This post discusses self-harm, OCD & compulsive skin picking
I have always loved nail polish. When I was in nursery school we went through a phase of painting our nails with marker pens at the colouring-in table. I remember our childminder sitting me up by the kitchen sink, scrubbing my hands, asking how it happened. I averted my gaze, mumbling that I didn’t know.
As I grew into a teenager, nail polish was the one area of beauty I didn’t feel excluded from as a weird disabled teenager. My glasses were wonky, my skin made me miserable, my hair was frizzy and I loathed my body, but I liked my nails. Years of disordered eating and awful self-esteem made me do unspeakably horrible things to my body and mind, but my hands were the one part of my body I held any kind of affection for. I remember being told by a friend’s mum who was a beauty therapist that I was lucky to have such strong healthy nails, and I beamed inside. I can still remember where we were when she said it, and what she looked like (I think I was ten years old). I used to look at my hands and pretend they were the hands of an adult woman, and as I got older, the hands of someone who had their shit together.
Somewhere in adolescence, my obsessive compulsive disorder developed, and along with it came compulsive skin picking (for more information on CSP see here and here). Not everyone who suffers with compulsive skin picking also has OCD and vice versa, but there are links between the two. I was unable to stop myself tearing at my hands and my fingers when I was anxious, bored, stressed, angry… My fingertips were torn bloody and red raw with pain. As a teenager I would get in trouble for cutting myself with a razor, but not for pulling apart the skin around my fingers. Both carry shame, but with a different weight. You can’t unsee obvious self-harm cuts or scars on a teenage girl’s arm, but you can gloss over odd-looking hands. My nails had to be kept as short as possible to ensure I could do as little damage as possible. From being the one part of my body I looked at with pride, my hands became a source of shame, one that I needed to hide from the world.
Thanks to medication and cognitive behavioural therapy, my OCD is significantly less severe than it used to be as a teenager. A few years ago I moved to London – I don’t know if it was the stress and upheaval that came with moving country and beginning a whole new life, but the problem got considerably worse. Not only were my fingers torn apart, but I couldn’t stop myself scratching at my head, resulting in painful open wounds on my scalp for weeks at a time. Showering was agonising. Being unable to stop scratching at myself in public was humiliating. I play Two Dots obsessively because it keeps my hands busy.
I’ve found one thing that markedly improves the scratching, and it’s getting my nails done in a salon. I get gel extensions, which involve a lightweight plastic being applied to the tip of the nail, and then a powder is applied to the whole of the nail. I usually get infills every few weeks. For some reason, it helps. I haven’t stopped, but I find it a little easier to manage the compulsions and urges when I have a nice set of nails on. They’re an expense, but when I’ve tried to make do without them, the skin picking becomes unbearable again. They carry a different kind of shame – of being very obviously femme, my queerness and sex life questioned because of the length of my nails. But I can put up with that, for now. At the minute, this is a better option.