On Dermatillomania

An essay by Laura Stevenson.

When I was asked to write something here, I panicked—I feel like the least qualified person on the planet to say anything interesting about how fucked up the world is right now. It’s so hard to be hopeful. I figured I could maybe do some good if I shared this with you, if it can help one person feel a little less alone, then it will have been worth it. That said, here’s my shit… 

I have a lot of scars. They are localized and private, concentrated on the sexualized parts of my body. The scars have been getting worse and growing in number every year since I hit puberty. Since that time, I have been repeating this pattern, with very short periods of peace in between: I have these flashing thoughts I can’t control and all of a sudden it’s fight or flight; I’m all adrenaline and there’s this nauseous itching in my stomach that radiates out to my limbs, my muscles seize up like I’m bracing for some sort of impact and I know there’s only one way to make all of it go away. I fight it for as long as I can, but eventually I give in, find an empty room, lock the door behind me, and compulsively pick at and dig into my skin. I can do this for hours at a time, and while I’m doing it, I feel absolutely nothing. Not only am I calming down and normalizing my breathing, when it’s happening, I’m somewhere else entirely—the thoughts are gone, and I just disappear.

Sometimes I start to resurface; my voice is faint, trying to peek through to say that I ought to stop, but it quickly gets pushed back down for however long I’m under, until it’s over, until I settle back into real time and the lens zooms out. When I’m fully awake, I can see what I’ve done, and there’s this tidal wave. My skin stings like it’s on fire and I am so overwhelmed with shame, failure, and disgust that it feels like I’m drowning. And every single time I do it, I tell myself that it’s the last time. Then I find myself behind another locked door, and I’ve done it again.

If I could add up all the hours of my life I’ve wasted digging into and picking at my skin with a sewing needle, tweezers, cuticle scissors, etc. I could have probably have gotten my PhD twice over by now, maybe three times. It deepens the shame so much more to know I could’ve been useful, I could’ve done some actual good for people that need it instead of getting sucked into a trance and then grieving about how I’m slowly destroying myself. And on and on and on, that’s the endless loop. Lately I find that I’ve stopped healing like I used to; now I wear this physical proof of the actual amount of time I’ve wasted. There are the oldest scars, scars from my twenties, open cuts, like rings on a tree.

I’ve been talking about struggling with this in my songs since I started writing. Of course, there’s always at least a thin veil of ambiguity, so I’m protected and it’s private and only for me, but every time I write about it, it’s fully in service of stopping. Pretty much everything I DO is in service of stopping; every journal entry from the age of 11 onward began with the words, “That was the last time.” Every New Year’s resolution, then when I fuck that up it’s the first of every month, which becomes every Monday morning. I make flimsy promises over birthday cakes, even every hot shower I tell myself is somehow purifying and I’ll come out new, and of course I sincerely hope that writing this will be the big thing that makes me stop—how could I possibly do it again after I just told this secret to a bunch of faceless strangers on the internet?

But I know I will end up doing it again and that’s going to have to be okay. I pretty much screamed it by name on the new record, but that instant cure I was seeking kept getting postponed; it went from “OK, I’ll stop once the song is finished,” which turned into “I’ll stop once it’s recorded,” followed by “I’ll stop once it’s out and people hear it.” But so far, the first two didn’t do the trick, I’m sure the third will be the same, and I have to face facts that there’s not going to be this miraculous healing moment. It will be slow, and there will be setbacks and that will also have to be OK.

Since I can accept that singing about it and writing about it isn’t going to magically change anything, at least maybe talking today might help someone else that does this particular thing, or something like it, feel a little less isolated. If you do this, maybe somewhere in these words you might see a little bit of yourself, what you do and how it makes you feel. I really hope it helps. Sometimes just that little spark of connection can make it seem less all-consuming; you’re not as alone in this as you thought, you don’t have to feel so embarrassed and ashamed. A huge part of why I kept this a secret for so long is the fucked up stigma about self-harm/mutilation/cutting/whatever you want to call it; I was so afraid that this thing that I had been fighting with for so long would be reduced to an attention-seeking angst-y teenage phase that I should have outgrown, and why can’t I just grow up? Why was I so melodramatic and pathetic? I didn’t even want to research it on the internet and see if there were testimonials from other people that did this because I was afraid that the comments section would be flooded with criticism and, god forbid, the dreaded phrase “just stop.”

Jesus Christ—it’s so easy to tell someone “just stop.” It might seem simple enough to you, but honestly that’s probably the most feared response when I think about telling someone. It feels so dismissive: OF COURSE the only thing someone that does this wants is to not be so enmeshed with this behavior that it completely defines them! I would love to walk past a mirror or see a photo of myself and not wince because I know what’s under my clothes. If someone is saying they do this particular thing, or any other compulsive and self-destructive behavior, they are reaching out for some support, because maybe saying it out loud is the first step toward trying to understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and although well-intentioned, telling someone to “just stop” will most certainly deepen those feelings of shame. It will feel like everything that they see in the mirror is the truth, that’s how the world sees them; they’re weak, undeserving, unworthy, disgusting, and like a disappointment if they do it again. And they probably will do it again.

