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recovery from skin picking one day at a time

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I have a large...plug. It's sticking out of my cheek, in fairly close proximity to my mouth. It's just that. A hard, waxy plug, sticking up from a pore. I reach up to run my hands over my face, and I feel it there. So far, I have not picked or scratched at it, but man have I come close. I even tried "drying off" my face with an extra rub with the towel right there. You know, because it needed to be dry, right?


I realize that I will probably never lose the compulsion to pick at my face as long as there are things on my face to pick. I feel that I have been successful in overcoming the acute urgency, at least in the short term, but the long term presents new challenges. Namely, I cannot let myself become complacent, because the temptation will always be there. So I must always be vigilant about remembering where I've come from, and where I want to go. And here's what I'm telling myself today:

"I used to pick my face. I used to have oozing, painful, infected red scabs that made me embarrassed to leave the house. It made me feel disgusting and out of control, but I used to do it anyway. I would be up at night crying, ashamed and in pain from the wounds I'd inflicted on my own face. I made the choice 25 days ago not to pick at my face anymore, because something in me decided that I did not want to live like that anymore. I decided to accept my face exactly was it was, whether I had acne or not. I decided that every small blemish on my face, real or imagined, did not diminish my worth as a person and was perfectly ok to just be there. And I decided to believe that I could stop picking at my face, because whether I pick or not is a choice. Today, when I look at my face, even though the temptation to pick is still there, I recognize that the benefit of immediate gratification is not worth the long-term harm to my skin and my psyche. I deserve better than a face that has been scratched and clawed at. I deserve to wake up tomorrow morning without a giant scab on my cheek, and to live a life without constant physical and emotional pain."

So I've been reflecting a little bit more on how it is that I've managed to make it more than two weeks at this point (!) without picking, squeezing, scratching, or otherwise disturbing my face's irregularities. And I think if I had to pick just one thing that has been the most critical to my "success" (I have so far overcome picking, but not the urge to pick) it has been making not picking my face virtually the number one priority in my life. I know that sounds a little bit crazy, but hear me out.

I decided, really and truly, that I was absolutely done picking my face. Period, end of story, never again. And I decided that I would do absolutely whatever it took to stop picking my face. I wasn't sure exactly what that meant at the time. (Saying "whatever it takes" is kind of like writing yourself a blank check. You aren't sure what it's going to cost, though you might have some idea, but regardless, you're willing to pay it.)

So here's what it meant, at least for me: it meant giving myself permission to do whatever it was that I wanted, if only it meant that I wasn't going to pick my face. Here's how it went: I reached up, skimmed my face, and suddenly felt it: that little lump, bump, kernel, thing that didn't belong in my skin. I got that rush of anxiety, of oh god, ANOTHER ONE. In the before times, this would have been the precursor to making an immediate beeline for the mirror, and doing whatever I could to dig that thing out.

But this time, of course, I had promised myself that I would do "whatever it takes" not to pick. So in that key moment, how did I decide not to pick? How did I overcome the overwhelming compulsion to get that foreign, disgusting, awful thing out of my face? By reminding myself of my promise, and then by delivering.

"If you choose not to pick," I told myself in that moment, "you can have anything you want."

And then I thought, "Anything?"


So I made the choice. I treated myself to the other random thing that sounded good at that moment: the new nail polish "Taboo" by Chanel. Instead of picking at my face I bought myself Chanel nail polish online. This was fun for me, because I had never, ever bought Chanel nail polish before. Just drugstore stuff. I just like looking at fancy nail polishes on blogs.

And you know what? It worked.

And now, two weeks later, I am now the (proud?) owner of FIVE bottles. Of Chanel. Nail polish.

I know at some point nail polish might get old, but it got me through two weeks. And then there's Chanel eyeshadow palettes, and lipsticks, and mascaras...

So here's the bottom line: I have clear skin. Worth every penny. (And my short, stubby nails look pretty amazing, too.)

I can't believe it's been 18 days since I made the commitment not to pick at my skin. By and large, it's been a smashing success. If by success, I mean that my face is finally clear enough that I don't feel the need to go stare at it every six seconds.

