Mrs. Carpenter took hold of the sleeve of my blue acrylic sweater and marched me to the front of the room. Too terrified to make a sound, I mimed “I’m sorry” in the general direction of the waste paper bin beside her desk. This would not do. Mrs. Carpenter was a firm believer in humiliation as deterrent, and for this to be effective the crime must be described and the apology voiced clearly to all 34 pupils. After four repetitions of steadily increasing volume and articulation, she was satisfied. “I’m sorry I picked my nose and ate the booger," had been heard at the back of the class .
After that, in public anyway, my wayward, probing digits switched from the inside of my nose to its epidermis. The substitution was made possible due to the fact that: a) we lived in California’s scorching San Joaquin Valley; b) my natural pallor was what was sometimes referred to as “death warmed over;” and c) it was the 1960’s, several decades before parents would come to fear social ostracism for failing to put sunscreen on their children. As a result, my poor, delicate, sunburned nose was in a perpetual state of recovery and decimation through most of the Vietnam War. I’d prematurely peel one side until it bled, then feel ashamed and embarrassed long enough for it to scab over, only to pick the scab. My snout usually resembled a type of lava landscaping rock, bearing craters and patches in hues ranging from pale pink to flaming scarlet. Often, alas, including blood red.
I was a consummate hula-hooper, I could pogo stick for an hour without falling, and no one west of the Rockies could beat me at jacks, but I simply could not control my hands. By fifth grade, I was digging little craters in my scalp. As the skin separated, the little tingle was almost like getting goosebumps; in a good way. While I was picking, I felt invisible, and I kind of hoped, since I couldn’t see its effects, that no one else could either, until one day a boy in my class asked how come I had a sore on my head. I told him I had bumped it on a nail in the shed. Then my mom noticed. I couldn’t get away with the nail story, so I claimed shock and ignorance as to how my scalp had come to be populated with little wounds. Unfortunately, mom decided I had a fungus. Even more unfortunately, she determined that the best thing to do for it was to paint it with something called gentian violet, a sure fire anti-fungal treatment used with great success on horses. I couldn’t see what it looked like on my skin, but according to the pupils of Mr. Sheffield’s math class, it was very, very purple.
I moved on to picking the calluses on my feet, sometimes peeling the layers of skin until the bottoms of my feet were bleeding. At least no one could see them. I applied Chapstick obsessively, so as not to be tempted by the uneven, slightly elevated edge of a flaky or uneven bit.
I’ve read websites filled with agonizing confessions of other pickers, theories on picking as a subcategory of obsessive-compulsive disorder, picking as evidence of self loathing and picking as fear of self expression. And to all this I cry: Guilty. But I am beginning to feel more kindly toward the rag-tag collection of weird neuroses that share my psyche; the ones I have tried to disown and exorcise all my life. Now, when the urge to pick is upon me, I pause, just for a moment, and ask myself if there is something I would like to do instead; perhaps something pleasant that wouldn’t end in self-flagellation and regret.
Sometimes there is.