The warning is confirmed when Amélie opens the door to the family home for us: the patches of skin that are uncovered – face and arms that day – are as smooth and uniform as a baby’s skin. Impeccable. Not a button, not a hair, not a scab or trace that would suggest that one day, there was. No, just as she has been able to hide this pain that has been eating away at her for years, Amélie has taken up the (bad) habit of scratching herself in unexposed areas: back, chest and, above all, scalp. It is also always at the level of the skull that, in her voluminous dark hair, the student in computer graphics continues to pass her nails she says “really very hard”.
“When I start scratching, I go hard. Sometimes until the bloodshe tells us. And I make a lot of noise. I was then told: but you are going to tear your head off scratching like that!”.
That said, most often, it is “in secret” that the young girl indulges in her dermatillomania. And that for as long as she can remember. That is to say since this upheaval in her life to which she links the outbreak of this nasty mania.
“It was a big upheaval, a lot of anxiety”
”Shortly after our family landed in Belgium, my little sister arrived, says Amelie. She was born severely physically and mentally handicapped. I was 5 years old then and she shared my room in the little house my parents rented in Mons. She had very difficult nights, with connected devices that ‘beeped’, little lights that flashed… Me, I didn’t understand anything. It was a big upheaval, a lot of anxiety, coming and going in a place – my room – which was normally just mine. All this came into my privacy. And if I didn’t see it that way at the time, today, that’s how I analyze it. It is from there that my first memory of this TOC goes back”.
“I have an extremely aggressive beast in me that needs to be calmed down”
The girl at the time begins to scratch her scalp. “I tore off scabs and felt a satisfaction in removing what ‘protruded’ from my skin. I wanted something smooth. I had entered a cycle: I scratch myself, I scratch myself, I bleed, a scab forms, I scratch it, it bleeds again… And when I managed to remove pieces of skin, I was fascinated . So much so that at one point, I kept my scabs in a bottle”. Today, she laughs about it.
”Growing up, I began to understand that it was becoming problematic”
As a child, even if she dreads pajama parties where she won’t be able to scratch herself alone in her room, Amélie of course doesn’t ask herself any questions. Neither did her parents, obviously, also thinking it was just a “bad little habit”. But the years pass, compulsive scratching persists and, in adolescence, questioning emerges. ” As I grew older, I began to understand that this was becoming more and more problematic.” Especially since at this age appear pimples, blackheads, hairiness… So much unexpected material to extract, to triturate. To visualize until jubilant.
”I need to contemplate all that I remove from my skin, be it scabs, blackheads, hairs… Tell me “wow”, I removed all that! There is a real fascination. And this little ritual, which means that every evening I have to remove the imperfections that appeared on my skin during the day, is super soothing. Almost mesmerizing. It’s not just a desire, a little pleasure. No, it’s a need. I realize that this is not normal…”, she smiles. Before adding with a more severe air towards herself: “It’s unhealthy”.
Does she suffer from it? “Currently, if the suffering has decreased, it is more the guilt of seeing that I hurt myself again and again and that I experience pleasure from it that hurts me”.
“One day in February 2021, I realized that something was just wrong in my head”
These are videos that will make him aware of this OCD, subsequently confirmed by his attending physician. “Of course, dermatillomania cannot be treated only with creamsshe tells us, very lucid. There is the whole psychological dimension. Scratching is a way of calming down, of relieving oneself. There’s a lot of anxiety behind it. When I know that I will not be able to scratch myself, the anxiety rises and I feel frustrated. It is therefore the anxiety that must be treated above all.”
Psychiatrist and psychologists will take care of it. Today, Amélie only consults her general practitioner and a psychologist once a week. “I learned to manage or at least reduce my anxiety, to see things in another way”.
”As a couple, I felt very ‘messy’”
Although the situation has clearly improved, all is not yet resolved. “When I was in a relationship, it was very embarrassing. We scratch ourselves, dandruff falls into the bed… I felt very ‘messy’ vis-à-vis my companion. It’s really hard to make him understand that we can’t control ourselves. I explained that it was a mania that I had since childhood”. And the word TOC? ”No, I have never used it”. Not even with friends? “No. I do no harm to anyone; I don’t see why I should bother them with that…”. And in family ? “I don’t talk about it either. Honestly, they were surprised when I told them that I wanted to testify about an OCD, they didn’t know it. And then, I never scratch myself in public. It’s too embarrassing. If I really can’t help it, I do it quietly.”
All “Words for Evil” testimonials
Even if she hides to scratch herself, Amélie wanted to testify, but anonymously. “Because it remains very taboo and on social networks, I realized that there were small communities of people going through the same thing. I don’t accept it 100%, otherwise I would have testified openly. But I want more people to realize that they are not alone and that there are solutions to get out of it. Just the fact of feeling understood, of hearing another person in the same case, is an appeasement. I think it is important to externalize this, to put words to this evil”.
According to Alexandra Lecart, psychologist, “Dermatillomania is a disorder related to OCD, although it is more impulsive (impulse: loss of control leading to unwanted behavior that relieves and eases tension) than compulsive (compulsion: excessive control leading to wanted and obsessive behavior to soothe and relieve tension).