Amazingly, I have gone through life undiagnosed with any mental illness, but if one were to know me, they’d know that this doesn’t necessarily mean much at all. As a young teen, I struggled with food issues that turned into anorexia and bulimia that lasted until my 20s. I was also a cutter and had difficulty dealing with my moods and emotions. It wasn’t so much a secret, but I didn’t talk about it too openly either; I was still trying to get away with it.
As I grew and matured and started to think about having a family, I knew I didn’t want to continue those behaviors. However, without a suitable outlet or caring professionals to talk to, I found myself increasingly picking at my face. We’ve all done it, a few pimples or blackheads here and there. In a few years, my face went from mostly clear as a teen to a shredded, angry and infected mess. I don’t know when the turning point was, since I always liked to pick at my face, but somehow being able to stop myself has become almost impossible. It goes something like this: I see either one or two ‘pimples’ (possibly because my sensitive skin reacts to almost everything), I tell myself I’ll just pop those, but then I see a few small bumps and move on to those, and then before I know it I’ve tried to get every little tiny bump I didn’t even notice before. While I’m doing this, I realize I’m destroying my face and may even tell myself right in the middle of doing it “Don’t do it. Stop. It’s going to be horrible once you step away from the mirror. Don’t pop that one, ok, don’t pop that next one…” but at the very same time, another part of my brain is telling me, without words, how much I hate the bumps and imperfections. When I wash my face and feel bumpy skin, when I look in the mirror and see sallow, red or pocked skin, all I think is how clear and smooth I want it to be. So illogically, I think if I can just smooth out these few, I will have clear skin. It will work this time! It never works. I get out of control and end up feeling broken and defeated, instead of triumphant.
Most of them get re-infected and when I pop two, three, four times, it leaves a big hole and scar. A bump that was so unnoticeable before becomes massively infected. Some are so deep I scrape skin off trying to get whatever I think is beneath the surface out. Even that doesn’t stop me from continuing in the same spot. I must get it. The small ones don’t just leave a dot of the same size; the whole area gets red and inflamed. It spreads bacteria and compromises my skin integrity. Usually as they heal, they end up as small bumps that either are- or I believe to be – whiteheads and I pop them again. It doesn’t ever stop. They never go away. I will find something. I have almost promised myself that these pores will forever stay open and become full with something that needs to be expelled. It’s a vicious cycle, I know it but I can’t stop.
I know this is a disorder called dermatilomania, closely related to OCD and body dysmorphic disorder. I know people who have it as well. I’ve tried many tricks to beat it, yet it doesn’t change much. I have my own culture around popping, my own world and terminology: ‘exit wound’, ‘slug’, ‘repop’, ‘performing surgery’, ‘pothole’, ‘crater’. I plan my life around it. My life, around it. I have to be near my products at all times, constantly putting something on my skin. I’ve cancelled plans because I looked too awful. I’ve gone at my face worse before an event thinking it will look better, or maybe knowing it won’t. I scratch at it without thinking or even looking at what I’m doing. Sometimes I just want to sleep; maybe that’s the only time I can heal without my own interference.
I’ve thought very frequently about what all this means. Sometimes I think it’s as simple as my skin reacting to some ingredient and when I feel that painful pressure under my skin of course I want to remove it. But I know it’s more than that. I know that I often go at my face the worst when it’s getting clear. I almost think I want to ruin it. I want to make myself hideous and hide from everyone, or at least attempt to. When I am forced to go out with my skin looking its worst I feel ashamed. Do I want to punish myself? Do I want to hurt? Do I even want to look pretty? Is this all a replacement? Maybe I want the outside to match the ugly inside; a throwback to ideas of cutting culture. And yet, it’s cathartic. In some deep corner of my mind, it feels good. I know that sick secret is true. Maybe I want to purge myself of all the poison inside, as I’ve done many thousands of times before in another way; the twisted feeling of satisfaction at successfully completing still the same. Maybe I don’t feel I deserve more, maybe I like self sabotage, self destruction. Maybe I want that misery that comes with having a face so ugly you don’t want to see the world anymore, and them to see you. All the same feelings I had practically my whole life.
Every time I cry and swear I’ll never do it again- I’ll never touch my face or pop any bump, EVER! I don’t want to be amazing; I just want clear normal skin! That can last all of three seconds. I want to believe I have control over my hands but I’m not so sure. As frightening as some of these thoughts are, I can skate through life just looking like I have uncontrollable acne. As unpleasant as that is, what would a label of mental illness do? What would I be ‘diagnosed’ with, and would I now have to define my life by this new label and all it implies? I’ve become so familiar with my mindset, my habits, and my thoughts. I am considering taking the steps for treatment, but it’s disheartening when we find it easier to retreat because the stigma may be worse than the demons we live with and even embrace.
Cordula lives in Far Rockaway with her husband, two daughters and cats. She is a sociology graduate and is a fierce fighter against racism and inequality. Strong principled and ever-negative, she has no accomplishments to brag about. While she battles many demons and it’s incredibly difficult, she walks around looking just like this, because fuck what people think.