I still...reach up to touch it. I have a big plug sitting in one of the pores on my damn nose. I have a couple of tiny plugs on my chin.

I hate them on the chin. Drives me bananas.

If by success, I mean: I'm twitching with irritation, because I hate hate hate that stupid little plug in my stupid nose pore and those plugs on my chin and I want then GONE, but I haven't tried to "scratch them out," then yes, it has been a success.

Success is hard. But it's not nearly as painful as picking my skin until I have painful, oozing, infected scabs, and I hate myself for making it happen yet again.

Here are my reasons for not picking my skin today.

I choose not to pick my skin:

  • Because my nose and my chin are fine exactly the way they are. My face is fine, scars and all. I am fine.
  • Because even if picking "works" to quell the irritation, the cost is too high. Like drinking sea water.
  • Because if picking doesn't work, the cost is astronomical. A puffy, painful, split-skin-layers-filled-with-blood wound the size of a nickel, if I'm lucky, or a quarter, if I'm not. And a scar to remind me of what I've done.
  • Because I don't have to pick. I can stop, if I want to. I get to decide.

One more thing:

When I feel the urge to pick, I think about everyone else on here who is going through this same thing, and it sincerely gives me strength and courage to know that I'm not alone in tackling this.

Maybe I should call it "worried" or "anxious" or something that makes me sound less like a five-year-old. But that's exactly how I feel right now. Scared, like a little kid, alone in the dark, not sure whether or not there really is a monster hiding behind my bookshelf.

Anyway, right now, I'm standing on the precipice of a major shift in my career that will drastically change my lifestyle for the next several years. And even though I'm happy that I have the opportunity to be doing what I'm doing, I'm also dreading it and scared.

I'm scared, because I won't get to see my husband very much, and he's my whole world.

And I'm scared because the work I'm going to be doing is challenging emotionally and physically.

And I'm scared because I know, at least at first, that this change in my is going to hurt. A lot. I'm afraid of the pain. And what if I go into this situation, and it turns out I'm miserable? How am I going to handle it?

It's moments like these where I find myself reaching up to touch my forehead and my cheeks, running my fingers absent-mindedly over my jawline, and starting to scratch at stray bits of extra dead skin, if any. I touch my face just to "check," because I feel like I have to know if I'm breaking out. So when I force my hands back down, I also remind myself that sometimes it's ok to just let the unknown be unknown. And that whatever happens, I'll handle it. I hope.

First, on the positive side: I've been 99.999% successful in not picking at my face. And I throw the less-than-100% in there because I removed a tiny bit of dead skin from a healing spot. I'm not perfect. But I'm trying my best. And at the end of the day, I guess that's all I can do.

It's hard for me to explain in words how difficult this has been. In some ways, it's actually been easy for the last couple of days. I've been busy with life, and for good reason: I have a major test tomorrow. But studying is just a distraction from the bigger, murkier pot of hate and disgust for my face that dominates my thoughts. Interestingly, I think at this point given the clarity of my skin, my acne is essentially "all in my head." I don't know what other people see when they look at me, but I see a damaged, disgusting person. Not just a damaged face: a damaged entire whole person.

I'm not sure what to do from there. Is it the compulsion to pick that makes me feel like I'm disgusting and horrible? Or do I pick because I feel disgusting and horrible to begin with?

I should be happy right now. My face is probably the clearest it's ever been since I was 12. And yet, all I can focus on are the imperfections: the lingering red marks where picked-at cysts are still healing and peeling. The scarred areas.

My face has been super-duper dry in the last couple of days, so I tried something new this evening: a barely-there smear of petroleum jelly. My skin seemed so much smoother, but I was panicking that it was going to break me out in painful, awful, nightmare cysts. In fact, I wound up hastily washing it off about an hour later and reapplying my BP and my prescription antibiotic.

Cue an irritated face, and more worry.

I think the ultimate worry underlying the panic is this: I'm going to be punished again. I'm trying hard to fix my face, and I've been good about not picking at it, and if history is any indication, all of this will only somehow end in a massive acne breakout.

