April 11, 2016

The People →
Liz Atkin

39 → London, UK → Artist & Activist → Compulsive Skin Picking → Yoga, Meditation, Art.

1. Introducing Liz

R: Hi Liz tell us a little bit about yourself… Where do you live?

L: South London.

R: How old are you?

L: 39.

R: What do you do?

L: I’m a visual artist and creative practitioner.

R: How long have you been doing it?

L: I’ve been making art for more than a decade and been a freelance practitioner teaching for just over 2 years now.

R: Do you enjoy it?

L: I love it, best job in the world is to make art, and help inspire and support others to make art.

Liz with Bethlem Gallery Patron Grayson Perry 2015

R: What did you do before?

L: I worked as a Programme Manager for Dance at Trinity LABAN, a conservatoire for music and dance in London.

R: Did you study?

L: BA in Drama and Theatre and Masters in European Dance Theatre with Distinction.

R: What does home life look like – pets / kids?

L: I live and work in an art community called Havelock Walk.

R: What makes you happy?

L: Art, family, people, friends, theatre, community, health.

2. CSP & It’s Impact On Everyday Life

R: When did your CSP begin?

L: It began when I was 7 or 8 years old, I was at boarding school away from home and I picked the spots on my upper arms. I didn’t realise what I was doing until large wounds travelled down both arms. The next day it was a school spots day and when another child’s parent saw the marks and asked what they were I lied and said I had chicken pox. It was the first moment the shame and secrecy of the disorder began.

“It affected friendships, relationships and of course I had to maintain a system of lies and excuses every time someone spotted a scab or scar. It was exhausting. This disorder is very hard to cope with.”

R: Has it got worse over time? or better?

L: I’ve lived with the disorder for more than 20 years. At certain points it has been horrific, large parts of my back, chest and face littered with wounds. I grew up in a turbulent home with an alcoholic parent (who is now in recovery) and I think from my teens and 20s it was rife! But in my 30s I began to face it and have got better making art not just about the skin itself but also about the compulsion and repetitive behaviour of the illness.

R: How did CSP affect you as a child?

L: I hid it from everyone for more than 20 years. It dominated my thoughts, behaviour and clothing. At its worst I would pick in my sleep and wake up with blood on my bedsheets. It affected friendships, relationships and of course I had to maintain a system of lies and excuses every time someone spotted a scab or scar. It was exhausting. This disorder is very hard to cope with.

R: How would you describe CSP in your own words?

L: CSP is a complex physical and mental disorder. It involves picking at often healthy skin to the extent that wounds, marks and often permanent scarring can occur. The disorder affects 6% of the population, and can be a lifelong disorder. There is now evidence to suggest it might be hereditary. I can trace it in my family members. Treatment such as Habit Reversal Therapy or CBT can help transform and get people in control of the illness.

R: How does CSP interfere with a normal day?

L: I live largely with the disorder maintained – I think of it as a daily reprieve like an addict, I have to work hard to stop the tendency to pick everyday. This is why drawing and photography are daily companions – they are my tools for keeping well!

R: Do friends or colleagues notice your CSP?

L: I am open and honest about the disorder now in all aspects of my life, professionally and personally. but for many years maintained it is absolute secret. The shame at times was unbearable. Now I am an advocate speaking where I can to share this information with others. You never know who might encounter this article, recognise it and get help.

“I’ve had it longer than I haven’t had it, so it’s something that is part of me. Sounds strange but I wouldn’t want to lose it.”

R: Have you found any positive aspects of CSP?

L: CSP is likely to be a permanent companion in my life. I’ve had to learn to accept it, and in fact I have found value in it through my art. The compulsive repetitive movements of the illness are fascinating and full of information. As an artist, they provide a rich source of material to work with, I feel like I collaborate with the disorder! I have a lot of respect for CSP because no matter how awful or shameful it has been, at my lowest points, the illness has protected me. CSP doesn’t hurt, it’s a self grooming, comforting behaviour. So when I would be extremely anxious or frightened, CSP would sooth and calm me. Of course once a picking session would end, and the adrenalin subsided, i would be full of remorse and shame to look at the damage I’d done to my skin. It’s complex as it would be unconscious as well as conscious.

