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.