The struggle has started up again below, so what? Ascabrazage for perpetuity? An infinite scraping at the wound. Theinfinite plowing of the slit from where the wound emerged? Perhaps!But you’re mad? –Antonin Artaud, Watchfiends & Rack ScreamsWhen I am four we move from a Philadelphia suburb to Minas Gerais, a southeastern state of Brazil where Mama is from. At some point after we arrive, my hair falls out in clumps. Mama takes me to the doctor. When we arrive back home, Daddy picks me up, laughing and smiling.
The doctor says we have to be sweet to Nanita. She is stressed, says Mama.Well, that’s just wonderful news! It’s your lucky day, boy. How marvelous – we can do that! Daddy is in an uncannily good mood.I get to select my favorite foods and fruits: maracujá, pão de queijo, jabuticaba, queijo mineiro, goiabada, geleia de mocotó – even foods usually reserved for rare treats.
I am elated. I anticipate a long series of special days where my preferences are of great importance, days in which the doctor has ordered Daddy to only be nice.
*There is a hard ridge on the edge of the large site on the left, approximately half the circumference of a dime. Mornings are particularly good for interrupting of a nights’ worth of attempted healing. I wonder if tilting horizontally during the night makes the scabby juices flow upward and harden.
I keep my nails trimmed short – no whites showing. They are weapons nonetheless.
The middle left fingernail cuts in directly above the protruding ridge and scrapes downward.
A small spike of pain across the scalpscape – then half a nail-full of fresh scab.
I manage to separate and secure a wiggly crumbly piece, threaded by a single hair.A little moist; the extraction a little less satisfying than the structurally dense, intact clumps. Tenaciously, middle finger and thumb pinch – sliding the freed nugget down the hair shaft.
I lie in my bed, curtains holding back the light – touching the fresh hole with my finger pad. *
I think about how long this writing procedure can last before I begin.
The writing procedure takes place during the trance of a pathological scalp picking disorder called dermatillomania, or skin excoriation disorder.Instructions : While picking chunks of my scalp with your left hand, write down whatever comes to mind with your right hand.
: Track multiple levels of intercutting thoughts, experiences, anticipations, and expectations each time I pick my scalp.
I don’t trust my ability to sustain my entrancement through the writing. To transfer the trance from body to language – that chasm feels too wide.
*My hair is getting longer. Now it takes longer to remove the meat.I am in public. I can’t help myself. I pull the brick-colored disk through my curly black hair. I place it on the page of my notebook. I close the notebook.
I decide to keep a supplementary physical archive. When I pick at home, I drop the scabs in a small glass vial topped by a dry crusty cork, kept at my bedside. They look like dog treat crumbs.
What if I collect the scabs for the entire time I keep the diary. How long will they stay crimson? They will stop being magnetic after they no longer visually register as me.
I like my body in a jar, so far.
I think that maybe I will even mix them with Daddy’s ashes.
Affirmation: Accept that everything has led you to the attraction and repulsion of this moment. *
I envision this as procedure rather than an experiment, because there will only be ineffectual results.
Note: I do not document the picking practice with a primary desire to “heal” it.*Freud’s theory of the death drive developed out of his observations of returned WWI soldiers who opted to repeat traumatic events rather than to seek pleasurable ones. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud called this non-essential-to-life force – this pressure directly opposing libidinal, erotic, and life-giving instincts – the death drive.
I crawl into bed. My hair is still damp from the shower. It helps the scabs slide out. I do not write during this pick because I want to enjoy the uninterrupted trance. A pang of guilt at destroying my head shuts the pleasure circuit off like a clap. When we are sick we are alone says the woman on the podcast.*Because of his theories about the urge towards death and self-destruction, Freud reportedly had difficulties accepting his patient Dora back when she asked to resume treatment, because he knew she did not want to recover.Instead of reading barebacking as a post-1980s manifestation of the death drive, Tim Dean explores condom-free sex and sero-conversion rituals in gay male subculture through the lens of self-determination and kinship building practices, in Unlimited Intimacies. My hands determine the terrain of my self. I am building kinship with my own body.
*The tagline of skinpick.com, an online resource for those with skin excoriation disorders reads STOP PICKING – START LIVING.I squint at the shapes of the letters and wonder if the pathologization of my bodily practice is a medical issue if it is not causing medical issues.Actually, there is something erotic about touching the fresh warm hole beneath my dark hair.
