(Trigger warning – and cut – for graphic descriptions of self-mutilation.)
It was all kinds of skin, in all kinds of places. Cuticles, the pads of my fingers, my feet, my head, anywhere there were scabs or bites or any imperfection in the skin. I learned very early in my life that I enjoyed the taste of my own blood. I enjoyed the iron and the slightly spicy tang, the way old, dried blood crunches between the teeth.
Did you know that the skin on the bottoms of your feet has a rubbery texture when chewed? It’s a little like slightly dry squid, or maybe more like beef jerky. It’s pleasant. Everything about the process of Dermatophagia is pleasant. The taste is pleasant, the pain is pleasant, the feeling of stress drifting away is deeply pleasant. The scars are less pleasant, as is the inability to explain to your classmates and teachers why you’re digging holes in your legs with paper clips.
This is disgusting, isn’t it? That’s the thing about these two deeply interconnected disorders: they are irredeemably disgusting. There is nothing attractive about them. They can’t be twisted around to be fun and amusing and quirky like popular culture has done with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – and what it’s done is its own kind of disgusting, but let’s leave that alone for now. Dermatillomania and Dermatophagia cannot be made palatable – if you’ll excuse a very bad pun – to the people who don’t live with them. You can’t make an inspirational movie about an artist who carves pits into her arms and devours the scabs. You can’t have a fun show about a detective who has no skin left around his fingernails. You can’t have a manic pixie dreamgirl who makes a snack out of her own dried blood.
I want to be clear about something: these disorders are not what we think of when we think of “self-injuring”. They are not about depression or anger, at least not in the same way, though it’s not uncommon for people doing this stuff to also be depressed and/or angry. The act of picking and consuming one’s own flesh can have a profoundly stress-relieving component, but unlike the compulsions associated with OCD, most of us with Dermatophagia and Dermatillomania find our symptoms pleasurable while they’re occurring. The shame, confusion, and self-disgust are less pleasurable, but when you’re actually in the middle of it, you’re thinking about nothing but how much you enjoy it, and the shame and pain that you know will follow aren’t enough to keep you from wanting to do it. I’m familiar with the difference between these categories of compulsion, because I also had intense OCD-related compulsions as a child (they’re much better now, though they stick around in various forms) and there was nothing fun about them. Every aspect of them was unremittingly awful and all I wanted was to be able, finally, to stop.
Writing about this hurts. It opens up a lot of old wounds. As a child I was tortured for it – I tortured myself for fun and then other kids did the same thing to me for the same reason. I hear about kids who were picked on for being fat or smart or gay, and it feels like some kind of petty version of the Oppression Olympics but you have no idea how much I wish those had been my primary problems, because I think I could have gotten over the shame of those things so much more easily. Again: you can’t redeem this, you can’t make it inspiring. It’s just sad and gross and ugly. And now, years later, I have scars all over my body and I still have symptoms and I’m still not sure how to admit to people that this is a facet of my daily experience of existence.
Giving it a name helped. In folklore it’s a common idea that giving a demon a name gives you a degree of power over it, and when a disorder has a name, it means two things: it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone. But when it’s something like this, there’s only so much that naming the demon can do. The average person who sees you displaying visible symptoms, or the evidence of them, probably won’t respond well to the explanation that you have a brain disorder. You’re that freak with ugly hands who picks at themselves all the time. And if you’re like me and you can hide the symptoms well enough that they aren’t usually very visible, you’ll still never stop being that kid who couldn’t hide what they were doing any more than someone at the worst level of drug addiction can hide the fact that they’re using.*
Why am I writing about this now? I’ve been trying to for a while, and have made some sporadic, moderately successful attempts. Some of it is the hope that I might educate people, some of it is a desire to let anyone dealing with this know that they aren’t alone, but a lot of it is that writing is where I Deal With My Shit. It’s a safe space. Or it should be.
But the fact is, I haven’t dealt with My Shit the way I want to. I haven’t been able to bring it into my fiction, and I think that needs to happen. Something always stops me at the last moment, though I haven’t worked out exactly what – it’s not conscious, whatever it is. It’s not fear or resistance that I’m directly aware of. Regardless, I really do believe what Anne Lamott says about bringing your own ugliness and pain into your writing:
Maybe you feel that Wordsworth was right, maybe Rumi, maybe Stephen Mitchell writing on Job: “The physical body is acknowledged as dust, the personal drama as delusion. It is as if the world we perceive through our senses, that whole gorgeous and terrible pageant, were the breath-thin surface of a bubble, and everything else, inside and outside, is pure radiance. Both suffering and joy come then like a brief reflection, and death like a pin.”
But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.
I think so many of us write because we’re angry and damaged and grieving, because everyone is, and because we all have this crazy idea that somewhere at some point in the past we were home and then that home was taken away from us, and we’re trying to get back there, except we’re also trying to describe it to ourselves so we know it when we see it, and on some level we know that the only way through that is deeply and profoundly painful, like being born. It takes immense courage, courage that a lot of us just straight up don’t have, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that.
But I’m trying to get to my anger and my damage and my grief and make something beautiful out of it, or at least something powerful. I’m trying to take that disgusting, irredeemable thing in my past and my present and most likely my future and redeem it, at least a little. I’m angry at the kids who picked me out as a living symbol of everything they hated and feared and didn’t want be, and I’m angry at the adults who did nothing to stop them. I’m hurt by that, more deeply than I can say, and I carry the scars of that hurt on my body, in the skin I tore open over and over again. I hurt for the other kids who grew up doing what I did and didn’t understand or know how to stop, and were therefore utterly alone in what they were going through. And I’m grieving for the child I was, who suffered in a way that is senselessly and incomprehensibly ugly. Not even ugly in an impressive, TV movie kind of way. Just small and gross. Insignificant. Something to be mocked and forgotten.
Believe me: it was very significant, and I don’t have the luxury of forgetting it.
I need to write about the things that seem irredeemable. I need to stop running away and find a way to make some kind of art out of all the things of which I’m so profoundly ashamed, even art of the most mutilated kind. So here’s a resolution for 2014: I’m going to write my damage. I’m going to find a way. And it’s going to hurt, and I don’t think it’s going to get me home, but I do think it might at least result in some decent stories.
Sometimes that’s about the best you can hope for.
* Lest you think this is an unfair comparison, it’s been speculated that Dermatillomania and Dermatophagia have more in common with substance abuse disorders than OCD, given the coupled aspects of compulsion and pleasure and they way they overwhelm all the excellent reasons to not pick anymore. It’s probably not an accident that people who are long-time users of cocaine and crystal meth frequently display very similar picking behaviors, as well as the persistent feeling that there’s something wrong with/crawling under their skin. Which I often have.