For Erin Martineau, a yoga teacher and stylist, one of her longest-standing habits is the result of dermatillomania, which is another word for obsessive skin picking. It’s one she’s long tried to break, taking everything “one day at a time,” but she knows she has a long way to go still. “It’s a really isolating issue for me. Everybody struggles with skin picking…but I think it’s just on a spectrum of intensity,” Martineau said.
According to Martineau, she has been obsessed with her skin since she was young, which took the form of picking and focusing on her considerable number of moles. “My mom was vocal about her own struggle with ‘bad skin’…While growing up, I subconsciously took cues from her minor obsession.” Before getting sober in 2009, Martineau certainly had phases where picking varied in its levels of intensity, but, “my facial picking didn’t become a full-fledged obsession until I stopped drinking,” she said.
Dermatillomania is a “body-focused repetitive behavior” (BFRB), and when Martineau’s picking took off, she didn’t recognize it as her main issue. “I wasn’t aware of the terminology for a long time. I just thought I had really bad skin…I slowly realized over time that I was exacerbating things by touching or ‘scanning,’ the behavior that leads to a picking episode in which you’re looking at your face or running your fingers over it, looking for something to pop.” Traveling is a serious trigger for Martineau, as she will start to rationalize that she cares less about what her skin looks like while on vacation, and it took several vacation episodes for her to understand how everything about her was entangled with her picking behavior.
“I recognized my picking for what it was,” Martineau said. “A very specific brand of self-harm.” After coming to this realization, Martineau searched for support groups. “As a sober person, I know what unmanageability looks like, but I also know that support groups work for me.” In her BFRB group, Martineau worked to check her expectations to keep from holding herself back. To begin, she stopped referring to her “bad skin” and changed how she talked about it, calling it her “problems picking [her] skin.”
Also, even with a support group, Martineau needs other ways of dealing with her obsession whenever it starts to feel overwhelming. Spiritual practice and self-care have really helped her as well as meditation and yoga. “I think they’ve helped immensely with dermatillomania so much because, on a deeper level, the skin picking is a manifestation of depression, anxiety, self-loathing. I’m retraining my brain out of that stuff,” Martineau said.
Martineau also smartly creates physical barriers and does other practical things to try and prevent episodes that create “a dissociative state” that is “kind of relaxing.” Fidget toys help Martineau by giving her hands something to do whereas others might put tape on their fingers or wear cotton gloves as a reminder to not pick. Manuka honey has helped Martineau as well, as she believes it to be “healing and sticky.”
With her coping mechanisms, support group, and her husband by her side, Martineau has finally started to feel comfortable with her body, and she hopes to one day hit that special place where she doesn’t worry about it at all. “You know when you get to a point where you work so hard on a habit, you don’t have to think about it anymore? That’s where I want to be,” Martineau said. “If I continue to be softer and easier on myself overall, I’ll continue to be in a better emotional place. It’s a daily practice, it really is.”