Beneath the Layers

With warm weather arriving in my neck of the woods, I am reminded why the carefree air of the summer is really a prison for those of us who are permanently scarred and unable to conjure the confidence in wearing what we want when facing the general public. Tank tops, shorts, skirts, and even sandals for some of us are so daunting to even consider that we block out these forms of attire as options for our own wardrobe. Okay, some of us may hold onto that one shirt or pair of shorts in hopes that our scars will fade and they will only be distant memories to never be revisited but those items just start collecting dust in our closet or our… wait, where did it go?

I had just turned 14 and little did I know, what I was battling under my butterfly-sparkled jeans would carry through into my adult years. During this particular summer I was invited to go swimming with two acquaintances from school at a local lake. At this point, I was already refusing to swim at the beach because of the spontaneity of the red marks that would infest my legs so my standards downgraded and I ventured off to this dirty little indent of the woods (gorgeous, mind you). The girls I went with had readily ripped off their shorts and tees to soon dunk themselves in the refreshing calm of the water while I stood there, in my tee shirt and jeans, nervous about my transition from land into liquid. Before they immersed themselves, I asked if they could turn around and let me in first. They were visibly, and understandably puzzled, but they were patient and made a 180 turn while I rushed in. When it was time to get out, a similar procedure took place which prompted me to promise myself to not do that again or else people will figure out I’m “different”… even if I didn’t understand the full magnitude of what was happening within me.

There are only so many times you can tell your friends that you’re on your period and can’t swim.

There are only so many times that friends will call you before they just stop wasting their time.

Rewind about 5 years: I was well known in the family for my endurance in treading water, zillions of made-up underwater tricks, and passion for any body of water that could carry my overgrown frame uniformly. The summer was the time I’d really come alive with sunny days outlasting the dark of night and neighborhood kids filling the parks (back when children played outside!). Most importantly, I would love going to beach with my mom and sister while my father either sat under a tree reading or went for Tim Horton’s hot chocolate runs. Yes, we had strange choices in beverages considering the temperature but it was our special tradition that no one else could mirror.

ChestJune3

Anxiety in physical form.

Jumping back from my teenage years to present, some days my unfamiliar disadvantage wasn’t only restricted to “no beach/ swimming”, but to no leaving the house at all. It would be so pathetically hot that not only would my bundled-up self stick out like a sore thumb, it wasn’t practical to leave the confines of my AC’ed apartment just to fall victim to penetrating UV rays. It’s easy to see how one would begin to hate her body for lacking a clear complexion and hate herself for being the root cause of her all-encompassing isolation. Every time someone questioned me on my clothing, I’d immediately tense up in fear that I’d somehow be found out and be the subject of social suicide.

“Aren’t you hot? Why aren’t you wearing shorts?”

“How are you not melting? Only an idiot would be wearing pants today!”

“Do you even own a pair of shorts? How can you always wear pants???”

Only the most observant would ask this question with it being terrifying in its investigative nature and the real answer would stay with me; no, except for an old blue pair of Adidas shorts I wore as a kid, a gag joke pair of shorts, and a pair I disastrously made in grade 7 or 8 sewing class. I did buy myself a pair of shiny black “girly” shorts in grade 8 to commemorate transitioning from a tomboy into a young woman but I barely had the chance to wear them except on a few “good days”, but never again. Letting those go was part of a confirmation that I was way in over my head with whatever was happening with my skin.

I have been to the beach in my twenties only a handful of times, every time planting myself at the secluded parts of the beach to not have ‘the stares’. The people I have been with knew about my disorder and didn’t discriminate so I felt more comfortable than my 14 year old self was. Being at the TLC conference in San Francisco in 2011 excited me when I learned that the hotel had a pool. I justified my ability to show my scars in a public pool (first time I’ve seen one since elementary school) because a good chunk of the visitors were there knowing the shame of Trichotillomania and Dermatillomania.

I went swimming later at night: my groomed excuse-making self would tell someone it was purely because time didn’t permit any daytime splashes when ultimately I felt more at ease knowing that people would either be out on the town or sleeping when I visited the pool. Unlike my years of drowning in a planned demise, contemplation of having my scars showing is no longer about being ashamed or embarrassed- it’s about going along my day undisturbed most other people have the luxury of doing. To the world, I’m just another ordinary brunette with some pimples on her face- little do they know what lies beneath.

The way I turned out.

The way I turned out.

As an advocate of Dermatillomania awareness, I feel pressured to leave my comfort zone as proof of my dedication to the cause and willingness to promote self-love. Hell, some days I feel pressured from my own doing to find a way to be “cured” (relative since we must always maintain, just like an alcoholic) because my voice isn’t as valiant as someone who can say, I beat this disorder… it will not take up one more hour of my life. The thing is… I love myself. I love my life. I’m still insecure, but that comes from most of my years being told that I was ugly, not good enough, unworthy, fat, and not feminine enough.

