My Finger Picking Compulsion Feels Just Like an Addiction

The emotional consequences of body-focused repetitive behaviors

Image by (El Caminante) from Pixabay

I’ve been a finger picker for 37 years. I was in middle school when I began to notice and pull out flakes of skin around my fingernails.

I can’t remember how long it took for finger picking to become both habit and problem. What I do know is that I was hiding it by the time I was in high school.

Still, once in a while someone would notice a ravaged finger and ask, “What happened to your finger?” I’d come up with excuses like getting burned or having picked at it just once and then getting an infection.

I began putting on a bandaid when a finger looked noticeably damaged — a great solution since the bandaid both hid the injury and gave credibility to my explanation that I’d accidentally cut myself. I’d pick under the table or when my back was turned to others.

While still in high school, I managed to limit my picking to my index fingers and thumbs. Over the ensuing decades, I’ve been able to further narrow down my self-mutilating behavior so that my left thumb is now its only target.

My left thumb became my sacrificial finger.

I don’t want to minimize the gravity of drug, tobacco, or alcohol addiction, but finger picking strikes me as similar in some ways. In fact, I often think I know what it must be like to have a substance abuse problem.

Finger picking has caused me shame and a measure of self-hatred, just as any addiction would.

Like an addict, I strive to hide my habit from others. My husband marvels at how I was able to conceal my mutilated thumb and index finger from him for months before he noticed them. I knew how to perfectly angle my hand so my ugly fingers wouldn’t show when I rested it on a surface or used it to stir, clap, hold, scratch, or whatever.

Like other addictions, finger picking carries some risk since the possibility of infection is real. Unbelievably, it also interferes with daily activities, like when I just have to peel off a bit of skin while driving or when I must be done removing a flake before turning off the stove.

Finally, there’s the question we always ask about addiction: Why, for the love of God, can I not stop?

My failure to stop picking exasperates me. I mean, even people addicted to crack, alcohol and tobacco can manage to quit.

Still, I’ve always sensed killing this habit is harder than I usually admit to myself and that the behavior is associated with my family’s strong genetic predisposition for depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

How could there not be a genetic component when three of my five sisters have engaged in serious body-focused repetitive behaviors, as behaviors such as skin picking, nail-biting, and hair-pulling are known in the literature? There has to be a genetic component to my habit.

Every now and then, I bring up finger picking with my sister Lole — whose habit is as bad as mine — and we’ll give each other suggestions. I’ll tell her, “My finger picking’s out of control lately. I need to do something!” Recently, Lole said she’ll squeeze her finger hard ten times and tell herself, “My finger doesn’t want me to do this to it.” She’s esoteric like that.

Last year, I came across an article in The New York Times that explored body-focused repetitive behaviors such as mine. The piece, Fighting the Shame of Skin Picking (9/5/2019), could not have described my experience more aptly:

“These repetitive behaviors typically emerge around the onset of puberty, though they can begin earlier, and are more common in girls and women. They tend to occur along with mood disorders like anxiety and depression, or with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Patients report feeling an urge to pick or pull, followed by a physical sensation of relief or gratification while engaging in the behavior itself.”

The way I feel about my finger picking habit has changed. Though I don’t go around showing people my damaged finger, I’m no longer ashamed. If someone asks what happened to it, I’ll say I have a bad picking habit.

If the person’s really curious, I’ll explain that my thumb looks the way it does due to a decades-old self-injurious behavior. I might also tell them my compulsion, also known as excoriation disorder, actually appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), classified as an “obsessive-compulsive and related disorder”.

As all obsessive-compulsive behaviors, skin picking is extraordinarily hard to eliminate. The longest I’ve gone without doing it was around five years ago when I printed out a chart to mark the days I didn’t pick. I told myself that if I managed to go 30 days in a row without picking, I’d give myself a reward. I had to start over many times but eventually got to 30 consecutive days of no picking.

I cannot even remember what the reward was. The habit, though, was not forgotten. It resurfaced. “Just this once” became” just today” until it was back in full force.

The reason I’m writing this piece now is that I’ve been picking in earnest over the past couple of weeks, and have become impatient with myself for my inability to mitigate my compulsion.

I’ve even thought of a terrible punishment technique: For every time I pick, I must donate $1 to the National Rifle Association. This could add up to a sizable donation to an organization I’d love to see defunded. Effective as this plan sounds, I just can’t do it. The thought of it makes me want to pick!

Skin picking disorder feels like an addiction and is more common than you’d think. According to the Harvard Health Blog, it affects at least five million Americans.

If you’re one of them, knowing it’s not just you might make you feel better. It did for me at least. If you’re not, keep in mind that that close friend or family member who picks their skin to death is not weak or totally lacking in will.

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