There is blood on my shirt collar. Again.
I smack myself on the wrist, hard, and let out a wail of frustration. "Why can't I stop? Why?" The scab I have picked off my shoulder for the tenth time falls to the ground as I slap a bandaid on my bloody skin, hating myself for my inability to conquer this “bad habit” I’ve been battling for over a decade. It is 2011, two years before skin-picking disorder will be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as its own disorder. Two years before I will read about it and immediately start to cry--from relief, from realisation, from recognition.
Skin-picking disorder, aka excoriation disorder, aka dermatillomania, is a compulsive disorder related to OCD. It is characterized by compulsions to pick at real or imagined imperfections in one’s own skin. It’s not about self-harm. There is no desire to hurt yourself or cause yourself pain; instead it’s about trying to “fix” that bump/scab/pimple/bit of skin that just doesn’t feel right. (Of course, those “fixes” tend to make things worse, not better. My own shoulders are littered with hundreds of scars from my years and years of picking. But don’t bother trying to tell my dermatillomania that its strategies are not going to work. My dermatillomania will not believe you.)
I was asked at a recent book event whether I found it harder to write about anxiety or about dermatillomania. A character in my first book, KAT AND MEG CONQUER THE WORLD, struggles with anxiety; a character in my second book, FAN THE FAME, struggles with skin-picking disorder. I struggle with both. My answer was easy: skin-picking disorder was much harder to write about. Why? Because of the shame.
I vividly remember being told as a teen that picking at pimples was gross. Picking at pimples was gross, picking at skin was gross, picking off scabs and accidentally making yourself bleed was gross. Blood was gross. Blood on your clothing was gross. Gross gross GROSS GrOsS gross. Which I thought meant, since I couldn’t seem to stop myself from doing all these things, that I was gross.
And believe me, I tried very hard to try to stop myself from what I thought was a “gross bad habit.” I would put elastics on my wrist and snap them when I caught myself picking. I put bandaids on my fingers. I yelled at myself. I hit myself. I felt so ashamed.
When dermatillomania was added to the DSM, and I learned for the first time that I was struggling with a mental disorder, not just a bad habit I wasn’t strong enough to shake, it freed me from so much of the blame and disgust I poured on myself. But it didn’t free me from the fear of still seeing that blame and disgust in others’ eyes. That fear still reigned strong, so I kept my disorder as my dark, ugly secret.
But then I got a publishing deal for a book in which two teens are open and honest with each other about their mental health struggles.
And I thought, “I can’t write about these badass teens who are dealing openly and bravely with their mental health when I’m hiding in the dark with mine.” So I outed myself.
And I thought, “I can’t write about these badass teens who are dealing openly and bravely with their mental health when I’m hiding in the dark with mine.” So I outed myself. My fingers shook as I tweeted a thread about it; as soon as I finished, I collapsed on my bathroom floor and sobbed for an hour.
But then something magical happened: I received an outpouring of love. No words of disgust, just support and love. Love that gradually encouraged me to talk about it more often. Love that built me up enough that eventually I felt ready enough to write about it in a book.
But not everyone understands. There are still people who think it’s gross and people who think it’s something you just need to “get over.” In FAN THE FAME, Sam has a relative who calls it his disgusting bad habit--which doesn’t exactly help with his self esteem and self worth.
If you know someone who picks at their skin, please understand that this isn’t just a bad habit they can easily get over. I have been through therapy, done cognitive behavioural therapy, and gone on medication to help with my anxiety--and still I pick myself so badly I bleed every single day. And please please pretty please don’t ever call it gross or disgusting. Instead, shower them with love; they almost certainly need it.
Anna Priemaza is a contemporary young adult author and a lawyer in Edmonton, Alberta, where she lives with her husband. She can never quite remember how old she is, as she knits like an old lady, practices law like an adult, fangirls over YouTubers like a teen, and dreams like a child. You can find her on Twitter @annab311a, or at annapriemaza.com.
About Anna's new YA novel, FAN THE FAME:
Sometimes before you can build something up, you have to burn it down. Fans of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl and Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie will fall in love with this fiercely crafted YA novel about followers, fame, and fighting for what’s right.
Lainey wouldn’t mind lugging a camera around a video game convention for her mega-famous brother, aka YouTube streamer Codemeister, except for one big problem. He’s funny and charming online, but behind closed doors, Cody is a sexist jerk.
SamTheBrave came to this year’s con with one mission: meeting Codemeister—because getting his idol’s attention could be the big break Sam needs.
ShadowWillow is already a successful streamer. But when her fans start shipping her with Code, Shadow concocts a plan to turn the rumors to her advantage.
The three teens’ paths collide when Lainey records one of Cody’s hateful rants on video and decides to spill the truth to her brother’s fans—even if that means putting Sam and Shadow in the crosshairs.
Told through three relatable voices, this contemporary YA novel from the author of the widely praised Kat and Meg Conquer the World skillfully balances feminism, accountability, and doing the right thing—even when it hurts.