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A conversation with Artist Liz Atkin

I had the good fortune of catching up with Liz Atkin earlier this week.

Liz is a passionate and engaging individual and having the opportunity to hear her story first hand was fascinating.

For those who do not know of Liz and her work, she is an incredibly talented visual artist and creative practitioner.

Liz has also lived with Compulsive Skin Picking Disorder (CSP) since she was 7 years old. Speaking openly of the disorder and its impact on daily life, she explains in detail the emotional and physical impact living with CSP creates.

Shame and guilt are emotions that are referred to on several occasions throughout our conversation; explaining that it is common place for people living with CSP to participate in protective behaviours as a result of the emotions they feel. Liz herself described not wearing a T shirt for years and hiding any marks and scars on her body with makeup.

CSP can have a very debilitating effect on the person, affecting health, relationships and work. There are many misconceptions around CSP, one of which is that, the element of picking is not to damage the skin, but is in fact to perfect the skin.

For Liz, the picking action is not a painful act, but is in fact a calming behaviour, of which Liz explained she can ‘zone out’ for long periods of time.

In 2005, Liz began a masters in dance, it was during a visual recording activity that she realised just how much of an issue her skin picking had become, in Liz’s own words, when looking at the playback footage, she could see that she lasted for 12 seconds before the skin picking began. The impact of viewing the footage had a dramatic and emotional effect.

Having lived with her condition undiagnosed for 20 years, the recording incident prompted Liz to start talking about what was happening to her, this was the turning point and the acceptance that this was an illness, and not just something that she just happened to live with.

Around 18 months ago, a friend gave Liz a sketchbook and some charcoal. Making art with charcoal was initially a distraction tool, however It soon became apparent that the art became compulsive in a sense, artistic motion mirroring skin picking movements. Liz recognizes the strong link between her art and skin picking behaviours, describing an almost collaboration between the two. Despite the link, Liz very much recognizes that her art is a way of managing her illness.

Art soon became the tool which empowered, or as Liz describes, art became the saviour.

Compulsive Charcoal

Liz draws with charcoal on free papers whilst travelling in London on public transport and then either leaves the drawing or gives it to commuters.

Through her Compulsive Charcoal work, Liz has in a sense become an informal mental health advocate, she has found a way to connect with people in an everyday setting and hearing her describe the love of seeing people reacting to her work is a delight – initially they are intrigued, some move to sit closer and then more generally than not the conversation will begin.

Liz will often explain that she has an illness and from there the connection can really begin. Through her conversations, she has found herself in the unique position of raising awareness of CSP. People really seem to respond, opening up about themselves or friends and family

CSP falls within the Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviour category (BFRB), which also includes other disorders such as Hair-pulling. Unfortunately, these type of disorders are not always recognized and as a result the numbers of people living with this condition are under-diagnosed and treatments hard to access as a result.

Being involved in raising awareness of the condition, Liz has found herself spending time in America, as this is predominantly where most research around CSP is taking place.

Liz hopes that through raising awareness here in the UK, we can not only mirror the work being done in US, but also bring support and treatment to the many people living in the UK and throughout the world with CSP.

Liz Atkin is a visual artist based in London. Physicality underpins a creative practice with my skin as a primary source for corporeal artwork and imaginative transformation. I’m an advocate for Compulsive Skin Picking, a disorder which dominated my life for more than 20 years. 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 widely, in UK, Australia, USA and Japan. As a creative practitioner I work in therapeutic settings, schools, galleries, prisons, hospitals and arts venues, teaching all ages from early years to adults. 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. 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)

Find more from Liz Atkin here

Find help and advice via TLC Foundation for BFRBs – leading resource worldwide for these disorders.

BFRB week takes place from 1st – 7th October 2016. Please tweet your support using the #BFRBweek raising much needed awareness within the UK.

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