It wasn’t just fear of judgment that was keeping me from trying to seek answers or open up about what I was doing. At the end of the day, the scariest part was that if I intellectualized it, then this thing would be “real,” it would be diagnosable, an antidote would exist and I would have to stop. Most of me wasn’t ready to stop and maybe there will always be a part of me that doesn’t want to stop, and that might just have to be the way it is and that will have to be OK. What scared me most was that if I didn’t have this thing in my life, I wouldn’t be able to find a way to make myself be all right; I wouldn’t be able to handle how afraid I felt, which led me to realize that when I was doing this, I was comforting myself. The behavior was actually this fucked up, very misdirected, but nonetheless loving gesture.

It’s so hard to step back and analyze something that at times takes over who you are so much that you can’t even tell where you begin and it ends. Despite how much I’ve grown to hate this behavior with every ounce of me, its entire reason for being, the whole purpose of its creation was to keep me safe— it’s therapeutic and repetitive and, above all, it’s private. I discovered the perfect way to disassociate and to keep myself isolated and physically safe. It was just a survival mechanism; my body and my brain needed to figure out a way to protect and to soothe, and when I realized that this was what I was doing, my mind was FUCKING BLOWN. This thing that I had grown to hate so much, this giant unconquerable monster, was birthed from a loving need to be comforted, to escape painful thoughts, and to have agency over my own body. Even though I feel so out of control when it’s happening, and even though it’s an unconscious part of me that’s doing it and I’m at war with myself about it, when I’m alone behind a locked door, ultimately I am the one who is in control of what I am doing to myself and when I do it. And because it’s my very intimate and humiliating secret, in its backwards way, this behavior was probably my closest friend for the majority of my life: It understood everything, it kept me safe from people and from my own mind, it didn’t judge me, it was right there in the shit with me, and even though it knew just how disgusting I could feel and become it would always be there when I needed it. 

This past year, things started coming to a head. After the spring, I was freshly on the other side of a family crisis and completely unable to come back up for air. Usually I slink into depression. I’ve talked about that a lot in interviews and songs I write, it has become something I’ve grown very accustomed to, almost to the point that I can predict how low I’m going to fall when I feel the first signs that I’m starting to slip. But this time it was different and out of control, my muscles were bracing even when I was sleeping. I would bolt awake and hyperventilate. The smallest thing would send me into a blind rage. It was just this constant state of activation and adrenaline and the picking began to escalate to a place that started to scare me, which I didn’t think was even possible. I decided to go to a therapist who specializes in trauma work and OCD-related disorders, and at the second appointment with her, in the middle of me opening up for the first time after twenty-three god damned years of living with this secret, she answered a call on her cellphone (truly) about COUCH CUSHIONS SHE HAD ORDERED (TRULY!). I would have been purely heartbroken if it wasn’t actually hilarious. But the fact that I said, “OK, nope, this person is just terrible at her job, I need to find someone else,” instead of shutting the door and letting that roadblock put a complete stop to the journey of figuring this shit out, I guess means that I’m ready. So, that’s a good sign. Since then, I’ve found a new therapist who rules and is not currently redecorating as far as I know.

I’ve begun sharing this with some of the people that I love (and I guess the rest of them are going to find out about it here, what’s up guys haha) and, so far, all of the anxieties about being told to “just stop” have been laid to rest because I have only been met with warmth and absolute compassion. That has been the most emotionally overwhelming thing for me throughout this whole process, I am so overcome with relief that it doesn’t have to be an awful secret anymore, but at the same time I am so, so angry at myself because maybe this monster wouldn’t have grown so big for so many years, and maybe I could have been able to do so much and live so much more if I wasn’t so afraid and ashamed to tell people who loved me, and to seek help for it. But that will have to be OK, too.

So, as you can see, this is fucking complicated as shit. It might be a foreign notion to be kind and gentle and loving to yourself in order to feel better, instead of harming yourself and disappearing, and that’s a place so many of us are trying to get to. I’ve come as far as analyzing it a little bit, sometimes trying to think about exactly what it is I’m feeling before I have the urge to do it, and checking in with myself a little more every day. I still set all that work aside temporarily when it gets to be too much, but when that happens it’s not a failure because I can get back to working on it when I’m ready. Clearly there’s a lot more work to be done, I’m not fixed, I might never be fully fixed; I’m just trying to get to a place where, in my mind, it doesn’t define me. Maybe that voice that tells me I ought to stop will get louder, and maybe over time I won’t need to be somewhere else. Maybe its grip will loosen, maybe I will learn how to comfort myself in a kinder way. All I know is that if I fuck up, which I probably will, it’s going to have to be OK and I think that’s a step in the right direction.

(Photo Credit: Rachel Brennecke)

Laura Stevenson is a songwriter living in New York. She will release her fifth album, The Big Freeze, on March 29th via Don Giovanni Records.

(Photo Credit: Rachel Brennecke)