R: Do you think your life would be different without CSP?

L: I can’t imagine life without it.

R: If you had the option to lose your CSP would you?

L: I’ve had it longer than I haven’t had it, so it’s something that is part of me. Sounds strange but i wouldn’t want to lose it.

3. Liz’s Art

R: Can you give us an introduction to your work – What do you do? and
 how does your CSP interfere with your working process?

L: I am a visual artist based in London. Physicality underpins a creative practice with my skin as a primary source for corporeal artwork and imaginative transformation. Compulsive Skin Picking dominated my life for more than 20 years, but through a background in dance and theatre, I confronted the condition to harness creative repair and recovery. I create intimate artworks, photographs and performances exploring the body-focused repetitive behaviour of skin picking. I have exhibited in the UK, Australia, USA and Japan.

As a freelance creative practitioner I work in therapeutic settings, schools, galleries, prisons, hospitals and arts venues, teaching visual art, set design, movement and drama to all ages from early years to adults. I currently teach for Arts Depot, Half Moon Young People’s Theatre, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Extant.

I currently have work in Letting In The Light. Curated by Daily Life Ltd/ Bobby Baker, Outside In and Bethlem Gallery, this exhibition on light-boxes, showcases work by artists with personal experience of mental health issues. It can be found on the street opposite Stratford Library. Lit 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until 24th March. My work is in a solo exhibition at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Los Angeles from 2015 – 16.


In the Studio, by Lenka Rayn H

I am proud to be an artist affiliated with The Bethlem Gallery, a pioneering space for art and mental health in Beckenham.  The first solo exhibition of my work at Bethlem, My Singular Fascination, coincided with OCD Action Awareness Week in 2013. A second solo show was commissioned for the Anxiety Festival at ORTUS Maudsley Learning and Events Centre in 2014. I also took part in group shows Making Visible for the Winter Festival 2014/5 curated by The Bethlem Gallery at Southbank Centre, and the inaugural exhibition and events at the new Bethlem gallery space Where is the Work in the Work of Art? in 2015.


I have exhibited work at Institute of Mental Health for City Arts Nottingham’s Recovery and Dreams… exhibition 2013/14. My work was exhibited at the Skin Gallery for the Skin and Cancer Foundation in Melbourne, Australia, and I was an international contributor to the PAIN postcard show at LRG Gallery at the David Geffen School of Medicine, Los Angeles USA, 2014. Other London solo exhibitions include APT Gallery, Camden People’s Theatre, Siobhan Davies Studios, Blackheath Halls, and curated group shows for Impact Art Fair, Muxima, Parallax AF Pall Mall, Showcase Cities, and Rich Mix.

4. Treatment for CSP

R: Have you been officially diagnosed by a health professional?

L: Yes

R: What made you see a doctor?

L: I wanted to assure myself I was on the right recovery track without therapy by making art about it

R: Did they prescribe medication?

L: I wasn’t diagnosed until my 30s when I saw a specialist at Maudsley Hospital

R: Do you / Did you take medication?

L: No

R: How do you best manage CSP? – medication, meditation, yoga, alternative medicines or ?

L: Meditation and yoga are valuable tools I draw on too

R: Do you feel as if you’re in control now?

L: Yes, art is my greatest tool for recovery.

5. Being Proactive

R: Please introduce your advocacy…

L: I aim to raise awareness and advocate for Compulsive Skin Picking and mental illness through public talks, specialist commissions, residencies and exhibitions. My story and art has been profiled in features and interviews for BBC Breakfast, BBC World Service Outlook, BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, Al Jazeera TV and BBC Arabic TV’s art programme Afaq. My work has also featured in an article on Body Dysmorphic Disorder and art for VICE UK (Dec 2015), Diva Magazine (Feb 2016) and Marie Claire UK (2016). In 2016 I will deliver the keynote address at the Global Conference for Skin Picking and Hair Pulling Disorders in Dallas for TLC Foundation.

