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September, 03, 2015

My Experience With Body-Focused Repetitive Disorders

The ‘childhood habits’ of biting our nails and picking our nose are brought to our attention over and over again throughout our lives. Whether it’s witnessing a parent irritably slapping a child’s hand away from their face with a sharp ‘don’t do that!’ or even a subtle animation of a toddler in Sims 3 having a quick pick, the disgust associated with such ‘habits’ are always present.

It’s a lesser known fact that these things are part of a larger group of ‘habits’ known as BFRDs, or Body Focused Repetitive Disorders. When you’re a child it’s entirely natural to participate in habits such as picking your nose, as well as twirling your hair and sucking your thumbs, and for the most part these are completely harmless and quickly grown out of. However, a bad habit becomes a BFRD when it transforms into an uncontrollable urge to pick or bite, and it can cause serious health problems.

I personally suffer with multiple BFRDs, one being trichotillomania (the compulsion to pull out hair from the head, eyebrows, eyelashes, or anywhere else on the body), and onychophagia (uncontrollable compulsive nail biting). I’ve suffered from these all of my life and the social stigma from them is a constant weight on my mind, and the minds of other BFRD sufferers. However, it’s incredibly difficult to find any kind of support for these disorders, as the majority of people who suffer from them never speak up about it. This means that there’s a severe lack of knowledge amongst GPs about BFRDs, a lack of treatment or ability to prescribe treatment, and a hell of a lot of explaining on the part of the sufferer to anyone they have to tell.

For example, let me tell my personal story. There has not been a single point in my life where my nails have grown past the ends of my fingers, or even past their beds. They’re in a constant state of chaos, and constantly being bitten. It’s utterly soul destroying when you meet someone new and the first thing they comment on is your nails, or you’re told to ‘stop biting’ by someone who doesn’t know your struggle. It shatters you when you’ve tried everything to stop, used the bitter nail polish, your will power, tried only biting one nail, put caps on your fingers, and sat on your hands, and yet the next day you find yourself with your fingers resolutely in between your teeth, or under the tap washing the blood away as you’ve managed to break the skin again. It’s awful when you glance at your nails and get battered with the urge to rip off that small bit of nail that’s managed to grow past its usual length.

Similarly, I’ve had trichotillomania for a long, long time. I’ve always had an obsession with my hair, twirling it between my fingers when I was young and chewing on it every minute of every day (trichophagia). When my mum chopped all my hair off to stop me, my compulsions simply transferred to another area and before I knew it I was pulling out my eyelashes one at a time, trying to quell the very literal itch I felt from them. For a while my hair-pulling compulsions were relieved, and then when I started college the stress became too much, and my trich was triggered to the point where for weeks I didn’t have a single hair on my face, and was drawing my eyebrows on from scratch every morning.

If the constant awareness of my awful appearance wasn’t enough to shatter my self-esteem, what I faced at my local surgery after a year of building up the courage to book an appointment certainly was. I was incredibly lucky to get an appointment with a man who suffers from trichotillomania himself, so simply pointing to my skewiff eyebrow was enough for him to sympathise with me. However, the avenues from there were very depressing indeed. My options were to either go on a mild tricyclic antidepressant to combat my anxiety (which I have, and which hasn’t made a difference), or to pay £60 per hour session of behavioural therapy (which as a student I couldn’t afford in my wildest dreams).

Things only became more depressing when I went online to find that BFRDs are probably the only topic the internet hasn’t got covered. Apart from one organisation that provides low cost fidget toys (and high cost books) to sufferers, you’re essentially left to deal with it and keep facing each day with two hairs and a well-used eyebrow pencil.

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  1. Chatlotte

    I believe i suffer from trichtillomania, (i’m not sure that spelling is right, the dictionary doesn’t even recognise it as a thing!) but i guess in some ways i may be a little luckier than some. The hairs i pull are hidden, i don’t pull hairs from my head or face, so it’s not something that would normally be noticed by people.
    I haven’t really spoken to my GP about it in detail. It got mentioned briefly and just sort of brushed under the carpet. But then again so did the mental health issues the first time i brought them up.
    I definitely agree there should be more awareness about it, it’s taken me a long time to realise that actually this is a negative thing that i need to try and stop. I didn’t think anything of it until i was sat picking literally all day, and was that obsessed about getting a hair i was drawing blood with my tweezers. And even then, i didn’t want to speak to my GP because i was embarrassed about it and expected them to tell me to “just stop it”.
    like someone else said earlier, thank you for raising awareness 🙂

  2. Charlotte Swale

    I suffer from dermatophagia (compulsive skin picking and biting) and I totally get where you’re coming from. My biting and picking is mainly on my hands and feet, but also extends to areas of my face. Working in retail means my hands are constantly on display, and handling someone’s money with bloodied fingers usually doesn’t go down too well. When I went to see the doctor he acknowledged that I have anxiety, but said my picking and biting is “just a habit”, and only prescribed a steroid cream to help heal that particular infected finger. So glad you are helping raise awareness, it’s an area of mental health that doesn’t get anywhere near enough coverage and that nowhere near enough people (including doctors) know about 🙂

  3. Charlotte Swale

    I find that steroid cream only helps if I actually have an infection. If I use it on fingers that aren’t infected it makes next to no difference. I’ve had dermatophagia for over 16 years now (the first time I remember biting I was 4), and I have good days and bad days. I’d managed to get to a stage where I was barely biting, but then it’s got so bad again that I’m back on steroid cream. The part I hate most is having to explain it to people, since having fingers that just bleed from time to time isn’t exactly normal. My dad still smacks my hand away from my mouth and tells me to stop it-if only it was that easy!!!!!!