Saturday, February 23

Touch Me... Touch Me Not

I thought I'd write about touch today. I don't know how articulate this post is going to be, as touch brings about a mess of emotions and thoughts inside my head. Which is why I'm writing. Hopefully it makes sense in the end.

I'm not sure how tactile I was as a child. My family is a loving family, and I guess we're giving with touch. I haven't seen other family dynamics, so I'm not sure what other families are like. No. That's not totally true. I realized when looking at my cousins that my family is different from the rough-and-tumble that might be a part of others. My nuclear family didn't wrestle, and the only thing that came close was at extended family gatherings with cousins. Even the sports we chose were no-contact. Swimming, diving, soccer (at least when I was young enough that kids didn't elbow me when the ref couldn't see - older than 10, soccer is a full-contact sport).

There were the sort of strange sensory quirks that seemed sort of normal but now are potentially explainable with the autism spectrum: my refusal to wear wool or long sleeves, my passion for sweat pants that stretched into middle school and then (when my mom, mortified that if I got my way I would attend 6th grade wearing sweat pants each day, bought only jean shorts that summer, then jeans and I had no other clothes that fit me) soft jeans, the assortment of food textures that would cause an unconscious gag reflex, and, even as a toddler, refusing to play in a sandbox or the dirt because I hated the feeling...

And then the others that I'm not sure I ever told anyone. That I couldn't sleep if someone's skin was touching mine, to the point of waking up in the middle of the night on a road trip because my little sister's finger had touched one of mine. That there was a painful physicality to loud music or flashing lights that made my head hurt. That every time someone touched me, I could almost feel it running up my spinal column, a deep emotional response resounding in my brain - for better or for worse. Touch was always charged with meaning.

I remember sitting in Sacrament meeting, my head down, with my mom drawing on my back. She would draw a letter, or a picture, and I would have to guess what it was. I remember being awful at the game. But the reason why I kept playing wasn't because I wanted to get better. It was because of the strangeness of the feeling. Each touch sent waves of shivers through my back. Not painful ones. Just an intense physiological response to something that, even in my little-kid brain, seemed like it should be normal.

I now know that hypersensitivity to touch is a somewhat common symptom of autistic spectrum disorders. Either way, I think it's probably that the intense physicality of  touch slowly and subconsciously made me avoid places and situations where I would be touched. I learned to find a seat where I wouldn't be touched when sitting down. Perhaps my choice in sports was motivated by it as well. And combined with awkwardness that I couldn't see and the natural difficulty with engaging in conversation or entering a group that I could, maybe my lack of touch just made sense to other people. David's a bit standoffish - he doesn't talk to most people; he doesn't touch people; he's not really like other people.

I don't think I could candidly write about touch without also writing about abuse. At 16 years old, I was sexually abused... and the exact, minute details in complete have been engrained in my psyche forever. The incredible grief, agony, guilt, despair, and self-loathing that accompanied the memory when it was first formed are gone. I know that it wasn't my fault. That God wasn't punishing me for being unfaithful in some way. That the experience didn't rob me of blessings that God has promised me. But the memory is still there, complete with the heightened sensations that, looking back, seem to be there every time someone touches me.

If I've been hypersensitive to touch, that could explain a lot. Being hypersensitive physically could subconsciously make me push people away. Attaching deep emotional connections to even an errant brush on my sleeve could make me touch others less to avoid playing with their emotions. I'm realizing now as I write this that, for most of my life, I've honestly assumed that everyone experiences life the way I do. I realize cognitively that that makes no sense. But that belief - that's another symptom of ASD - a difficulty in empathy. Not in empathizing with people once I understand what they're going through and realize that my normal isn't normal at all... but a difficulty in even recognizing that life could be any other way than how it is to me.

Maybe that's one reason why I never touched my dates unless occasion absolutely required. For me, touch carried a deep emotional weight that couldn't just be brushed off - proof that there was a connection there beyond just the casual... and since I knew I wasn't physically attracted to them (even before I admitted to myself that it was because of SSA), and couldn't honestly send that message, I couldn't touch them. It seemed almost like abuse - that sending that message, causing those feelings, would be violating their trust in me. I couldn't brush their arm with mine, or even allow that to happen, which undoubtedly created distance. No one ever asked me about it, but I could tell.
On my mission I gave bear hugs to other elders because that was the only type of hug I could do that wasn't so intense that it almost hurt. Just a hug... I'll just say that hugs are far more intense than bear hugs are. The irony is that the least painful hug for me was the one that would crack their backs and, if they didn't hug back, would also leave them gasping slightly for breath.

Another deeper irony, looking back over all of it, is that one of my primary love languages is physical touch.

I don't know if I'm still hypersensitive. Maybe I am. But that doesn't mean that I need to avoid touch - just that I need to understand it. I got over my abhorrence for long-sleeved shirts - I'm wearing a ribbed long-sleeve shirt right now. I tamed my gag reflex and can eat anything that's healthy, regardless of texture (or taste, but that's another story). I've fallen asleep with a baby in my arms, the heat of its body making me feel loved instead of burning. And I've held guys - in real hugs - who just needed to be loved.

