As I type this I am keenly aware of my thumbs, yes my thumbs. I have been since yesterday evening at around 6:30pm when I began methodically peeling the skin off the left one, first on the side right next to the fingernail but then moving down towards the knuckle and over onto the soft underside. I continued this incessant picking during most of the Bible study which I attend on a Wednesday evening stopping only briefly to clasp a cup of tea enjoying the dull throb of the warm porcelain against my raw skin. I concealed my hands beneath a convenient poncho which I bought a few weeks ago fancying it as ideal for wrapping up on cold, working at the laptop days. Turns out it is also well-placed to conceal illicit finger-picking as well as the fact that at the moment my body resembles that of an anaconda having just swallowed a large goat. As a final aside, the poncho has proved an excellent investment as it is the only way for a woman of my endowment to get away with not wearing a bra which the older and more incurably single I become the less inclined I feel to bother with. So yes, ponchos, a highly recommended choice for the bulgy and bra-reluctant amongst us – digression over.
By the end of the evening I had started on the right thumb as my left was bleeding. Arriving home I took a shower which involved a lot of whimpering and attempts to bring only my right hand into contact with the hot water and strong, anti-bacterial soap which I insist on using. Then I doused my hands in tissue oil and applied plasters. This morning as I sat at my little desk at the university, re-applying plasters (four in total) to my battered fingers I thought – I should write a blog post about this.
It’s no secret to my friends (and probably lots of random people) that I struggle with this rather strange compulsion. About a year ago I actually typed “why do I keep picking my fingers” into Google and found a whole lot of articles about compulsive skin picking which does have some fancy name which I’m feeling too lazy to go and look up right now. I also found a blog post by a woman who described my experience exactly. As I read her account of being completely oblivious to what she’d done to her hands until crying out in pain when washing them I said, “yes, that’s me”.
There was lots more that I related to; the embarrassment of realising that on the way to your meeting you’ve picked so badly that you’re bleeding and now you have to greet someone without shaking their hands with the bloody mess that are your fingers, even more embarrassment as you realise you’ve left a pile of your skin on your friends couch, the temptation to invent a kitchen accident when someone spots your plastered fingers and exclaims; “Oh, what happened there?” and the benefit of painted nails for reducing picking. I was quite pleased to know that I was not alone.
One thing I’ve noticed about my skin picking is that no amount of shaming, judgement, begging, bribing or chiding from others makes any difference. What was extremely helpful though was a solution suggested to me by my cousin. After she spotted the carnage of my hands a few months ago she fished around in her bag and handed me one of those hair bands that look like a ring of plastic telephone wire. This has acted as a great substitute for picking (I’m actually holding it right now in my plastered fingers). I’ve begun carrying a few of these around in my bag and wearing them on my wrist. It probably looks a bit odd when I spend a meeting twisting this plastic bracelet around my fingers (I actually broke one accidently during a meeting with my PhD supervisor – literally snapped it in two) but anything is better than leaving skin on the carpet and bleeding all over ones cream trousers.
Even with the aid of my “stress bracelets” as I call them, the lure of picking my skin is ever present and sometimes, like yesterday when I’d left my bracelet next to the keyboard at university, irresistible. Of course it’s actually not about skin picking, it’s about anxiety. The release is hard to describe. Its like picking at my fingers clears my head and helps me to focus when I’m working or speaking to people in a professional capacity. It is also indescribably comforting particularly in social situations where I can sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed. It’s not always about being “nervous” although sometimes it can be, like when I’m giving a presentation or sitting in a seminar dreading being called upon to add an opinion. But more often it’s a comfort for the odd, underlying, constant anxiety that comes with having anxiety I guess. I don’t feel that I know nearly enough about anxiety disorders to say anything terribly knowledgeable about this and I definitely feel far more comfortable writing about blindness than I do writing about mental health issues both generally and my own so I’ll leave it there.