Woman spent years hiding her face due to compulsive skin picking sessions

Like so many of us, Aubrey Wagner has a habit of picking at her skin.

Where she differs from an average pimple-popper, however, is that what starts as ‘fixing’ a blemish quickly becomes a compulsive skin-picking session that feels unstoppable.

This is dermatillomania, and it kept Audrey, 24, hiding her face away for years.

Aubrey’s compulsion began when she was 13, when she began to use skin-picking as an ‘unhealthy coping mechanism’ to try to relieve tension and anxiety.

She regularly found herself in a ‘trance’, looking in the mirror and picking at her face until she was left covered with bloody scabs.

Aubrey, of Columbia, South Carolina, US, said: ‘The longest time I’ve gone was probably six hours before I snapped out of it and realised what I was doing.

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What is dermatillomania?

Dermatillomania – also called excoriation disorder or skin picking disorder – is a mental health issue where you cannot stop picking at your skin.

Most of us pick at our skin a little, but it may be dermatillomania if you…

  • cannot stop picking your skin
  • cause cuts, bleeding or bruising by picking your skin
  • pick moles, freckles, spots or scars to try to ‘smooth’ or ‘perfect’ them
  • do not always realise you’re picking your skin or do it when you’re asleep
  • pick your skin when you feel anxious or stressed

It is often connected to obsessive compulsive disorder and other forms of anxiety

‘I found myself sitting on my counter and that made the time go by even quicker because I didn’t realise how long I was standing.

‘It’s so unconscious that once you step back from the mirror and you see yourself, it all hits and it’s like a drop in your stomach.

‘It’s really hard to look at after you’ve done something like that because the first thing you want to do is go and hide, and that’s what I would do.’

As her stress intensified, so did Aubrey’s picking. By the time she was in college, she was scratching at her skin almost every day, and felt huge amounts of shame around the open wounds on her face, legs, and back.

‘It just never ever really stopped,’ she said. ‘I felt like there was always a place on my face or my back that needed, in my mind, extra TLC.

‘I needed to pick it in order to make it better, that’s how I always thought about it.

‘But after a few hours or a little while of picking, you step back from the mirror and look at yourself. I would really feel disheartened about what I just did and have a rush of “what did I just do?”.

‘Every time I pick, often I would find myself bleeding with red sores. Those would tend to scab over in the next few days but they were open wounds that I would create.

‘It almost looked like I had chickenpox.’

The condition of her skin meant Aubrey experienced social anxiety, and often skipped out on meeting people because she was scared of them seeing her face.

‘No matter if I was just staying at home, I’d wear a face full of makeup just because I was so scared to show other people,’ she remembered.

‘I was not only ashamed. I didn’t feel pretty. I knew that a conversation was going to have to come about it and I just didn’t want to have it either.’

Aubrey was finally diagnosed with dermatillomania, which came as a ‘relief’ as she realised this was not an experience only she faced.

From there, she was able to begin tackling the obsession – and decided to document her journey on TikTok to help other people struggling.

‘When I put up my first TikTok videos, I really was doing it in order to hold myself accountable,’ Aubrey said.

‘It was so surprising when it gained popularity. I didn’t feel alone – for ten years, I thought I was.’

Little by little, Aubrey has been able to confront the condition, reducing her picking sessions and allowing her skin to heal.

She says the drop in her stress levels after graduating was a major factor in her recovery, along with the support she receives online.

Aubrey said: ‘A lot of people see my skin now and ask me “how did you stop?” and the craziest thing is I never really fully stopped, and I still haven’t.

‘I think that’s because the goal for so many people with dermatillomania is to stop picking and that was my goal for a really long time too.

‘But I figured out that that didn’t necessarily work for me. What did was slowly back off, little by little and celebrating when I did make progress.

‘With my mental health, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully stop and honestly, I think that’s ok.

‘I’m very proud of the progress that I’ve made and the scars on my skin don’t really bother me compared to what I used to do.

‘I don’t feel myself hiding my face anymore, which was crazy because I was so used to doing that in social settings. The amount of confidence I have is much higher.’

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