MY face is feeling less than smooth these days. The haze is congesting my skin, leaving tiny blemishes on my cheeks. I run my fingertips across them, feel a little bothered, then block out the thoughts and carry on with whatever I am doing. It may all seem inconsequential, but there is a story bigger here.
It all started on one uneventful day when I was 13 years old. My elder sister asked me to sit in front of her. She gave my nose a little pinch between her thumbs, and showed me what was left behind on her thumb.
“Look, it’s a blackhead!” she said.
She got a mirror and pointed out to me what blackhead looked like on my face. They were all over my nose, and I tried pinching one out myself. And thus begun one of the biggest and longest internal battles I've ever endured.
Instead of sitting in front of the television right after school, I headed straight for the bathroom to pinch out my blemishes. The more I picked, the more I found to pick at. I became desperate to rid myself completely of impurities. I started picking at things that were either negligible or not even there. Intrigue turned into obsession. I would start going into a trance-like state, standing in front of the mirror, slowly losing track of space and time. Seconds segued into minutes, minutes into hours. The only way I would snap back into reality momentarily would be when my mother called, or the dog barked.
I would go to school with hideous scabs all over my face. My mother started using words on me like “neurotic” and “weak-minded”. It affected the way I thought of myself, that my own ugliness was my own doing, which made me feel bad, which made me want to punish myself by doing it again. It was a terrible cycle, a toxic mix of comfort and shame, that left me feeling damaged and worthless.
The problem persisted in college. Makeup only hid the angry patches of skin until I got home, then I would be at it again. My first boyfriend once cupped my face in his hands in despair.
“Why do you do this to yourself? Stop ... Please stop,” he pleaded. I looked back at him blankly. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how.
I tried seeking help by going to my mother’s dermatologist.
“You have two problems,” she said. “One: You have no time management. Two: You have no discipline.”
She then lectured me for an hour. The only person I could think of turning to was humiliating me, and my mother, who was there, was egging her on. I should have walked out. I knew what I had was not just a bad habit. From that day on, I reckoned that I had to figure it out on my own.
In 2004, after eight years of suffering, I found information online of a condition that sounded similar to mine. It was called Dermatillomania, that affects only 3% of the population, with psychological associations to Obsessive Compulsive disorder, Body Dysmorphia, and depression. The experiences recounted by patients struck a deep chord, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of closure. I had a classified disorder. And I was not alone.
I subconsciously started healing myself. I kept myself busy and stayed outside. I put myself through life-changing experiences and in good company that taught me how to love and respect myself. The time I spent in front of mirrors lessened over the years, as the world around me expanded and became too beautiful for me to not give my full attention to.
I’ve only noticed very recently what a different attitude I have towards my physical appearance. I almost never wear makeup and since my return from the kung-fu school, I barely use facial products. The less I care, the more compliments I receive. I still have the odd regressive episode but I have much more power over it. Numerous pockmarks remain, and they are an important reminder of how far I have come.. Up until now, I never knew how great it could feel to be proud of a naked face.
I have seen how easy it is for those without disorders to pass judgment on those who do. Solutions are not so simple, and I consider myself lucky to have come out of this without the need for medication or therapy. My heart goes out to those who continue to fight their inner battles. The complexities of being human are what validate us, and the journey towards understanding ourselves unravels beauty that goes beyond skin-deep.> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.