*I review the guidelines for the writing procedure: An independent variable is the one thing you intentionally change. A dependent variable is the thing that changes as a result of your independent variable.
This is like cause & effect.I do not know which set is closer to the truth:
a) Dependent variable: dermatillomania b) Dependent variable: writing procedureIndependent variable: writing procedure Independent variable: dermatillomania
*I buy tumbled worrystones out of moonstone and fluorite, and carry them in my pockets. I am supposed to rub them between my fingers instead of picking my head. Instead, I lose them all over the next few months.I need a moonstone like I need a hole in the head.Aime Césaire put it this way, in Solar Throat Slashed:
…it’s the strangulation point of
a fingernail in the carmine of an interjection
My hairdresser texts: Just got a new color in we can try on your hair. Lemme know when you want to come in. My head is covered in open sores. I can’t come in.
The OCD Center of Los Angeles offers a Free and confidential Dermatillomania test online.
They provide information on the following other disorders:
Pure Obsessional OCDHarm OCDGay OCDScrupulosity OCDRelationship OCDPostpartum OCDChild/Adolescent OCDHypochondriaTrichotillomaniaBody Dysmorphic Disorder
Sometimes skin picking is preceded by a high level of tension and a strong “itch” or “urge”. Likewise, skin picking may be followed by a feeling of relief or pleasure. A skin picking episode may be a conscious response to anxiety or depression, but is frequently done as an unconscious habit. Individuals with Skin Picking Disorder often attempt to camouflage the damage caused to their skin by using make-up or wearing clothes to cover the subsequent marks and scars.
I take the test, already aware that my practice falls into this diagnosis.
I answer yes to:
* I pick skin elsewhere on my body Y* I sometimes use specific implements (tweezers, pins, needles, etc.) to pick my skin Y* I often pick my skin when I am anxious and/or depressed Y* I often pick my skin when I am bored Y* I often pick my skin when I am engaged in other activities (i.e., watching TV, talking on the phone, using the computer, at a movie theatre, during class, while driving) Y* I have noticeable scabs, sores, or scarring where I pick my skin Y* I often pick in the morning before work/school Y* I often pick at night before bed Y* Prior to, or during a skin picking episode, I often feel a sense of tension, itching, tingling, or pressure Y* I often feel powerless to resist the urge to pick my skin Y* I get a sense of relief, gratification, and/or pleasure when I pick my skin. Y
*I am eleven years old. Daddy buys a cockatiel named Punk. Punk walks around on the formica counter in the room where I practice violin. Punk walks up my arm and lowers his head onto my shoulder so I can give him a cafuné and rub his neck. I grasp his tiny spine with my forefingers, sinking his feathers into his fragile frame. A vast warmth washes across the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands. It transmits a flutter to where my spine and stomach touch.
On days when new feathers grow from the top of his yellow crest and his grey neck fluff, I hurt him.
The new feathers come encased in dusty grey straw-shaped tube, concealing each fresh new plume. Each time I notice a new outcropping of tubes from his head, I stop what I am doing and pick him up.
I begin by rubbing his neck to coax him into the hypnotic state we both crave. Then, I press and roll the tube with my fingertips and nails, attempting to soften the encasement’s grip on the new feather. If it’s ready, it slides off easily, releasing the encapsulated frond. If it it’s really ripe, it disintegrates into the powdery bird dust that rises up from his body when he ruffles around.
If the tubes are still too hard and not ready, he squawks his pain into the entire house. The tubes are irresistible.
Nanita, stop hurting him! Don’t do dat to ze poor bird!Mama knows what I am doing.
I have been mesmerized by pelinhas – dry, dead, flaky, bits of white skin that had loosened up from the meat on my feet, or her feet – since I was a toddler. My overwhelming urge to pick consumed hours as I tore bits of blistery or loose skin off my palms, fingertips, nail beds, heels, and toes.My excoriation project just leaked over to my bird.
You would not know about my practice unless I told you.
I am sure there is a relationship between the zone of permission I give myself to pick, and my coaxing of the open wounds in a secret, covered zone.
Dermatillomania: To till my head.
