My hands move from my book to my arms as I wait anxiously in the doctor's office. I search my skin for tiny punctures, nonexistent holes or marks; I press and I squeeze until something secretes, often invisible to any eyes except mine, often blood, or something else, I don’t know what.
The first time I remember picking my skin was at eight years old on a long car journey on holiday with an aunt. Our car had broken down and the sun was setting fast. My thoughts moved quickly to being stranded, lost, kidnapped even. I started to count my freckles, moving my hands up and down my arms. As my fingers caught on rough patches I ripped them off. And then, it seems, I just never stopped. Even as I write this essay, I am picking. Intrusive thoughts — how bad I am at my job, at writing this, at functioning as an adult — result in picking. The habit is destructive but self-soothing. It leaves nasty scars and wrecks my self-confidence yet I approach picking as a treat, a deserved response to a hard day.
Dermatillomania is a long way of saying I pick my skin until it bleeds. It is a condition in its own right and also, as in my case, a symptom of anxiety. It is the least of my worries — I am living in a body that struggles to function as it is, collecting diagnoses as if they were academic accolades — but still it is a compulsion I cannot seem to contain.
Dr Angela Tewari, a dermatologist at The Lister Hospital, tells Refinery29 that she has seen a rise in dermatillomania in young adults. "I have increasingly had patients with stress-related presentations, including skin picking, particularly after the COVID-related social changes and restrictions. This can be a sign of stressed mental health." Alongside seeking medical advice from a dermatologist and a mental health professional, Dr Tewari advises those who are struggling to find something to do with their hands in times of urges — so I did just that.
I am learning to knit, mostly because I wanted a hobby that I wouldn’t try to — something kind of hard that would take a lot of practice. I chose knitting on a whim because I liked the idea of making my own clothes and my track record with sewing machines isn’t favourable. Before knitting I attempted to treat the skin picking with creams and lotions, wearing high-neck tops or multiple layers at once. I wore elastic bands to snap on my wrists and asked my partner to nudge me every time he saw my hands hover over my chest. None of it worked, until I found knitting.
Knitting occupies both of your hands at once and its slow rhythm and the concentration it requires means hours can pass in an evening without looking up. When I am scrolling instead of knitting (a pastime in itself) I watch videos of other people knitting, showing off yarn collections or learning a new technique in slow motion. From #knittok to #knitstagram, there are thousands of people knitting online, many of whom share similar experiences. We use knitting to cope with stress, anxiety, OCD and the myriad other ways our brains turn against us.
Mia (@anxiousgirlknits) is 29 and knits to quell the chronic nausea that is brought on from anxiety. She says: "I would get really stressed when mealtime was coming [so] that by the time I came to eat I felt too sick and couldn't. So initially I started knitting before [eating] so I had something to focus on rather than food, and then I got hooked." Mia says the repetitive motion is the most soothing part. Previously she used exercise to cope with poor mental health but when the nausea made that impossible, sitting and knitting took its place.
Niamh, 23, knits to keep her hands occupied during an anxious episode. "Anxiety never lets my body sit still without twitching or having to do something. Knitting has provided an outlet for my overactive brain as I can channel it into something that is unrelated to the stress of my work."
Billie is in her early 30s and autistic. She also lives with OCD. She started to knit because it seemed like a fun, creative hobby. Only now, years in, can she see how helpful it has been as a strategy to cope with compulsions. "I realised my skin picking wasn’t just something everyone does but actually part of my neurodivergence and that I was inadvertently self-soothing by knitting." Through knitting Billie learned to redirect the skin picking behaviours, which ranged from fingernails to pulling hairs or scratching at her scalp, into something that doesn’t cause her physical harm. Although knitting is relaxing for many people, it can be complicated for those who deal with perfectionism as part of their mental health struggles. Billie says: "Having OCD and anxiety makes me a good knitter but also helps me to challenge my perfectionist thoughts and be okay with uncertainty."
April marks four months into my own knitting journey. Last night I turned to the bathroom mirror after a shower and I noticed my chest and neck. They are usually full of angry marks and healing scabs, and my compulsion is always to use the magnified mirror to see what else I can pick at, to carve away something that sits under the skin. Last night the skin was nearly clear, and I resisted the urge to open up a new set of wounds. It felt something like progress.
Lauren McKeaney started the Picking Me Foundation to raise awareness of dermatillomania after her own debilitating experiences with it. The foundation runs online support groups with over 800 people who deal with skin picking. Speaking to Refinery29, Lauren said: "There’s something super impactful in hearing your experience validated by others in the same Zoom room that I’m proud and honoured to foster." New members are welcome and encouraged to join the activities and share their coping mechanisms with other members within the group.
For me, knitting is not the perfect solution. Once one thing is solved, another rears its head. My hands cramp up, sometimes I experience tremors. I have a genetic condition that stops the sinewy parts between my bones and muscles from functioning properly. It makes holding things painful, repeated motions uncomfortable. If I spend too long with my needles at night, I ache the next day. But right now it is a price I am willing to pay to stop the picking.