In the United States, 18.1 percent of adults suffer from an anxiety disorder according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Furthermore, many patients are misdiagnosed or undetected which brings the number somewhere closer to to 30 percent.
I never found myself to be an anxious person. I am typically calm when things go awry. I have been called levelheaded. My childhood traumas do not keep me up at night.
I never would have attributed my physical compulsions to my inner anxieties — matters and worries that I did not even know were lingering on my mind. Only recently did I notice the relationship between myself, my thoughts and my skin.
As it turns out, I have suffered from dermatophagia, a condition in which an individual will pick or bite the skin around their fingers, for the majority of my life. My anxiety and my inner uneasiness was not apparent to anyone, not even myself, but was physically exposed when I picked my skin.
Known as “wolf biters,” the act of biting or chewing the cuticle creates a calming effect, and sometimes, an individual may not even be aware of what they are compulsively doing. Dermatophagia has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder because of the constant desire to repeatedly and ritualistically pick and prod.
Stopping is not an option for those with this condition. Once you start, it’s a downward spiral, and with 3.3 million people in the United States suffering from OCD, physical patterns such as this are more common than we may think.
Therapy for dermatophagia includes wearing artificial nails, talking to a therapist or treatment by prescription of antidepressants. As I age, my condition fluctuates. Some days are worse than others. I have never found a reason to seek treatment; however, I do practice small steps such as moisturizing and painting my nails, anything to refrain from puncturing my skin any further.
For myself, I am not consciously focused on a stressful situation, but am instead sitting quietly at my desk, riding the train or writing this article fiddling with the skin around my nails. And while I want to refrain from the obsession, which is essentially what this has become, I am unable to stop the irreplaceable damage (i.e. scarring, discoloration, pain). The throbbing pain is constant, but hey, it always has been. The germs are unavoidable and infections are always a possibility.
Unattractive to most, unsanitary to all, dermatophagia is an honest depiction of someone’s insides — their concerns, their questions and their distress is publicly but silently displayed through the cracks and grooves on their skin.