January 11, 2005

Self-Surgery 101

Sitting on the couch next to my grandpa, at five, maybe four years old, I picked the bottoms of my feet until they bled. I didn't understand it then, the picking thing I had. Really, I don't understand it now. Even though I don't pick as often now, there are times when severity makes up for frequency.

Sounds gross I know. But not if you're kin to it.

I think the appealing thing to me about picking at such a young age was having and hiding pain. Of course it hurts to walk on raw flesh. At the same time, I had to keep that pain to myself. I couldn't tell my mother--or wouldn't. Didn't even have a grasp on what I was doing. No this was a martyrish act. It was mine and mine alone.

Pleasure Drive -> Pain Consequence. In a then rigidly Catholic household, one admits affinity to neither. Especially if they're one and the same.

As I got older, my fascination with my own skin focused on my fingers, nail beds and cuticles to be precise, extending often downward from these peninsulas to the mainland of my palm.

Usually I used my fingers. Sometimes safety pins sanitized with a match.

I'm not sure if my picking switched from feet to hands after my father and grandfather died, or if there is any correlation to those traumas and my habit.

I expect there are not only connections, but dependencies. I pause on linking them conclusively though because I'm fairly certain the picking started before my father died.

It could have started when he was sick with cancer, though, which is what I now believe. I have always felt that my passion was more endeavor than dissociation, more a job than a respite. A hyperfocus of sorts.

I've often wondered--in my older and wiser 40s--if I was attempting some sort of surgery, some act of cleansing, perhaps for my mortally damned self, and if not for me then for him. My dad. His necrotic pancreas.

After all, my goal once any picking event began was simple and consistent: Even things out. Make the edges smooth. Heal the blemishes. No bumps, no growths. How elegantly, if not tragically, that links with my strong, invincible daddy having inoperable cancer. How else can a five year old make a difference, make it all better?

Perhaps, my obsession with my own skin isn't the result of a single event or trauma--rather a combination of them. This seems the most likely genesis to me.

The notion that neurotic excoriation, or skin picking, may be genetic is, to me, bunk. What the mainstream of psychiatry has yet to realize is that we inherit our family's traumatic wounds right along side of their DNA. And genes don't hold a candle to the scars you can touch, and the ones you can't.

Once my own picking moved up from my feet to my fingers, the secret was out. You couldn't not notice my bloody stumps. Especially during adolescence, around puberty, when my finger picking progressed at a frenetic pace. I remember one aunt, trying to be helpful, who told me that she used to pick her fingers like me, but that when she met a boy she liked he didn't want to hold hands with her because of her ugly hands. So she stopped.


Talk about setting my picking back 10 years: boys, ugly, hold hands, stopped. Trigger trigger trigger.

Like I said, she meant well, but it felt like shame. I wore it like robe.

Today, my fingers heal up in the summer. In the summer time, chapness gives way to moist, even skin. No more unsightly cracks that must be tended to, evened out. In the summer, a tan thankfully, though not permanently, replaces reddened, torn skin.

Amazingly, perhaps, in all this time, I've never suffered an infection from my escapades. I don't know why. I guess, despite my odd obsession, my hygiene always remained proper. I've also often thought that, in a leech-like way, what I do is homeopathic. It no doubt triggers the immune system, putting little germ fighting cells on high alert. Then again, I don't think that's so good for those little guys to stay hypervigilant like I make them. Let's not think about that right now.

Let's think about smoothing some lotion on tired hands and feet.

Let's think about you telling me a secret.
Connecting the dots: pediatric patients need dermatologists to unite healing between mind, body. (Special report: new frontiers).
by Hill, Suzette
source: Dermatology Times, March 1, 2003.
via: HighBeam Research
COPYRIGHT 2003 Advanstar Communications, Inc.

See also: The Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Launguage of Pain.