In the UK I have also spoken for Critical Voices Conference, Depression Alliance, Dragon Café / Mental Fight Club, Royal Society of Public Health. Most recently I was part of discussion panel for Changing Minds, a festival for mental health at Southbank Centre. International advocacy includes a week in California in October 2015 to coincide with my first USA solo exhibition at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.  I spoke to medical students and health professionals at Keck School of Medicine at University of Southern California, dance students at University of California: Santa Barbara and patients at The OCD Center of Los Angeles.

“Habit Reversal Training challenges CSP in two ways. Firstly, the individual learns how to become more consciously aware of situations and events that trigger skin-picking episodes. Secondly, you learn to utilise alternative behaviours in response to these situations and events.”

R: Do you have any advice to those with CSP, or those struggling with CSP?

L: Initially, see your GP. Many are still less informed about CSP than they are OCD, but you should receive a referral to psychologist or psychiatrist. Very often patients are referred, first of all, to a dermatologist, which may be appropriate if there is a skin disorder that needs treating, but ultimately you will also need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist for CBT.

A regular form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy may be used, although nowadays Habit Reversal Training (HRT) is the preferred method of treatment for CSP.

Habit Reversal Training challenges CSP in two ways. Firstly, the individual learns how to become more consciously aware of situations and events that trigger skin-picking episodes. Secondly, you learn to utilise alternative behaviours in response to these situations and events.

Habit Reversal was developed in the 1970s by psychologists Nathan Azrin and Gregory Nunn for treating nervous habits which are done automatically, such as tics, stammering and skin-picking. Therapy should focus initially on developing Habit Awareness and patients may be asked to keep records of when, where and under what circumstances they normally pick.

Tips for quitting:

  • If you get the urge to pick, try doing something that occupies your hands for a period of time until the urge passes, or even put gloves on your hands until the urge decreases. Even if you hold the urge off for 15 minutes you can work with it, next time try holding it off for 20 minutes and so on.
  • Keep your skin as clean as possible. Use anti-bacterial soap or an oil-free cleanser. Try to see a dermatologist. The more clear your skin is, the less of an urge you’ll have to pick at it.
  • Cover your mirror with paper if your face is the usual area that your picking focuses on. Set a timer in the bedrrom or bathroom to stop ‘zoning out’ in a location you might pick.
  • Use long or false nails! Some people say the thick tips help reduce picking.
  • As with all disorders in the OCD spectrum, stay busy.  The busier you are the less time your mind has to play with the urges to pick.
  • When tempted to pick, care for your skin by applying a moisturising lotion instead.
  • Get rid of all implements such as tweezers and pins used for picking.
  • Try replacing some of the sensory aspects of skin-picking with a more desirable alternative. For example, keep an object by you that you can manipulate (squeeze or pull) such as a soft rubber ball or some BluTak

R: What about some links to organisations that can provide help to those seeking? 

Useful websites:

6. Like-Minded Network

R: Can you recommend any therapists / doctors / specialists / coaches / mentors / clinics / foundations?

L: Dr Simon Darnley and Dr David Veale in the UK, Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit at Bethlem Hospital

7. What’s Next?

R: What’s on your horizon for 2016?

L: Please check this out! and this!

R: What next for your CSP?

L: I am the Keynote Speaker to open the 26th Global Conference for Skin Picking and Hairpulling Disorders in Dallas Texas on 13 April!

8. Connect

Website: www.lizatkin.com
Twitter: @LizAtkin
Instagram: @liz_atkin
FB: LizAtkinVisualArtist
YouTube: youtube.com/lizatkin

R: All the best Liz, thanks so much for being a part of Like-Minded Magazine.

Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Liz Atkin
Cover Photo and other images from LizAtkin.comLiz’s Twitter


2 Comments for The People →
Liz Atkin

  • Liz is awesome. Giving away work on the Tube in London is a beautiful thing to do. She’s a great advocate for helping people find compassion for those of us who struggle with mental health. AND she’s an amazing artist.

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