It starts in silence, a hand entering vision’s periphery. What does the hand want? How long has it been there? The hand is mine, the vision too. I am swiping across the screen of my phone, learning of more crimes against humanity perpetrated under the white hood of law. My fingers have stopped moving against my face, having found something — a papule, pustule, nodule. A quiet panic that is also a kind of thrill jangles in me. I touch it once, just to make sure it’s real. I am barely conscious that my fingers are doing any of this.
The phone still has my eyes, my heart: I’m imagining another unimaginable thing. Families severed at the border, violence visited upon the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, answering to no one, least of all me, my hand has been running renegade over skin, the longest border between self and world. Fingers rove face, arms, scalp, softly caressing at first then taking the bump between thumb and forefinger and beginning to squeeze, once, then again, then harder. I have become so inured to the pain it no longer registers as such. All I want is to squeeze out what I know is buried inside this glitch of skin: a seed, limned with blood, that my body has created without my permission. I smear it along the margins of a book or the folds of a tissue or flick it on a sidewalk from a fingernail.
I have a problem, and my problem has a name. As of 2013, it has also had a listing in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It’s called Excoriation Disorder, categorized as one of the obsessive–compulsive and related disorders. It affects less than 5% of the population, mostly women. In lay terms, we are skin-pickers. I am in constant, unconscious contact with my own skin. And I have laid it waste.
The self-consciousness I feel walking around with these scars I have created on my body is never far from my mind as I make my way through these bleak American days. And yet I persist in picking. I tell myself that it is a kind of hygiene, popping these zits, often before they have fully matured into zits, turning them, with my violence, into angrier, larger, bone-structure-distorting citizens of my face that reside longer on my derma than if I’d just let them be. Like other byproducts of late capitalism, my excoriation disorder requires convincing myself of the opposite of what is real: that despite the war zone of hyperpigmentation that I have created on my body, which I see reflected in the mirror, what I am doing to myself is really an effort at maintaining a kind of purity, a quest for perfection.
Knowing that the relationship between skin-picking and perfection is not just conjectural, but peer-reviewed, makes me feel less alone. But it does not stop me picking. I tell myself that my compulsion to pick is a desire to never pick again, and yet, if I were honest, I know that’s not true: today’s pus isn’t the last I’ll force forth. Not hardly. And yet I pursue each new unwanted growth, zeroing in on the invader in the mirror, patrolling already scorched earth. The zero tolerance I have for what I deem imperfections on my face has resulted in monuments of horror, even as I actively create horrors anew. The desire for perfection leaves my face more riddled with blemishes than if I had just — not.
“It’s best,” says Zakiya Rice, MD, a professor at Emory University, “to let a pimple run through its life span.”
Belonging to the first generation in my family to have been born in America, perfection has meant something powerful to me. To perfect myself has been a lifelong ambition, an inheritance of sorts. In simpler times, my father would make me lift my shirt and spin me around like a farm animal to make sure my eczema had cleared. If I did not think he loved me, it would have felt humiliating. It felt humiliating anyway. Even if my skin was temporarily clear and he smacked me hard on the back in affirmation. It made me happy to make him happy. It made him happy to see me perfect. It made me happy to be seen as perfect.
So I sought a perfect score on my SATs, a test gerrymandered around my brain, and so completed every practice test in my SAT prep book. When doing dishes, I strive to leave them spotless, scouring pots within an inch of their lives. I have spent perhaps years of my life marking mass emails as “read,” such is my disdain of unread messages in my Inbox, or untended notifications. There are no apps on my phone that need updating; you can check. Perfection is not a goal; it has all the bottomlessness of compulsion. America, this “more perfect union,” poisoned me, encouraged in me the desire to be perfect, which has become simply a desire to destroy myself. As we’ve struggled for an American kind of perfection, I and people like my black immigrant family who call this country home have come to realize that so many of those we called neighbors saw us as imperfections on the body of this land.
What Trump has brought to the fore, has filled with the bacteria of hate, is something I have known since I was six, when we moved to the pus-white suburbs outside of Atlanta, which real estate agents told my parents was the perfect place to raise children, where I was always the only black face in every class I ever took, where, in ninth grade, when I proudly wore my first pustule of puberty to lunch, a white boy snarled at it in disgust and told me to “pop that shit.” I obeyed, but the pimple didn’t. All that remains is the memory of his words, a scar on my chin.
Growing up in those white flight suburbs, it felt as though immigrant families like mine were pimples on the face of the body politic, one that the long arm of the law sought to bother until blood was drawn. As I have been destroying my face, so has the desire for a white America, echoed nightly by white supremacists on prominent media platforms, been destroying this already blighted country’s visage. Their idea of a more perfect union: one without families like mine. The act of ethnic cleansing, with all its connotations of purifying, perfection, is in fact a dirtying process, a self-soothing by way of self-wounding. With every tweet, every headline, that brings another shattering story of a systematic cleansing, I catch my other hand in my peripheral vision, cleansing my body. What is racism, too, but body-focused behavior?
But to know a problem is not to solve it; this is also something I must tell the immigrant child in me, who has perfected the art of submissive knowing, of the sufficiency of knowledge without action. Writing it all out in this way belies the fact there is no thought behind any of this, only id, only the same self-soothing impulse that leads a child to suck her thumb, throwing future teeth akimbo, as she deals with the trauma of American political violence.
I have begun trying to work on my perfectionist streak and the excoriation disorder it has created. For disorders like mine, specialists recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which dispenses with the search for the cause — anxiety, etc. — and rather focuses on developing new habits. I do homework, exercises. The immigrant child excels at homework. I wonder what CBT might look like for an empire picking its face to bone-white skull, what new habits can it develop to keep from scouring itself ugly and perfect, a country that daily tries to convince nonwhites, through word and deed, that we are pustules of infection. The violence we visit on the body politic spreads violence, much the way bacteria spreads from a ruptured zit, creating more dermal trauma, as we suffer through the autoimmune disorder of Trumposis. What the body needs are new habits, good habits rooted in reason, habits to remind us that perfectionism is no blessing, but a curse.
One of the ways my therapist treats my disorder is by having me keep a written log, not just of when I’ve picked my skin, but of those moments just before I do, as when scrolling through triggering headlines, or reading more news of state-sanctioned cruelty and the irrationality that breeds it. Writing can also a way to practice mindfulness, to look at your mind in the mirror, not simply your face.
I fantasize about America keeping such a log for itself. Like mine, it could document in detail not the violence it visits upon itself, but more importantly those quiet moments of distraction, depression, or anxiety right before, when the urge to perfect becomes the urge destroy everything deemed imperfect, so that it may look to its mind in the mirror and tend to the destruction that is already ravaging it from within.