There’s a hard nub of skin on the left side of my neck, just a little below my jawline, that won’t go away. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The more precise thing to say is that I won’t let it go away.
There used to be a pimple or an ingrown hair in that spot, but it’s been home to a tiny, dense concentration of dead skin cells for so long since that I can’t remember what it used to be. Now, it’s just the latest in a series of monuments to my most embarrassing habit. I pick at myself.
The nub, wherever it may be, goes through a consistent life cycle. It starts with my body doing whatever it is that bodies do when they go about trying to heal a wound or whatever—shout out to my white blood cells, I think—and ends when a little bit of hard, white skin begins to form at the tip of the nub. That’s when it begins to call to me. Ohhh lord, does it call to me. I touch it and think, “Heh! What! That’s a weird thing to have on my neck.” The nub is extremely small, but when it’s between my fingers it feels, I don’t know, expansive. It feels like a desert moon, rich with contours and craters and perhaps even home to a microscopic alien race, has been shrunken and placed on my neck. What I’m trying to say is, I kind of get why Gollum was always fiddling with that dang ring.
And then I pick at it. While watching TV, I pick at it. While staring off into space at work, I pick at it. While in the middle of a conversation with one of my friends, I pick at it. I pick pick pick pick away, until the skin starts to stretch away from my neck—which of course just makes it all the more pickable—and then I rip that fucker off. I’m left with a small and aching wound on my neck, a surprisingly deep sense of shame, and a hollow vow that I certainly won’t be doing that again. That’s when the cycle starts over.
I’ve been doing shit like this my whole life. Before the neck nub, it was a piece of dry skin that would form at the tip of my top lip. I used to pick at it with my pinky nail as a child—yes, I looked as dumb as you are imagining—until it came off and I bled. For a time in seventh grade I was all up in my own eyelashes. I read a lot of books with one eye that year, because the other one would be clamped shut so that I could run my thumb and forefinger up and down the length of the lashes, silently marveling at all the various contours I was convinced I could feel. More recently, I’ve been savaging my own nose, picking away at little spots of dry skin until I get deep enough to find blood.
A quick Google search tells me I suffer from something called Skin Picking Disorder. Yep, that sounds about right! There is apparently a whole big institution, called the Trichotillomania Learning Center, dedicated to keeping dipshits like me from committing small-scale self-mutilation. This is what they have to tell me about my problem:
The cause of this disorder remains a mystery. However, research shows that some animals also pick or chew at their bodies, causing great damage. Because of this similarity, and the fact that in some women skin picking can fluctuate with the menstrual cycle, many believe that skin picking has an underlying genetic or biological cause.
Skin picking may also serve as an emotional outlet for some people. Repetitive skin picking appears to be a way for some people to increase their activity levels when they are bored, or to control their emotions when they are feeling anxious, tense, or upset. The fact that some individuals can actually regulate their emotions by picking their skin may be why they develop this problem in the first place. Skin picking may cause a person to “numb” or “zone out” as a way of dealing with feelings that seem overwhelming. However, this has not been scientifically proven.
I’m not sure if anything could make me feel less young and interesting than being told that not only do I have a problem dealing with my feelings, but that the way I go about numbing myself to these feelings is picking at my face. While all the cool people are self-medicating over their existential angst with booze, cigarettes, and drugs, I’m standing over there in the corner, ripping away small pieces of myself like some kind of maladjusted forest rodent.
This isn’t good! I don’t want to be the guy who goes through life with ugly red craters all over his nose, or the guy who’s liable to rip a hunk of skin from his neck in the middle of a nice dinner. Or, you know, the guy who is just a huge goober in general. The Trichotillomania Learning Center suggest that I wear “gloves, Band-Aids or rubber fingertips” to prevent myself from picking, which, hahahahahahahaaha, noooooo. The idea here is to become less of a buster, Trichotillomania Learning Center.
Still, I’ve decided that this is the year when I finally put a stop to all this foolishness. I was generally fine with being The Guy Who Picks in high school and college, because who isn’t alarmingly strange in some way in high school and college? But I’m a adult now, dammit, and I recently spent a lovely evening with friends with my finger screwed to my neck, rubbing and picking and rubbing and picking. I must have looked like a nut, and my friends probably should have sent me home.
How am I going to do this? I’ll fuck myself before investing in ten rubber fingertips, so it looks like I’m going the path of willpower and preparation. I’ll keep my nails clipped short to minimize damage when I do slip up, and I’ll dedicate a good chunk of mental energy toward forcing myself to keep my hands still during idle moments. I’m motivated by past successes; I trained myself to stop picking at my lip and eyelashes a long time ago, and even when I try to now, whatever thrill I used to get from those spots is gone.
What scares me isn’t the fear that I won’t be able to stop picking, but the uncertainty that lies beyond my goal. I always thought the picking was just a harmless tic, but the possibility that it really is a way for me to numb myself to anxieties I don’t want to deal with has me kind of fucked up. What if the neck nub and the scratches across my nose really are the only things holding back an emotional breakdown caused by the overwhelming weight of my unexamined feelings? What if I become an irritable turd, like those poor saps who have to deal with nicotine withdrawals? Worse yet, what if I have to find another way to channel my neurosis, and I turn into a beard-stroker? Progress never comes without a price, I suppose.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.