I used to stare at her as she mindlessly picked at the tiny scabs on her skin until they bled.
It was like nails on a chalkboard. It made me angry. I can’t remember how old I was, but this went on for all my life, and the memories have no doubt coalesced to form this one scene:
When I’m a grown-up, I’ll never pick at my skin, I tell her.
She remains silent.
Looking back now, I imagine that I immediately was filled with a sense of regret, but truth be told, I’m not sure if the weight of my words hit me then or years later. Children, in their naivete, can be cruel. And then grown children can take the weight of that cruelty and direct it at their own bodies, their own hearts.
Years later, I was overcome by the same compulsion. I used to lose hours of time in the mirror. My skin was full of impurities that had to be removed, and once I’d begun the motions, I had to cover every centimeter until my face was red and puffy. A minefield.
I’d read enough Seventeen articles to know I must be doing some sort of irreparable damage to my skin—and dating prospects, or so I imagined—so afterward, I was always full of shame, vowing never to do it again. I’d scrub at my face vigorously with whatever acne treatment was around, then layer tea tree oil and aloe onto my skin thickly. I took some small comfort in feeling that I’d removed the impurities and that the healing process had begun—even if I was reduced to a shameful, compulsive creature in my mind.
I’d like to say that now, at almost 32 years of age, I have magically healed all of my compulsions and no longer feel like a shameful creature.
I cannot say that.
I have managed to forgive myself some small measure of my imperfections, though. While reading through Loving Someone with Borderline (a brilliant, compassionate book), I read that skin-picking is common among people with Borderline Personality Disorder. Quite simply: it provides a sensation that helps to soothe the nervous system. Same for folks on the autism spectrum, and folks with anxiety.
I read that passage over and over and then I cried for a long time.
While I’d initially picked up the book to better help me understand people I loved, I didn’t expect that it would also help me to better understand and love myself. To forgive myself for the simple, repetitive action that soothes my all-too-often, over-stimulated nervous system. I still am seeking out and practicing other less harmful self-soothing techniques and tools: mindfulness, writing, weighted blankets, getting enough sleep, and nourishing my body, my mind, my soul.
It’s an ongoing process. Last night I cringed at the sight of my scabs in the mirror.
I’m trying to practice radical acceptance though. Trying also to see/feel things from different perspectives.
So I said to myself:
I am a lizard. I tear the old skin off and it scabs over and grows anew. I am not ugly in these cycles. I am simply reptilian.
We do not look at snakes shedding an old skin in disgust. A snake will do this many times. A snake is simply a snake.
I once read an article on all of the weird quirks individual men found attractive in women. One man said that he was exclusively attracted to women with facial acne. I found this immensely comforting. While I myself have never met anyone who said they found my skin attractive, just knowing that perhaps someone out there does helped confirm for me how strange attraction is—how elements of it can be constructed, deconstructed.
Shed like lizard skin, picked at like so many scabs.
And in the queer community, I have witnessed a more active deconstruction of what beauty is, of what sensuality can be, of what attracts us and draws us toward other human beings.
In my fantasy world, there exists someone who holds my peeling skins—all of my former selves—and beholds my skin, pink and scarred, yet revealing another new self. And while they cannot fully understand me, for they are human (or perhaps bird or amphibian, metaphorically) and I am reptilian, still they hold me up to the light in awe, stroking my tired body, beholding the beauty in all I have been and all I will be.
And then they place me on a warm rock and feed me something with blood still pumping.
Life for my new life. Their genuine connection, authentic feelings, hopes, fears, their own struggle to accept all of their selves.
These are the cycles. The snake endlessly consuming itself.
Have you loved me like this? I have known snake charmers. Many will sing for the reptile.
But can you love me like this?
And since this I do not know, I try to love myself like this. I know I will fail. And tomorrow I shed the skin again and start anew.