Most people are polite enough not to say anything if they notice my hands. My fingers, raw and red and sometimes bleeding, are justifiably the cause of curiosity, if not outright concern. I am grateful, then, that the rules of decorum often shield me from having to explain that I suffer from dermatophagia, a disorder that has made me chew on my fingers for over 20 years.
People with dermatophagia—literally meaning “skin eating”—regularly experience the urge to bite their own skin.
This disorder falls into the body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) family and is widely accepted as being related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). (Other BFRBs you may know about include trichotillomania or hair-pulling disorder, and excoriation or skin-picking disorder.) While some people with OCD—which also involves practicing certain repetitive behaviors as a response to bad feelings like anxiety—experience dermatophagia, not everyone with dermatophagia has OCD. Sometimes it’s a manifestation of stress or anxiety or a habitual reaction to feeling uncomfortable, a coping mechanism of sorts.
Usually, as in my case, this happens on the fingers, but some people bite other parts of their body too, like the insides of their cheeks. I’ve never known anyone else familiar with it, and I hadn’t even heard of it myself until three years ago when I did some internet sleuthing. Googling symptoms can be misguided (to say nothing of getting sucked into long-abandoned Reddit threads) but I was confident in my self-diagnosis after seeing that the material aligned with my experience. Some people may never get professional help, and others do grow out of it. But I finally addressed it with a therapist last year.
I don’t remember exactly when or why I started biting, but I was in elementary school. I found solace in the practice despite my recognition of its somewhat bestial reality. But already socially introverted and shy as a child, I felt further isolation thinking that I was the only one who chewed her fingers—a belief which only compounded my shame. But I felt some relief when I discovered online that there are other people in the world like me. There is even a nickname for individuals with dermatophagia: “wolf biters” (a cool sobriquet that I wish had been granted to me for a better reason).
I relished learning that I wasn’t as alone as I originally thought. But with this satisfaction came some degree of discomfort as I realized there was yet another thing wrong with me. I now had a bona fide disorder, with an official title and everything. True, I had clinical depression since middle school, but depression, stigmatized though it may be, was at least something people could wrap their heads around. Dermatophagia was something altogether different. Despondency doesn’t get a side eye quite like eating your own flesh does.
Plenty of folks understand nail biting, and when people catch me chewing in public they often think I’m biting my fingernails. I appreciate when I’m able to blend in and appear normal. After all, nail biting is just a nervous tic. Innocuous; acceptable. A bad habit, maybe, but ultimately forgivable. Dermatophagia, on the other hand is just….weird.
Small things, like holding my hand out to get change from the cashier, typing on a keyboard, taking piano lessons, or using my hands in class when I was a teacher have all made me anxious, because my flawed fingers are front and center.
“What happened to your fingers?” asked a student of mine one day. At only 8 years old, she had not yet mastered the art of discretion. Embarrassed, I looked down at my hands, instinctively curling them into fists, thumbs tucked in, as I often did when I’d let my guard down and been seen. “You know how some people bite their nails?” I replied. She nodded. “Well,” I continued, “I bite my skin sometimes.” Seemingly satisfied with this succinct reply, she went back to her seat.
In the extremely limited dating life I had before meeting my husband in college, I spent some of that time fearing the moment that some guy would notice my fingers and ask about them (come on, an 8-year-old had). I was always grateful for dimly lit places and long-sleeved sweaters that I could pull down to provide me with the camouflage I needed. If a man tried to hold hands I’d wince, hoping he would feel only the parts that were soft and smooth and safe. I’ve always had the standard insecurities that many women have about their bodies (small breasts, unruly hair, imperfect skin) but then I also had this unusual mental health issue to boot. As you can imagine, this has done wonders for my self-esteem.
I know it grosses people out, but ultimately I wish people could understand that it is not easy to get this disorder under control.
I’ve tried to quit over the years a few times. Usually I can go a little while without biting, letting myself heal for a bit. But I return to my nibbling. I usually hit a point where I’m just unable to overcome the temptation. I tell myself that it’s not that bad, this thing I do.
Some days are better than others. I’ve noticed—and this is common with sufferers—that stressful situations exacerbate my dermatophagia. Whether it’s an upcoming deadline or an uncomfortable conversation, I pick and bite with abandon. Lots of people have comfort food; unfortunately mine happens to be my own skin.
I’ve tried getting manicures, putting disgusting tastes like nail polish remover or even my own earwax on the offending appendages, bandaging my fingertips, and other creative “cures.” I haven’t had long-term success with any of these methods. In addition to these temporary solutions, not even hurtful remarks from others, my vanity, or the ever-present possibility of infection through my open wounds have been enough to get me to stop permanently.
Nevertheless, I am definitely doing better than I used to be: These days, I try to pay attention to when I want to bite, and then find a distraction from it. Reducing stress also helps. I was able to go five weeks without biting—my longest period ever—when I cut out stressors. This month, I also joined a Facebook group for other people with BFRBs to find support and clarity for this frustrating disorder.
My dermatophagia is both a cause and a by-product of shame and stress—a cycle that I’ve been stuck in for over two decades. I can will myself to stop, for a period, but it is a huge challenge, and I am going to have to work at it every day.