Is that fatalistic? Or just reality? Is it a thought I should push away, or one that I need to accept? I'm so tired of this ridiculous cycle of developing painful sores on my face, picking at them, spiraling into shame and and then vowing never to do it again, and then sustaining yet another breakout.

But I guess I cannot control whether or not I break out--only how I respond if and when I do.

I woke up with a startle in the middle of the night having a nightmare. And it was simply this: There was a giant, hideous, monstrous scab on my face, and I was picking it off. I can still remember precisely where it was: on my right side, where the picked at spot on my face is presently. The scab was between the size of a nickel and a quarter. It was as discolored and otherwise unpleasant looking as you might imagine, so I'll stop there. But I ripped it off my face, and instantly woke up to realize that I am not safe from the ways my mind drives me to hurt myself, even in my sleep.

This morning, groggy from poor sleep, the first thing I noticed in the mirror is that one of the small scabs where I had previously had a picked at spot was actually gone. In its place was healed skin, and a tiny tiny bit of dried blood. I wasn't sure whether to be glad, or worried: had I actually picked it off on the middle of the night? Or did it fall away spontaneously?

I'm trying not to worry about it. My first step, I am certain, is to stop picking while I am awake. And we'll go from there.

Tonight, when I was applying my 10% BP, I noticed that a small "plug" poking out from my jaw seemed to have grown. It wasn't painful, but it was definitely fairly prominent. I applied some AHA, and sat back and waited, then applied some more. Then I layered some more BP.

Then, I as I was sitting on my counter staring at the mirror on the medicine cabinet, I felt a swell of terror. I realized that this is how it begins: paying attention to one spot, and ignoring the bigger picture. It was like watching my self in the earliest stages of the thought process that leads me to pick. I zero in on a "problem spot" and then...I try to fix it.

I immediately refocused my eyes to the entirety of my face. I added a little bit more BP to my cheeks, and then I put down the tube, turned the light off, and left the bathroom.

And that's the way it's going to happen from now on.

Boy, there are moments. I reach up to touch my face, and I have to swat my hand back down. When I walk into the bathroom, I stop and linger at the mirror for a second too long. But I'm trying not to be too punitive about these things, otherwise I think I'd be going even crazier than I am.

It's not going to be perfect, and it's not going to be easy. But I am committed to recovery. I don't want to live anymore with that horrible, gnawing, awful compulsion.

Honestly, right now, I'm not confident that I can conquer it. Why should this time be any different from previous times I've sworn off picking my skin?

Sigh. Because:

I've given myself permission not to pick. Acne is not disgusting, and I don't need to "Fix it Right Now." It can sit right where it is, and be fine. It's ok not to have a perfectly flawless face. That clogged pore over here? That spot over there? They're ok.

I'll remember why it's a bad idea. I remember how I got that big scar on my cheek: from picking at my face, from my refusal to let my body heal naturally. I can't go back and take away the scar, but I can make a different choice in the future.

I don't want to pick anymore. It's something I do because I feel compelled to, not because it makes me a happy person. And it's time to free myself.

It's day 3, and things are going surprisingly well. One of the picked-at spots is not terribly noticeable. Well, to anyone except for me, of course.

The other spot is still there, but the antibiotic seems to be kicking in. It was oozing when I got out of the shower this morning, but it dried up into a small, brown, hard scab. It doesn't hurt, and there's no redness around it. And so now I must resist not the temptation to squeeze it so as to "get the stuff out of it," but rather the temptation to "get rid of the scab."

Someone close to me had a brilliant idea last night. "What if," she said, "when you reach up to touch your face, you had something else to reach for instead?"

I used to wear earrings when I was a teenager, but they always irritated my earlobes. Oddly, I have never had the same issue with either my bellybutton ring or my nose piercing. I haven't bought a pair of earrings in years. But I think I'll be shopping for a pair tonight. Something tasteful, but unique, and not too expensive. (Other than that, I have no preconceived ideas.)

We'll see how the rest of the day goes.