And then last night, when depression hit me hard without warning, I found myself on the other side. Asking friends - guys - to hold me while I cried. And in that touch - again, not a bear hug, but a real one - I felt loved. It was the first time I've had the courage to ask... and the first time someone has held me when I really needed it, instead of me holding someone else. It was a feeling that bridged a gap that I didn't even realize was there.
I don't touch people because, after my own lifetime of avoidance, I haven't learned how to. Because I don't want to be awkward. Because I don't want to send the wrong messages (messages I probably misinterpret in the first place).

But I want to change that.

I think I'm learning what touch looks like to others. What I can do to physically show people that I love them, and how to stop sending vibes that say "touch me not." How I can pull down the walls that have been a part of my reality and let myself feel people - literally - and let them be a bigger part of my physical life.
 I got a massage a little while ago. I had been talking with a massage therapist about my essential oil company. She was giving away free 5-minute massages, and asked if I wanted one. I laid down on the table, fully clothed, with more than a bit of trepidation, and she tried to loosen my back, shoulders, and arms. She asked me after I stood up if that was my first-ever massage. It was. But hopefully I can get the courage to go back.

I've got a lifetime of knots to untie... and I can already tell that it's going to be an adventure.


  1. Very interesting...your posting made me think of an experience I had with my boss at work a few years ago. I said something funny, and she reached over to give me a friendly pat on the arm, and I automatically flinched and pulled away. I know it looked like I didn't want her to touch me, and we never discussed it, but it was the weirdest thing. I've never liked touching people too much, it just seems so intimate. If I'm in a situation where someone needs a hug, I almost have to tell myself to do it, because my inclination is not to. I don't mind shaking hands or something like that, but hugging, touching another person's hand, patting a person's back/arm, etc., just isn't something I do. I also notice that if I'm in an environment where I have to sit close to someone (like on an airplane), I tend to lean away from the person so that I don't touch them (or they touch me) even accidentally. I'll suddenly notice that my back hurts and I realize I'm sitting at some weird angle almost on one butt cheek. :) Humans...we can be so odd at times.

  2. Thank you for this insight. I really appreciate your willingness to share such intimate feelings about yourself because your post has really opened my eyes to something I had never really thought through before.

    I am TOTALLY a 'touchy' person. I love being touched, hugged, everything. I realize I often touch a person throughout a conversation (which in my mind shows them that I'm interested in what they are saying, that I understand them, love them, value them, etc.), and, since I worked for years in nursing homes, I always feel compelled to hold older folks hands and I touch and hug them a lot as I seem to 'believe' that all seniors 'need' all the touch they can get. To me, I think touch represents comfort, warmth, caring, affirmation, and love.

    So, thank you David, for helping me see that it isn't necessarily ALL GOOD for some people. Oh,there's a part of me that has always known and understood that some people are 'not into touching', and I have always tried to be respectful of that in my 'touching' (if I sense that a person is uncomfortable with being touched - I back off). But I have to admit, I think I did, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, believe that something was 'wrong' with a person who didn't respond well to touch, and I might have, at times, even been a little persistent in thinking 'I' should help this or that 'untouchy' person to 'improve' (learn to accept and enjoy the experience of touch).

    Seriously, I am a little embarrassed, as I realize the error in my thinking. Your post has helped me to realize that 'touch' can be a very complicated and intensely sensitive thing for some people. And, just because someone is not all 'touchy/feely', like me, does not mean that I'm right and they're wrong. I do need to be more respectful, more thoughtful, and more compassionate in a completely OPPOSITE way than I have even understood those words to be.... I see that sometimes, the way you show someone love and respect, and show them you value them as human beings, is by 'backing off' (and giving them their space).

    BTW -it is interesting though, that you say that one of your primary love languages is 'touch'. Clearly you have read one of my favorite books, The Five Languages of Love. Actually, 'touch' is probably my top love language,... I'll bet we both (being bloggers) have another similar love language which is high up on our lists.... TALK (in the form of type). ;)

    I would be interested if you would write more about this subject, and maybe explain your feelings on why you believe that 'touch' is one of your primary love languages when it seems, from what you are saying here, that it has been such a 'negative' sort of thing throughout your life. I really appreciate your insights and perspective. Thanks again.

    PS - I can totally relate to your comments of being 'bugged' by clothes, sleeves, etc. My mother always said that I have 'claustrophobia of clothes" ! lol

  3. I was definitely not a touchy person before my mission. I don't think I was particularly sensitive; I just didn't like to touch others or let them touch me. I felt it was strange when in the MTC, bear hugs were often given. And I've never ever enjoyed massages. I still don't. I served my mission in a culture where there wasn't really any sense of personal space, so I had to get over it somewhat. Now I'm better at touching, hugging, etc., but it still feels a little strange to me.

  4. You've mentioned that you swim. What is your experience with water? After all, it is swooshing against a large surface area of the body when you're swimming. Any aversions to immersion in water? What about shower water? May be a naive question, but I'm just curious. And how about animals or pets, being touched by cats, dogs, or holding them? Is that different from touch with humans?


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