It’s Not About Willpower!

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2576209288_2747b80538_oPicking, picking, picking

Fingernails digging into flesh

looking for imperfect skin

to claw away.

Making blemishes worse,

bleeding.

I can’t stop.

Fingers always need to be busy,

hurting myself is too easy.

Sometimes boredom,

sometimes stress,

always pain.

No body part is safe.

Blackheads, pimples, ingrown hairs

and imaginary imperfections.

Making a mess.

Shoulders, back, chest, legs, face

my fingers go everywhere

and I can’t make them stop.

I stick them under my pillow

and breathe into the need

to pick, pick, pick….

3711055069_43e819b138_oI wrote this poem as I lay in bed this past weekend trying to stop picking so I could go to sleep and then the following scenario played out in my home the other night before bed: my daughter came looking for a band-aid. Her finger was bleeding and I asked what she had done. Then, as she held her thumb clenched in the fingers of her other hand, I asked her if she’d been picking at herself again?

She had picked at the dry skin on her thumb until she had drawn blood.

I flash back to myself, I’m about her age and I am picking at the dry skin on my big toe and I dig and dig until it suddenly starts to bleed. The blood startles me and I panic. I get a band-aid, I make up a story, why didn’t I stop before I drew blood? Why couldn’t I stop?

Neither of these stories are isolated incidents and though separated by years and time, both feel all too familiar.

As my husband is tucking our daughter into bed he catches her picking or scratching again and he gives her a stern look. Some words are exchanged and then he says,

“Or you can use willpower to make yourself stop.”

5610963733_f775bd4601_oMy heart breaks as I hear those words. I have heard them too and I know how hard it is to stop. I am all too familiar with the feelings of wanting so desperately to stop because my skin hurts. It is red and blistered and raw from scratching and digging and no matter how much I might want to stop, I do not feel like I am the one in control.

Time means nothing, it could be one minute, fifteen minutes or an hour. Yes, I’ve easily spent more than an hour digging at my skin, sometimes two or three. It’s not about willpower. Of course I want to stop and if it were that easy, willpower would be enough but it’s not.  It’s a repetitive behaviour that soothes the constantly churning whirl of thoughts and anxieties. I have to literally fight with my hands, repress them, restrain them to make myself stop. Sometimes I just want to cry I get so frustrated with myself and now I see my daughter struggling with the same impulses, damaging herself and I don’t know how to help because I have yet to figure out how to help myself.

I do know that telling her to use her willpower is not helpful, it just makes you feel more broken.

I look back over my life and there is a history of self-mutilation but as I would conquer one bad habit I’d replace it with another. I used to bite my tongue and the inside of my mouth until I bled. It hurt, a lot. I finally made myself stop by stuffing Kleenexes in my cheeks at bedtime. Once I stopped, then the picking started.

I still pick though not as badly because I’ve discovered something else to keep my hands and mind busy – my cell phone. I’m always trading up one bad habit for another, and now I see my daughter struggling too, inheriting, copying, trapped.

I do have a theory behind my daughter’s and I’s behaviours. She is diagnosed ADHD and I believe her picking is how she copes with her feelings of being hyper and restless. She hates boredom, mentally and physically, and when there is nowhere else for her energy to go, she picks. It calms her mind, it becomes trance-like, even the pain offers some stimulation, something for her to focus on.

Last year I was reading a book entitled “Driven to Distraction” by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and John J. Rodey, M.D. I was reading it so I could better help and understand my oldest child but it opened my eyes to my own ADD issues, something I didn’t think was a problem for me. I did well in school, I didn’t portray the classic signs of ADD growing up but I believe it was and continues to be something I struggle with. It also helps explain my need to constantly be doing stuff with my hands and the constantly whirling thoughts in my head that I struggle to pin down and sort through and follow to conclusions instead of things just piling up around me as UFO’s (Un-Finished Objects), or forgotten as I move to the next thing. My picking, my incessant need to fiddle with my phone quiets those impulses and crazy thoughts, allows me to zone out the stimuli that are over-whelming me, including the emotions I have not learned to cope with. For those moments, I’m focused.

Through my daughter, I am gaining an understanding of my own habits and through understanding my own habits, I am understanding her.

So what is the solution, how do I fix this, change how the story ends for my daughter?

Right now, I don’t know but I am going to explore this further through my blog, as well as how we live and cope with ADD/ADHD in my family. Almost every one of us has some degree of handicap because of this disorder, and the one thing I do know, willpower alone is not enough to break the cycle of self-harm, negative thoughts and bad habits.

I do believe that there is a power that is more than up to the task: love.

“…. love works. Positive human relationships work. The human connection is indispensable. I call it “the other Vitamin C,” Vitamin Connection. And if you do not get enough of it, you will languish and never thrive.” pg xvii, Driven to Distraction.

For more information about excoriation or the need to pick at one’s skin, follow this link: http://www.trich.org/about/skin-picking.html

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