I probably won't be posting as frequently in the coming days, or at least, I can only hope that I will be able to relax enough to exhale and open my hands and uncoil my fingers. First, an update: I had a successful trip to the student health center and now have a topical antibiotic in my arsenal to get me through the next week with the sore, oozing picked-at spots.

I am convinced the antibiotic will help my face not worsen or at least, it will help me believe that my face isn't worsening. But after a visit to the restroom today, with my usual stop-and-stare-and-scrutinize, I realized that swearing off the scratching and the squeezing is only the first step.

The problem exists as much in my eyes as it does in my fingers. My mind, in some ways, operates like a puritanical mayor hellbent on witch burnings. My fingers are the executioners, but my eyes are the spies, the operatives that cry out, "That spot! Right there! It's a witch!"

Keeping my hands closed might be only the beginning--to truly starve the urge to pick, I think I will have to keep my eyes closed, too.

Morning report:

I made it through my morning skin/makeup regimen without picking the loose, oozing scab away from That Spot on my chin.

But I wanted to. And as I sat there contemplating why, I heard that inner voice say: "But what if it's infected! It'll never heal if it doesn't drain."

"It will heal," I promised myself. But something about that felt unconvincing. It's red, it's oozy, it was bleeding a little bit, and so far over the morning it hasn't gotten immediately hard and dry like my scabs typically do when they are on their way to healing.

But I won't pick at it. Instead, I'm going to go to the student health center on campus to see if I can get some antibiotics for it.

It is not weak for me to go and seek antibiotic treatment rather than trying to "fix it myself." It is the responsible thing to do. It's a cliche but a good one: I don't have control over whether or not I have that spot on my face, but I have control over how I respond to it.

Hi, everyone.

Today I am making a commitment, to myself, to all of you, and to the rest of the cosmos, that I am going to stop picking my skin. It's something I've struggled with for years. My skin is essentially clear, except for a few clogged pores, and even these are enough to trigger hours of scrutiny and self-harm.

Tonight, I have two open sores on my chin, my most sensitive and triggering area. I was touching my face as late as this afternoon. But I made it through my shower and my skin care regimen without scratching or picking. I want to go touch my face right now, but I won't.

Instead, I'm going to work on rebutting the unconscious (and to some extent conscious) rationales that drive me to pick at my skin. Today, and hopefully in the next few days as I begin this journey, I will address each of these beliefs.

These beliefs are, in no particular order:

  • Clear skin is beautiful, acne is disgusting
  • Acne is a punishment for not doing everything right
  • It’s not fair that I get acne, because I try so hard
  • If I leave it alone, it’s never going to get better
  • If I succeed in picking at it, then it’s better immediately
  • I deserve to be ashamed of the picked wounds I cause
  • I am destined to pick at my skin

    And my rebuttals, at least for tonight.
    • Clear skin is beautiful, acne is disgusting
      • Clear skin is nice, but acne is not the end of the world. My acne is not disgusting, and it is not shameful. It just is what it is.
      • Acne is a punishment for not something I should not have done
        • The causes of acne are complex. Even if I ate a scone, or leaned on my chin, or didn't properly apply enough benzoyl peroxide, and could somehow prove that this was the direct cause of a breakout rather than merely speculating, this does not mean that I deserve to have acne.
        • It’s not fair that I get acne, because I try so hard
          • I do try hard, and in that respect it isn't fair, but it is still my responsibility to treat my acne properly.
          • If I leave it alone, it’s never going to get better

            • It will get better, and I have to trust that. My body is a terrific healer, but I have to be patient.

            [*]If I succeed in picking at it, then it’s better immediately

            [*]This is a dangerous game. Sometimes, it's better immediately, but the act of picking has irritated the surrounding skin, potentially leading to future breakouts. The cost is never worth the benefit.

            [*]I deserve to be ashamed of the picked wounds I cause

            [*]There is no dishonor in being human. And right now, this minute, is the chance to make a fresh start.

            [*]I am destined to pick at my skin

            [*]No, I am not. I can make the choice to let my skin heal, and to accept its imperfections.

            I will write it again, for my own sake:

            The cost is never worth the benefit.

            The cost is never worth the benefit.

            The cost is never worth the benefit.