Skin Picking Madness: An Essay for Those with *Complicated* Mother-Daughter Relationships.
I wrote this post weeks ago. Every time I think about publishsing it, I freak out a little because no one knows this, not even my bestest friends and that makes my heart beat a little faster just typing it. I have gone back and forth over whether this qualifies as an "overshare". I'm still not sure. I do know that it's honest and I'm proud of that, if nothing else.
But hey... when you are your authentic self you give others the unspoken permission to be their authentic selves... and really, truly, that is why I write.
I made fun of my mother's Tourettes when I was a child. I didn't even know she had Tourettes until my father told me when I was 17. We were on our way back from my court hearing. I got into trouble for under-aged drinking and I failed to comply with the requirements of my probation which landed me in front of a judge. I don't remember the details of the whole matter because at the time, I was using cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol to forget it. Seventeen years later, and now that I am a writer, I find myself mining my memory for these purposely forgotten things trying to untangle and label the mess. I work hard to identify and put words to the pain, love, regret and destiny in my life; a mingling of therapy and craft I suppose. Even now, clear-headed and with the benefit of a little wisdom on my side, I'm surprised at what I find. Just when I think I've untangled and labeled something correctly in my mind, I go to write it down, and it comes out differently again.
What I remember is feeling annoyed and embarrassed in front of my friends by her repetitive tics and nonsensical sentences. "What is wrong with you? Will you just stop saying that?!" I yelled more than once. I couldn't understand why she wouldn't just shut up? What I couldn't understand is that she couldn't shut up. My mother said a lot of things repetitively, but one of those things was not an explanation, and when all you know is one thing from the day you were born, you forget that it could be anything different. I thought my mother's tics and tendencies were habits, idiosyncrasies, something normal and ordinary and nothing more. Whether it be shame, embarrassment, her private nature or stoicism, she never shared with me why she swiped the hair from her eyes 30 times in a row while saying something like, "Why did I do that?"
I never knew either until that day in the car with my Dad. I suspect he told me the true nature of her condition to guilt me. It worked. When I was 17 my relationship with my parents was tumultuous at its best. We argued about everything and talked about nothing.
I realize that "never" is a strong and loaded word so I tend to use it judiciously. My mother never displayed overt affections, at least at a time in my life that has a memory. Her affections came disguised in the form of a coveted sweater or simply not putting up a fight when I asked to stay at a friend's house. In the absence of outward affections, and in my confusion of deciphering her coded ones, I felt emotionally abandoned. When I was 17, I was in a place of resentment and blame and even though I wanted nothing to do with them, I still needed my parents for everything. That made me angry person. I began doing all the destructive things hurt people do which is all things 17-year-old girls should never do.
Before I did those things, when I was 11, I tore off the ends off my hair. I thought I hated split ends. When I was 15 I chewed my fingernails backwards from the cuticle to the tip. This took a considerable amount of effort and resulted in a fair amount of pain. I thought I had a problematic nail-biting habit. After that, I gained access to the less disfiguring, and extremely effective coping mechanisms of the aforementioned cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. Later, I would find that these things had a shelf-life. Once their expiration dates were reached, they stopped effectively anesthesizing the anxiety, and created a whole host of other problems as well. Even so, I used those things beyond their usefulness and didn't stop until I settled down into a loving relationship and stable career. Then I began tearing the skin from the soles of my feet.
I used to think I was cutting back the rough patches on my heels, you know, like a home pedicure. But soon, I was picking off all the patches and not just the rough ones. Even though the bottoms of my feet looked like raw hamburger, I couldn't resist the temptation to do it again and again. It was then that I realized it was more than an irritation with cracked heels. I was about 24 when it started which means I've been doing it for 10 years.
This week I learned a name for it. It's called Dermatillomania. All though it was unfamiliar, I recognized the word immediately like a glimpse of my reflection when I wasn't expecting it. Oh yeah that's me! I was overcome with the urge to know more about me. Derma= skin, Till(ean)= to pick or pull off, Mania= madness.
The day after a brutal podiatal mutilation it feels like I am walking on hot coals. Like fire-walkers everywhere I step into the pain, knowing better. Each tender outer step is a reminder of my inner shame, of which, I am the only left to blame. For reasons I have yet to work out, I believe I deserve this pain. It is my punishment for a lack of self-control, a list of imperfections and past indiscretions-- such as those against my mother and myself-- a self-flaggalation. I know it's silly and stupid and irrational, but as I learned, all disorders are.
I also learned something else about Dermatillomania. Recently, researchers linked a gene mutation associated with Trichotillomania (obsessive hair-pulling which is in the same family as Dermatillomania) to the same gene associated with Tourette's Syndrome. In fact, Dermatillomania used to be considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but from recent findings is now classified in the DSM-IV as an impulse control disorder... just like Tourette's Syndrome. Although not conclusive, it would appear that my skin-picking madness is genetic.
Honestly, having Dermatillomania hasn't affected my life in dramatic ways (unlike the self-flagellation methods of yore). It's not something that I'm proud of, and besides my husband, I have never told another soul about my soles. But it's not something I'm necessarily ashamed of either--at least publically. It's been easy enough to hide my feet, and I've never been ridiculed because of it, unlike the way my mother was--say, by her own daughter. Luckily, I haven't lived with public humiliation or the exposed evidence of my self-inflicted disfigurement, and I am left only to imagine what kind of debilitating, emotional pain that might cause in a person.
I think it might make you emotionally guarded, perhaps also ashamed, embarrassed, private-natured and maybe, even stoic.
You see, as a writer I mine my purposefully forgotten memories and try to assign labels to them. I often think I've found pain, but it nearly always turns out to be love... and destiny, always destiny.
*In case you were wondering, I asked my mother if it was okay to post this on my blog. Her first reaction wasn't good. I was disappointed not because I couldnt' publish it, but because I thought I failed as a writer to convey the sentiment appropriately. I don't know what changed her mind, but she allowed it. Thanks Mom and Happy Mother's Day.
More thoughtful posts on mothering, wifing, womaning, writing and life at www.shannonlell.com
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