I grew up in an unpredictable and turbulent alcoholic home, where anger, violence and fear were common denominators to everyday life. Initially my wealthy father funded an affluent lifestyle and we lived in a large house and I was shipped off to boarding school for my formative years. When my mother got sober and began attending AA in 1985, the problems between my parents worsened and they split up.
My mum and I were evicted by my dad and were made homeless, losing all our possessions after a long and complicated court case. For many months we lived with friends before being re-housed. This combination of frightening experiences was a likely factor in the development of Compulsive Skin Picking (CSP), the anxiety disorder which was to dominate my body, thoughts and behavior for the best part of the next two decades.
People with CSP find comfort, pleasure or emotional release from endlessly picking at their skin but this can often lead to bleeding, scarring and physical deformities, as well as emotional and mental issues. Skin picking was, for me, a way to release tension but it became a vicious cycle that totally dominated my life. It also developed into something I did subconsciously so there were hours and hours of a day where I would be picking my skin. Some nights I would pick until the early hours of the morning, I would even pick in my sleep.
Many times it would be in the bathroom because this was a private space. No one knew about it. I masked and covered the illness from those closest to me, wearing clothes that concealed the parts of my body covered in scabs and scars, and even using make-up on my body to mask it. I experienced intense anxiety, followed by guilt and shame about something I was doing that caused harm to my own body yet felt no control or ability to stop. I really did suffer in silence for a very long time. I got to a point where I didn’t want this illness controlling me anymore. There were just perpetual cycles of shame, embarrassment and anxiety and I had no choice really to try and help myself because it was destroying me.
The body has always been my fascination, and during a Masters in Dance, I found I had to confront the illness head-on. Very slowly I began to turn my illness into something else. Though dance I found I was able to express things I didn’t have language for and channelled the illness into something positive. I began making artwork about my skin through photography. Physicality underpinned my creative practice; I began to use the skin as a soft canvas and terrain for imaginative transformation and healing. I explore body-focused repetitive behavior in my art practice and I’ve found a way to recover. I work with textural materials like latex, clay, acrylic paint to transform the skin.
I now understand Anxiety is cited as one of the most common mental illnesses but some anxiety disorders such as Compulsive Skin Picking and Trichotillomania are seldom recognized and treatment in the UK is very hard to access. They are much more common than initially thought and I know from first-hand experience the complexity and distressing impact it can have on life. Most people with CSP suffer in secret and feel totally isolated. I now aim to normalize Compulsive Skin Picking; I’m bravely speaking about my experience in an attempt to de-stigmatize and help others with this devastating condition who may feel they have nowhere to turn. Skin picking dominated my life but there are ways to recover. CBT and medication can be prescribed through your GP. I developed an understanding of the body and use my artistic practice to keep well, and I now have some degree of control over my condition. The marks and scars will always be with me, but many are fading and I now see them as being an important part of the tapestry of my lived experience, as well as inspiration for art.
Liz has recently been featured on BBC World Service’s ‘Outlook’ program. Partly recorded in her studio, she is interviewed about Compulsive Skin Picking, recovery, how and why she makes her artwork. Find the interview at 35.14! http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02490xd
Liz Atkin is a visual artist based in London. Compulsive Skin Picking dominated her life for more than 20 years, but through a background in dance and theatre, she confronted the condition to harness a creative recovery. She creates intimate artworks, photographs and performances and her work has been exhibited and performed in the UK, Australia, USA and Japan. She aspires to de-stigmatise Compulsive Skin Picking, raise awareness and advocate recovery through public talks, commissions, residencies and exhibitions. Her story and artwork has been profiled by BBC World Service Outlook, BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, and BBC Arabic TV’s Afaq. Solo commissions include Curdled for the Anxiety Festival 2014 in London and My Singular Fascination, solo exhibition at The Bethlem Gallery, for Bethlem Royal Hospital, coinciding with OCD Action Awareness Week in 2013 in the UK. She was selected for City Arts Nottingham Recovery exhibition 2013/14 at the Institute of Mental Health. Her work was exhibited at the Skin Gallery for the Skin and Cancer Foundation in Melbourne, Australia, and most recently is an international contributor to the PAIN postcard show at LRG Gallery at the David Geffen School of Medicine, Los Angeles USA, 2014. International residencies include Fellowship Artist at the Akiyoshidai International Art Village in Yamaguchi Japan 2011 and Artist in Residence on ART2102 Genesis Project at Sea and Space Explorations, Los Angeles in 2008. http://www.lizatkin.com/
Thank you for sharing your story!
“Compulsive Skin Picking” — This is a thing. THIS IS A THING. Oh, my Lord, I thought I was the only one! I’ve tried to explain it to various health care professionals as an obsessive compulsion for “smoothness”, but none ever seemed to take me very seriously. But what ISN’T serious about tearing at your flesh until it bleeds, or biting all of the ridges off of your own tongue, or ripping the skin and nails off the tips of your hands and feet? Thanks for writing this, Liz. You’re absolutely right — this disorder needs to be recognized for what it is.