I look at these images and see a thick waist that I’m okay with despite gaining 15 pounds since my back ‘injury” nearly 8 months ago. I’m naturally hairy and my left breast is more developed, but are those determinants of my lack of beauty? I don’t have a background in diagnosing dermatological issues so I can only speculate that the vast amounts of cellulite on my upper legs is from picking the elasticity out of my skin, leaving sagging lumps in its place (I have never been overweight by more than 3 pounds). I’ve seen better days with my picking but I am proud of what triggered a higher intensity of it- I was awaiting news that could change my life for the better, which has worked out my way but for now… it’s a secret.  🙂

This is my body. No one can tell me what I should or shouldn’t wear, what I should look like, or what I should do with it. People can tell me that I look “gross”, “disgusting”, “horrible”, and all other things I’ve heard before but that reflects on them being self-righteous beings who feel redeemed after making someone else feel crappy. Only a year ago did I see in a comment on Facebook that I wish I had the courage to model with showing my scars (secretly wanting to be a derma-model) and not long afterward, I did it! We are all works in progress and find inspiration in support and watching others grow, overcoming challenges that we can’t imagine fighting through.

This battered- up body has gotten me through a lot over the years. It’s proof that yes, I am still alive- now more than ever. My fiancé promised me that when we move into a house, he will buy me a swimming pool; before our relationship I wanted it for the privacy of unnoticed freedom in my play but with the personal strides I’ve made I now want it as my very own luxury item- a splurge to give myself my very own slice of paradise. I still pick at my skin, cover up my affected areas, and melt in the summer but nothing will ever again stop me from the purest joy that comes from swimming.

  • Lae

    I looooooove this!!! Resonates so much with me. The swimming part not as much–I can’t swim and have never been fond of public pools (too germy) or oceans (too scary!), but even just the freedom to roam the beach in a bikini has eluded me. This is so well-written.

    We’re so lucky to have you as a champion. I can’t even tell you the difference you’ve made in my life for the better!

    • Thank you, Lae! That means so much to me! <3 I really hope to make things a little easier for sufferers with the open forum I've created to talk about Dermatillomania. Being out in the sun, wearing what I want and not caring... feeling its warmth pulse through my skin is a start, even if I don't get the chance to swim. There's such a peace and a freedom, like you mention! A carefree bliss, but maybe moreso for me since it's something that has run further away from me.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this 🙂 Everything you write I’ve thought a hundred times… that’s how similar our struggles are! I have always avoided the beach/swimming pools/spas and I think the last time I wore a bikini (with long board shorts mind you) was when I was 14 years old. Now I don’t even own a bathing suit and I’m not even sure if I entered the water if I would remember how to swim or not. I love your pictures! They look like mine and they make me feel good about myself knowing that even though I have these spots and scars maybe I can flaunt them too instead of being so ashamed and embarrassed of them! You’re beautiful Angie and a true inspiration!

    • Ah, so puberty wasn’t kind to you either? I find that symptoms exaggerate for sufferers at roughly 4, 13, or 50 years old! The bathing suit I’m wearing is one I purchased last year- other than that, I’ve owned the same tankini since I was 13 and wore that on the rare occasions I had the chance to swim (like in San Francisco!).

      Thank you so much for responding to this. I’ve actually felt a bit crummy since posting these images and my hardships of summer because it’s a reminder of the months up ahead. In time we will be able to muster the courage but just like before you “come out” to someone, you must feel that it is time to do it to avoid any sort of setbacks in your recovery (whether “recovery” means to not be picking or bettering your quality of life)! <3

      • I started when I was 4 and I’ll be 25 this year! When I turned 14 was when I learnt that covering up meant less bullying and less questioning! Although now I get questioned about why I’m wearing so many clothes when it’s so hot, so you can’t really win either way I guess. Your pictures demonstrate your courage and you should be feeling proud not crummy!! I got my camera out after this and took a few pictures of myself as well. I know what you mean about “coming out”… I often toy with the idea of just telling everyone what it is I really do to my skin but Iike you said, I’m just waiting to muster up that courage!

  • Melissa

    Thank you for this. when I saw the pictures I couldn’t believe you did it. I’ve tried taking pictures of myself as a reminder of where I want to be but it’s too hard to look at. you are truly inspiring for embracing all of who we are. I bought a bathing suit recently in hopes of wearing it this summer. Because of you i will make sure i live up to that and enjoy everything this season has in store.

    Thanks again

  • C

    Thank you so much. I have gotten mine mostly under control (mostly) but my legs are still spotted dark with my shame. I failed PE once, almost twice, because I couldn’t, I just couldn’t swim. I try to erase my scars with cremes, but they’re still there. This summer was the first in many years I was able to take off my socks and roll up my pants to wade in a creek. It was terrifying, but I was so grateful. I’m so used to lying to people about it, little lies all over. Thank you for helping me to understand. And for going public with your scars. Thank you. One day maybe I’ll be able to wear shorts to school with sandals.

  • Gabby

    Thank you for this article! I pick mostly my face and scars are VERY visible and my complexion is jst awful. But I restrain from covering it up because it will take up so much time and so much concealer ha ha. And it still wouldnt look nice, just like “she wears a lot of make up to cover up her blemishes and scars”. So I just dont do it. I used to wear a lot of make up to cover things up. In high school I had severe scarring on my back but now, 4 years later, scars are barely visible as I no longer pick my back. But I still pick my face and create new scars and new wounds….