Affirmation: Accept that I subconsciously chose my skull as the site for perpetual wounds – not only for its metaphorical attributes but for my hair’s occluding capacity.
Like Paul Preciado in Testojunkie, I am thinking of experimenting with testosterone gel.My best friend jokes If you start gel and go bald, you won’t be able to pick without people knowing, so choose wisely, my friend ; )
My younger sister is playing a grotesque beauty parlor game. Mama is the only client who will play with her. The parlor’s only services are chin hair tweezing and scalp scraping. My sister parts Mama’s hair methodically, slicing her long left pinky nail lengthwise through Mama’s coarse black loops. My sister’s long right pinky nail scrapes down the parted scalp, filling with coagulated off-white oils and skin.
Eww, that’s sick! I sneer.
Mama says she doesn’t mind.
In an interview about her trance method, the poet Brenda Hillman says art is the link between our inner and outer work.My hands are the link between picking and writing. My hands dig between layer and layers of panic.
They do not know the differences of inner and outer.The outer layer of my head is an imaginary boundary. As my nail shovel hits the desert of the scalp, my body map dissolves. The shovels search for clods of fossilized blood across the red sand, fingering past craters and granular dunes. I am too easily dry and porous. And I am not holey enough.
I locate a piece of earth/self that I want to tear out. I work it up from the roots of my hair. Roots like those of desert junipers who live for thousands of years, cutting off water supply to parts of themselves during drought. They kill parts of themselves to save the rest of themselves.
I pinch a piece I can remove, look at, roll it around awhile, flick it off my finger, and it disintegrates.
I do not worry. It is a renewable destruction of flesh.
What could be better? My fingers are in agreement. My body is helpful and it carries out my will.
I answer no to the following questions:
* Eat the skin I pick? N* Results in clinic visits? N* Interferes with work? N* Causes problems with family? N* Avoid going out due to embarrassment? N* Significantly distressed about skin picking? N
I have already waited a few days for a large scab to ripen. Its removal will require a lot of pressure. My middle finger emerges wine colored. It is too painful so I give up without a kill. Three hours later, I’m at it again. I’m in public, at a conference. No one is looking at me when I finally get it out, so I place my perfect specimen on my thigh to admire as I write.I feel the pleasure in the secret my body keeps.
*I do not enjoy the writing procedure. It feels too immediate.I prefer writing about picking over writing during picking.
My writing procedure disgusts me.
My picking practice repulses others.
A shopping cart rattles on the sidewalk.
I procrastinate taking a shower because my scalp is irritated like a cantaloupe husk rubbed raw to the orange. The hot water stings. The tar shampoo stings worse. I feel like the Hindu god Shiva when he does the dance of destruction, defeating snakes and demons, and becomes Nataraja – his head in a halo of fire.
I top it off by rubbing tea tree oil into it.
I am five years old. I am a hummingbird diving into the hibiscus growing off fence on the side of the house in Minas. Underneath my nails it tastes like floral nectar and the sharp iron of red dirt.I am in the yard next to the hibiscus when Daddy catches me:You ride the bus with all those germs and AIDS and shit! It all gets under your nails when you touch the seats and everything, and then you put them in your mouth?! What if you have a tiny cut that you don’t know is there? What if your nail slices your mouth? What do you think would happen then?!It is 1987. Tio Augusto will be diagnosed in a few years.
I do not bite my nails again.
Laya is the Sanskrit word for dissolution or extinction (See Freud and death drive), from which Kundalini yoga borrows heavily. The kundalini is a circular coil of energy located at the base of the spine, represented by a snake. Bandas are applied by the practitioner to direct, control, or release the flow of kundalini from the base of the spine upward through the chakras and outward through the head.
The snake wants out through my head. My fingers know how to release her.
This time it begins with a white creamy harvest, a base smell under my nails.
Located a beef jerky disc to pry under.Little curl of finger-boneLittle stingLittle gripLittle tug of flat crimson
I had a little pick.It was little good.
The cuticle of my picking finger is lined in brown crust.
My fingers are sticky on the tips.
The writing procedure is changing my picking practice. I force myself to pick up my pencil and notebook before I start to pick.The procedure interrupts.
