It was around April this year when my doctor confirmed what I already suspected. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). You would have never guessed it if you saw my room. It is a mess from hell. My parents often remind me to tidy up, most times they do it themselves just because they can’t stand it. You wouldn’t suspect it from my routines. Some people’s OCD manifest in their need to lock and re-lock doors at night or wash their hands every seventh minute. No, the evidence of my OCD is literally right in front of you when you talk to me. The evidence of my OCD is on my face. On my arms and legs. On my back and chest. On my fingers, my nails. The manifestation of my OCD is dermatillomania, or skin-picking.
I have spoken about my mental illnesses before. Many of you whom I know personally know that I have been talking about my depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (albeit not as in-depth, maybe when I am more ready.) I write about them online and it is cathartic to release something I have been keeping to myself. The support has been overwhelming and I am glad that people are speaking out about it as well. I felt like I was not alone in the struggle. But somehow, this is different.
This is the first time I will come out about my OCD because there was shame. I was ashamed. This is something I have been doing in private and it is really difficult to come to terms with it. I had to Google “why can’t I stop picking at my skin” because I felt like it was too weird that I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I finally brought it up with my psychiatrist, whom I trust. She had officially diagnosed me and had prescribed medicine to help. In writing this, I release the shame and secrecy, in turn they lose their power over me. I am hoping that healing will come, as it is with my other conditions. So today, I hope you can sit with me and listen.
Dermatillomania is the condition of obsessively and compulsively picking at one’s skin, hair, nails, and other parts of the body. It could be hair pulling, scratching, zit-popping, nail biting, among other things. For me it was all that also peeling off my cuticles, picking at ingrown hair anywhere, scratching my skin until it bleeds, plucking hair off my face, my legs, fingers… everywhere. If I see a bump anywhere on my body, I will pick at it mercilessly until it is gone, even if it leaves me with a bleeding wound. I would pick at my face with tweezers, needles, pins, my nails, hairpins, basically anything I can find, just to extract whatever was causing the bumps. I didn’t care that they were dirty. I didn’t care about the trauma I was inflicting on my own skin. I just wanted ALL. THE. BUMPS. GONE.
I would lock myself in my room, grab a mirror and whatever tool I could find. I would run my fingers over the skin, scanning for imperfections. Then I would just go at it. I could go at it for hours and hours without realizing it. I get back pain from being hunched over a mirror for so long. My face, or whatever body part was unlucky enough to be the victim of the session, would be bleeding and swelling at the end of it. It brought me a sense of satisfaction and relief. After that, I would look at it and feel guilty, but at the same time, I would still want to keep doing it. If I saw a bump or a hangnail or an ingrown, I feel like I must ABSOLUTELY get rid of it no matter what.
My skin would never heal. I went to my dermatologist and she gave me medicine and treatments for the scarring, the acne, and the ingrown hairs. She told me to stop touching my face. My mom swats off my hands from my face when she sees me absentmindedly reaching for it, but I just CANNOT stop.
As someone with darker skin, I am more prone to scarring and keloids. Even knowledge of this couldn’t stop me. As soon as the wounds start to scab over, I pick at them again because they are raised and I feel the need to get rid of them. It is a cycle and I just cannot stop, despite repeated attempts to do so.
I began taking pictures of myself when I feel the guilt of the picking, usually after a session. I did this hoping that one day I will be able to look at them as a warning. I did it also because I had a little hope that it will get better and that I will be able to look at the photos in triumph of having overcome it.
This is a photo from April 12 this year.
The next was taken four days after, April 16.
You will see that the condition of my skin is horrible, also that it can easily change from bad to worse when I start picking again.
With makeup and no retouching I looked like this:
Makeup is among my passions. I believe you can wear as much or as little as you want, whatever makes you feel good. At that point however, I felt like I had to put on so much because I wanted to hide. I wanted to hide the evidence of something I had been doing in secret; something that I did, but did not understand why I did. It was a secret and I did not want people to suspect anything. Maybe I really just had bad skin. People can’t judge me for that. But I thought they would judge me if they found out I did this to myself. I felt helpless because even if I knew it was bad for me, I just couldn’t stop.
In April still, I joined the Nyx FACE Awards and had to film my entries. I had to start with a bare face and I had to summon the courage to film my entry and post it on YouTube. The world could to see my bare, scarred face. They will know my secret. That terrified me. I barely made the deadline, uploading close to midnight of April 24th, but I did it anyway because I loved makeup and how it could transform anyone into anything. The Nyx FACE Awards turned out to be one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done and met some really wonderful, talented people because of it. No regrets at all, just gratitude.
Anyway, in July I was in Bacolod for Children’s International Summer Village (CISV). I was there as an adult leader (AL) for the Philippine delegation with 12 other ALs, five staff members from Bacolod, and five Junior Counsellors (JCs) (shout out to you guys! I miss you!) I shared a room with 12 other female leaders and we were basically all together 24/7 for a month. I had no privacy to pick at my skin. I also had no time because all the hours were full of things to do.
Towards the end of the camp, my skin had gotten so much better because I could not pick. I brought makeup with me too, thinking that I would have the time to do my face every day, but soon enough I realized that it was neither realistic nor practical.
So I went out, talked to people, played with kids all month with a bare face. This was the first time in a long time that I had gone almost everyday without makeup and in that environment, I never felt judged for having less than perfect skin. The kids didn’t run away screaming in disgust. The adults didn’t seem to notice either. That was therapeutic for me on both a physical and emotional/mental level. It taught me that people can see past my imperfections and I should be able to do the same.
When I got home, I put a conscious effort to not touch my face or pick at other parts of my body. One thing I realized is that during my time as an adult leader, I always had something to do. I was always occupied, so I tried to keep my hands full when I came home and it has been working. I have been taking medication for the OCD and that has been helping as well. I have thrown out all the tools that I used to pick with.
I try to be more conscious of when the ritual begins, i.e. when I start locking myself in a room and grabbing a mirror, and stop myself right there. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes, I will have picked at my skin to a point of no return before I realize what I’ve done. But I am hopeful that one day I will be able to stop completely.
My doctor says that OCD runs in the same parts of the brain where depression does, so it is not uncommon for a person who has one of those conditions to have the other. She prescribed anti-depressants to address the OCD as well, and so far I feel like I am getting better.
Here is a bare-faced selfie I took while writing this.
This is a raw photo of me with light makeup:
My skin is nowhere near perfect, but I am pretty proud of where I am at in my progress; my journey of healing my body and brain.
I’ve read somewhere that “healing is not linear”. The path of healing is up, down, forwards, back, and all around. To everyone who is trying to recover and manage their conditions, don’t be so hard on yourself. Try not to judge yourself for being where you are right now. Take it one day at a time and celebrate the triumphs, both big and small. You will get there. We will get there.