Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

#MHYALit: Picking at Problems, a look at self harm by author Robison Wells


Today as we kick off our second week of #MHYALit, we are honored to host author Robison Wells, who is talking with us about self harm. Please note, there are some graphic pictures included.

Robison_Wells____Green_Hills_Photography_0My ten-year-old son, Sam, doesn’t like root beer. He doesn’t like any kind of soda pop. So last night, when we were sitting down to a pizza and root beer dinner, he declared loudly that that he thought it was awful. My wife said “I like it. And your dad likes it.”

Sam’s response to that? “Well, Dad picks at his head.” The implication was that, since I do something “crazy”, like skin-picking, why should he trust my opinion in anything else?

Obviously, he’s just a kid, and I’m not offended. This was a learning moment where I got to sit down with him and explain what it is: that it’s a disease, that it’s an impulse control disorder. I’m not picking at my scalp because I’m choosing to; I’m picking at my scalp because my brain craves it. This problem (called dermatillomania or trichotillomania depending on who you’re talking to) hasn’t been intensively studied neurologically—they don’t know exactly what is wrong with the brain to cause this behavior—but most doctors agree that it has something to do with OCD. And I know a LOT about OCD.

I’ve been dealing with OCD-based self-harm problems for about five years now. It started out strangely: whenever I would go down the stairs to my basement office, I would get the idea: “I would really like to fall down these stairs.” It moved to my hand—I wanted to punch the wall and break my hand. Finally it landed in my head: I wanted to punch myself in the face. I wanted my eyebrow to bleed. I wanted my nose to bleed. I had to always be on guard: I would sit with my left hand holding my right, as an extra reminder to myself not to act out. I took up model making, so that I would always have a paintbrush in my hand. I could never simply sit, unoccupied, or else I would start hurting myself.

And for as bloody and painful it looks, it felt so good. I remember one my wife and I were watching TV, and she said, “You know what I want? A caramel Oreo shake.” And I thought to myself, “You know what I want? To punch myself in the face.” I wasn’t thinking it negatively—I was saying it exactly like she was: like it would be such an indulgent treat that would make me feel better.

Fortunately, I’ve been on anti-psychotic medicine for several years now, and my OCD is getting under control. I am happy to say I haven’t punched myself for two years.

I have, on the other hand, scratched the hell out of my head. I have a hole in the back of my scalp that is about the size of a dime and my wife tells me (cuz I can’t see it) that it goes all the way down to robisonwells3the skull. And I have a new wound, front and center, that bleeds like a son of a gun.

And it’s totally out of control. I have five mental illnesses, four of which are mostly under control. I have panic disorder, and I still get panic attacks several times a week, but I know what to do—what meds to take, how to meditate, what music I should listen to, what TV I should (and shouldn’t) watch. I have agoraphobia, but I’m able to shop at a Walmart now, which is a pretty close to total success. I have depression, but it comes and goes, and has never been terrible. I have OCD, and that’s the biggest of my problems. It makes me hallucinate that my service dog, Annie, talks to me. I hear music when none is playing. I have rooms in my house I can’t enter because they’re not “safe”. But despite all of that, I’m SO MUCH better than I was a year ago, or two years ago, or five years ago.

But trichotillomania: man. I don’t even know what to say. Every bit of my scalp right now seems to be on fire. The skin is sore to the touch. But I still know that if I use that slightly-long nail on my middle finger, I can dig into the skin just a little bit deeper and make it start bleeding again.

So, I’ve finally started to write about it. My next manuscript is about a teenage girl that is facing all of these problems. Will it be therapeutic? Yes. I have never found the cure to anything by hiding the problem. I never started getting better with my panic disorder until I told people about it. Before, I’d been lying: I made up reasons for why I couldn’t go places. I was having car trouble; my kids were sick; there was a family emergency. So I finally “came out of the closet”, as it were, and announced on my blog and social media that I was sick. And, while I expected a terrible response, I found that most people were not just accepting, but eager to help.

When I speak at schools, I talk about how to write, or how to publish, or how to get more out of reading, but no matter the subject matter, I always end with this: No one achieves success alone. This is true of authors, but also entrepreneurs, students, professionals, everyone. Behind me in this fight with my brain, I have a sacrificing, loving wife. I have a psychiatrist. I have a psychologist. I have my parents. I have my brother and sister. I have my writing group. I have my service dog. The help from these people is every bit as important as the medicine I take.

If you are sick, don’t be afraid to tell the truth. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. One in five people have some sort of mental illness. Don’t feel alone. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, talk to me. My email address is robisonwells@gmail.com, and I’ll talk to you any day of the week. You’re not alone.

Meet Author Robison Wells

Robison Wells is the author of the Blackout series (Blackout, Dead Zone) and Variant series (Variant, Feedback). You can find out more about Robison Wells by visiting his webpage.  You can also follow him on Twitter @robisonwells.

For more information about teen mental health, please visit Teen Mental Heath.org or Teen Screen.org.

Read Robison Wells previous post How Mental Illness Tried and Failed to Ruin My Life

See all the #MHYALit Posts Here

Coming in 2016 from Harper Teen . . .

darkenergyDark Energy by Robison Wells


Five days ago, a massive UFO crashed in the Midwest, killing thousands of people. Since then, nothing–or no one–has come out.


If it were up to Alice, she’d be watching all of this on the news from Miami, Florida. Instead, she’s the newest student at a boarding school not far from the crash site–because her dad is the director of special projects for NASA, and if anything’s a special project, it’s this.


A shell-shocked country is waiting, glued to televisions and computer screens, for a sign of what the future holds. But when the aliens emerge, they’re nothing like what Alice expected. And only one thing is clear: Nothing will ever be the same again.

Speak Your Mind