Today I moved to medical journals:
The American Journal of Case Reporting, Vol 14, 2013, “A Near Fatal Case of Pathological Skin Picking (PSP)” pp 284-7 exposes a fifty-one year old Caucasian female patient who picked her forehead with a sewing needle, and later with a long knitting needle. Results included hemiparesis, memory loss, dizziness, headaches, aphasia, and one instance of incontinence. The article says the majority of PSP patients are women, with onset usually during adolescence to late 30s. It says that tools are only used by a very small minority of patients with PSP/Dermatillomania but all patients with PSP should be referred for psychiatric evaluation.
Six times I have used tweezer blades or cuticle trimmers to slice underneath a disc of blood too flat for my short nails. Dogged as I am, the tools were too painful, too bloody to incorporate into the daily practice.
My fantasy of picking actual skull pieces remains.
Affirmation: I resolve to pretend the scabs are pieces of skull bone, for now.
Trepanning is the oldest surgery found in the archeological record. Skulls with trepanation holes have been found dating from the Neolithic to the pre-modern period in Europe and Scandinavia, Siberia and China, in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The prefrontal leucotomy, a precursor to lobotomy, was performed by cutting a hole into the skull, inserting a trephine.Current proponents of trepanation say it increases blood volume to the brain, expanding consciousness and increasing energy flow. In the 1970s, artist Amanda Fielding shot a film of her home trepanation with a drill called Heartbeat in the Brain
Trepanning has been described as "letting light in" or "letting devils out," and has been used to treat mental illness.
The region of my forehead, where Shiva’s third eye is (often represented as a slit in his forehead) is highly sensitive.
When my third eye is accidentally poked, I “clear” it by softly passing the back of my hand across the area.
I am eight years old. I am napping inside a cabin at the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach. I wake up and it is still light out. Mama and Daddy are both on the bed with me, looking at me. They are both smiling really big. I know something is happening.
Don’t move right now Nanita, says Mama.
Daddy corrects her: You can move, but just very slowly. And don’t touch your head.
There is a mirror on the dresser across from the bed. I look at myself. Something slow is in my hair. Something sliding green against my scalp.
Isn’t it just beautiful!? Daddy exclaims, happier than usual. Something about their happiness is confusing me. We’ve been watching it move in and out of your curls.
Daddy’s hands move to the top of my head, and he pulls out a skinny lime-colored muscle.Now he’s just wonderful! Look, Yana! He loves your hair.
Daddy places the snake back in my hair. It feels funny. I am still fuzzy and confused. Mama is looking at Daddy like she thinks he is the greatest thing.
Daddy loves me and everyone is happy. I don’t feel like I can breathe.
In addition to being a dermatillomaniac, I have an unshakable phobia of snakes. I cannot look at them on television or in photographs.
I want to break open my head.
Def. Open wound: One that communicates directly with the atmosphere. (from Shumann D., “Preoperative measures to promote wound healing,” Nurs Clin. North Am. 14:683, Dec. 1979.)
When I tell Mama I am traveling for a series of plant medicine ceremonies, she says Ai Naninha, you know you are going to see snakes.
My snake wants to be released.
The procedure cannot be completed in the way it began.Daddy died three months ago.
After her father’s death, Kristin Prevallet wrote:
The poetry of my language is broken by the realization that it can
do nothing more than fill in the division between silence and pain
with arbitrary black-and-white letters.
The diary cannot uncover the energy beneath the open wounds on my skull. Even if the procedure had a perfect memory to draw from, it could not travel the space between hand and head, incident and reverberation and not get lost.
I buy another scalp health product: rosemary-infused avocado oil. The herbaceous elixir would help a red potato out more than my red scalp; its slick cannot protect my skin from my self.
It’s like your parents are literally trying to get into your head, any way they can says my therapist, the only time I bring my practice up in session. He does not mention it again.
You need to stop romanticizing it my friend says.
I wake up hollowed out. I am a silver skate with its skeleton pulled away.I am going for a walk in a cosmogonic garden I know well. I planted it myself. I don’t even have to think about it.Abandoning the underlying causes, I pick a piece out of a hole I have kept open for at least three years. Maybe four. No longer trying to look under my head. Just opening the promise of my body’s largest organ.
The snake sheds. She says Look.This is me creating a relationship with a physical manifestation of my grief.This is my body seeking a pleasurable experience.
This is what it looks like.