reflecting on that choice and my journey over the last year, though, I instead want to talk about why I call myself an apologetic vegetarian. To understand where I’m coming from, you need a little backstory. First, I have had chronic stomach issues since I was a baby. Lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety induced stomach aches… my stomach basically hurts at least once a day. If I’m not painfully constipated, then I have what I fondly refer to as the “fire poops”. I can’t safely ingest fatty food, greasy food, fried food, highly processed food, red meat, coffee, milk, artificial sweeteners, black tea, chocolate, soda, or anything else good tasting. Half the time even my safe foods make my stomach upset. It sucks major lollipops.
Second, I have chronic anxiety and OCD. Many of my issues in this department revolve, understandably, around food. I am constantly paranoid about eating or drinking something that will make my stomach hurt, make me constipated, or otherwise isn’t “healthy” enough – based on my own neurotic standards. I can send myself into a panic attack at a restaurant if nothing on the menu seems safe enough to me. It’s bad. On top of this, I also obsess over my weight. Several years ago I was restricting my caloric intake to such a degree that I had dropped from my normal weight of 135 to 111. My period stopped for nearly a year (which was pretty sweet but also apparently not good). My doctor put a stop to that, and a couple years of therapy helped, but it’s still very easy for me to start fixating on my health and weight to a dangerous degree.
Okay, so now you know. Dietary restrictions and obsessive compulsive personality. Awesome mix. I am such a functioning adult.
When I decided to become a vegetarian, I did so because I could no longer take part in an industry that causes pain to billions of animals every year. Therefore, it made sense to become a vegan – the production of milk and eggs in factory farms is just as horrendous and destructive as the actual meat industry, after all. To say you won’t eat a cow but you’re fine with letting one be traumatized its entire life so you can eat cheese is somewhat hypocritical. However, I knew from the beginning that I couldn’t convert to full veganism. Taking any meat-containing meals off the menu would already limit me more than my stomach issues already do. To further limit myself to IBS-safe vegan meals would most likely cause me issues everywhere I went. If I could give myself a panic attack because the only salad a restaurant offered was made with iceberg lettuce, I’d be totally doomed if on top of everything else, I had to question whether the bread housing my veggie sandwich had eggs or milk in it. It just wasn’t going to happen.
When I became a vegetarian, I promised myself one thing: if I was on the verge of a panic attack or wobbly with hunger and a ham sandwich, for example, was my only IBS-safe option, I had to choose my immediate mental or physical health over my morals. Knowing how obsessive and anxious I can become when faced with a dietary lose-lose situation, I had to give myself an out. I felt like a hypocrite and a coward for even doing something like that in a theoretical future situation, but I didn’t have much choice. I’m glad to say this issue hasn’t come up yet, and my first year as a vegetarian went by pretty smoothly. However, I still feel supremely guilty when I consume something I know (or suspect) has eggs or milk in it. I try to avoid such things when I can, but without an ingredients list you can never know for sure. And, unfortunately, OCD thrives on the things you can “never know for sure.”
So that’s why I call myself an apologetic vegetarian. I wish, truly, that I was at a place in my life where I could take on a challenging and rewarding lifestyle like veganism – but I’m not. I hope I will be one day, and I’m definitely trying to move in that direction. Until then, all I can do is minimize the harm I cause to my fellow animals, and help as many of them as I can.
Skeletons in My Closet
Trichotillomania, according to the internet, is an “impulse control disorder” wherein the person suffers from the (oftentimes uncontrollable) urge to pull out their hair. Dermatillomania is its sister disorder, only dermatillomania causes the urge to pick at ones skin. The two often go hand-in-hand and frequently occur in people who suffer from OCD, anxiety, and/or body dysmorphia.
Thanks to my anxiety and OCD, I have them both! Lucky me.
I can’t remember when the picking started; my earliest memory is of lying about the scabs on my scalp sometime during late middle school or early high school. At some point I just started… picking. At anything. At everything. Blackheads, scabs, ingrown hairs, skin tags, cuticles, random bumps, really anything 3D that could be detected on my skin. In addition, I started pulling at my eyelashes and eyebrows. At this point, I have scars from scabs and pimples that weren’t allowed to heal on their own, as well as a receding hairline at my temples from picking and rubbing at my scalp too much. I routinely over-pluck my eyebrows and then have to fight myself not to keep plucking them as they grow back. I also suspect the carpal tunnel in both my hands is a product of so many years spent repetitiously running my hands over my skin and picking or pulling at whatever I found. I’m luckier than many, especially those who have trichotillomania and pull their hair out in chunks, but if you know what to look for, you’ll see the signs on me as well.
Like any compulsion, trich and derm provide an emotional release for the sufferer. Some people pick when nervous or upset, and the sensation or pain offer a kind of comfort. For me, it’s more that picking is satisfying. I can’t properly describe what I feel when I pick off a particularly nice scab, but it’s a weird mixture of victory, physical pleasure, and productivity. When I have nothing to pick or I can’t see what I’ve picked at, I feel frustrated and disappointed. It’s fucked up, I know. I don’t enjoy the pain associated with picking, but it’s not enough to stop my fingers from digging at unhealed scabs or things that aren’t really pickable at all. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that if you pick at anything long enough, you’ll eventually tear into the skin and voila! New scab.
It’s a disgusting habit, I know, and one I can’t really hide. I pick, especially at my scalp, in a totally thoughtless, automatic way throughout my waking hours – I have to be very mindful and constantly vigilant when somewhere where I can’t pick, such as a meeting or other professional setting. Even then, I still find myself attacking my scalp while I sit at my desk, and I’m sure my coworkers know something is seriously weird with me. Honestly, I’m surprised my picking hasn’t chased my girlfriend off, as she’s definitely talked about how gross it is to run her hands through my hair and feel a bunch of scabs. Even while I write this, I’m picking at my skin. I’ll probably continue to do it for the rest of the day, and for at least 20 minutes in the bathroom mirror while I’m getting ready for bed.
The problem is that, unlike people addicted to substances, I can never get away from my temptation. My hands are always with me, and there’s always something to pick at somewhere on my body. Wearing gloves 24/7 is obviously impractical, and cutting my nails just makes the job harder but the victory more rewarding. I have methods of decreasing my picking, like pulling my hair back and wearing a spinner ring I can fiddle with, but those only work for so long. The maximum number of days I’ve gone without picking is four – but I’ve only managed that once. My average is one, and that’s if I’m doing really well. Most of the time I can’t bring myself to even try. This issue seems insurmountable and I feel exhausted just thinking about thinking about trying to fix it.
I don’t have any advice for others in this situation, as I clearly haven’t even begun to get a hold of my compulsion. Therefore, I can only speak to others, to those who might have someone in their life who struggles with something similar. To those people I say, have patience and be kind. Compulsions aren’t just “bad habits” and your loved one isn’t doing it to annoy you. Chances are they hate the compulsion even more than you do, and they’re actively toning it down whenever you’re around. Yelling at someone, demanding they stop picking, or asking them why they pick isn’t helpful at all – all you’re doing is reminding this person that you don’t understand the issue and aren’t trying to. Instead, show your support by giving them gentle reminders to stop picking, to use their redirection methods, or to find something that puts both their mind and hands to action. Be supportive of your loved one and try to remember that this is most likely a life-long battle, not something that can be cured overnight.
To my fellow pickers and pullers, I can only say, you’re not alone and you’re not gross. I know it’s an embarrassing compulsion, but you aren’t your disorder. You aren’t your trichotillomania, your dermatillomania, your OCD, or your anxiety. These things affect you, but they aren’t YOU. Take one day at a time. You’ll get through this.