I Got Hypnotised To Finally Break My Skin-Picking Habit

Photographed by Ben Ritter.
I'll be honest, talking about my decade-long struggle with skin-picking is getting really fucking old. I've meekly apologised for it to countless facialists, I've referenced it in what feels like a hundred stories, and I've done just about everything to quit it: therapy, journaling, snapping a rubber band, throwing out every tweezer and safety pin in my apartment, anti-depressants... But nothing works for any significant amount of time. I've come to accept that even if I have a few good weeks, even if my skin fully heals, I'm never going to be completely in the clear; I'm always one bump or stray hair away from falling into a three-hour trance in my bathroom that leaves my forehead, bikini line, armpit, chin (pick your part...) bloody, scabbed, and in need of some heavy-duty concealer. It's ugly and exhausting and most of the time, I don't know what to do besides throw up my hands and hope I outgrow it the way I did nail-biting. But one thing I have never tried, and didn't even consider until the opportunity fell into my lap this past fall, was hypnosis. I knew the swinging pocket watch was a myth, but other than that, I had no idea what to expect. A few years ago, I would have written this off as hocus-pocus, but the older I get, the more I connect with things like astrology and crystal healers, so I went into the treatment ready to open up and embrace the weirdness. It helped that hyponotherapist Alexandra Janelli's practice, Theta Spring, is located out of Modrn Sanctuary in NYC — a sexy, sprawling space with black-painted walls, orchids, burning candles, shearling throws over couches, and expensive art. Give me chic design and I'll walk into a serial killer's lair. Alexandra greeted me and led me down a long dark hallway into a room where a comfy, grandpa-style reclining chair was waiting for me. Alexandra explained that the initial session, which is 85 minutes and costs a steep $395 (£315) (follow-up sessions are 55 minutes for $195 (£155)), would be dedicated to talking through my issues and goals, and the remaining time would involve the actual hypnosis portion. We started by identifying when my skin-picking started (around age 13) and when it was at its worst (throughout high school), then really digging into what was happening around that time. I always say something like, "Oh, you know, raging hormones, puberty, typical teenage stuff," and move on, but Alexandra didn't let me drop it. She pushed me on everything — gently — and when I was really forced to go deep, some buried events and behaviour patterns started to emerge. One of the most helpful insights came when Alexandra called me out on my repeated use of the word 'perfect,' which I didn't even realise I kept saying. Perfect skin, perfect body, I want to look perfect. "What does perfect mean to you?" she pressed. "How do you define perfectionism? What happens if you're not perfect?" I've never thought of myself as a perfectionist. In my mind, those are the people who freak out if they get a B on a report card and have organised planners and clean bedrooms. I get stupid tattoos spontaneously, drink too much, sleep too late, and leave dirty dishes in the sink for a full week. Yet, I'm obsessed with controlling — aka perfecting — my appearance. Until that moment, I hadn't ever connected my nose job, Botox, fillers, and intense anti-ageing routine with my picking, but suddenly it was obvious. Perfect skin for me (not everyone) is porcelain, free of any bumps or rough texture, and 100% hair-free. Which, I know in my logical mind, is impossible to achieve without Photoshop, but that doesn't stop me from trying. You might be able to spot a few stray brow hairs, tweeze them, and move on with your life; I zone in on a tiny black dot of hair that probably won't surface on its own for weeks and spend all night cutting it out. In my attempt to control what's on the outside, I've spent over a decade losing control of what's on the inside. Subconsciously, I had to be ready to relinquish both — control of my appearance and my mind — which is why I found myself sitting in a hypnotist's chair. How's that for a breakthrough? And this was just the pre-screening; we hadn't even got to the main event yet. Alexandra lowered the lights, turned on a white noise machine and a recorder (she emails recordings of the session to her patients after), and asked me to recline and close my eyes. I was tired after a long work day and relaxed and tingly from just talking with her, so I was in it from the start. She spoke to me calmly, urging me to be in the moment, to be aware of the chair, to notice the weight of my arms and legs, and to focus on what it is I want. "Acknowledge the goal of what we're doing here today," she cooed. "Have a freedom from an old behaviour, an old mechanism, that at one point in your life did work for you, but that you're going to realise, starting today, you don't need anymore. Knowing that will get stronger and stronger as you go through the next couple days..." Her soothing mantras took me to a place where I wasn't asleep, but I also wasn't awake in the way I am used to. Nothing was distracting me; nothing took me away from Alexandra's words. It's hard to remember if there was ever a time I felt that much at peace. The only time her steady cadence changed was when she said the words 'don't' and 'no.' For example, she asked, "What will happen when you don't revert to the habit? When you say no?" The words were sharper, like a snap. They jolted me only slightly, I thought, but afterwards, Alexandra told me I'd kicked out my leg, an involuntary body language sign of protest. When she brought me back to full consciousness, I felt an optimism about my picking that I'd never thought possible. I had gone in saying I would struggle with this habit forever, but now I was saying that — at the very least — I could see the possibility of it not being in my life. It sounds small, but it was a radical adjustment in my way of thinking. Since that session in late November, I've almost stopped picking completely, save for one small slip-up on my forehead. It's since healed and I recently went out without a drop of concealer for the first time in years. Since then, I've also been diligent about other practices that keep me from picking — like laser hair removal, which keeps the hair from growing, and me from obsessing over it. On top of that, I'm in a really good place emotionally after ditching a draining relationship and focusing on uplifting friendships. So, did I arrive at this point solely thanks to hypnosis? No. But it clearly kickstarted something, and that optimism hasn't disappeared. In fact, I feel more hopeful than I ever have before. Will I go back in for another session? Probably not in the near future. Despite how comfortable and connected I felt with Alexandra and how much I learned about the 'why' behind my problem, at £155 a session, it's just too expensive for me at the moment (though, I admit, I spend a lot more on things that don't help me as much). I'm considering making it a priority a few times per year, but in the meantime, I'll lie on my bed, close my eyes, and listen to the recording she gave me. And if I never write another word about skin-picking again, well, that's alright with me.

More from Skin Care

R29 Original Series