This has been a huge area for me, one I’ve had to re-negotiate throughout my life so far to try and find something that works for me. A lot of us who come through interpersonal trauma – where other people hurt us, are left with major struggles about touch. For me, I found that I’ve suffered when I’m touched, and I’ve suffered from being touch-starved. If you imagine for a moment that in your mind and body, there are three basic types of touch that you register and react to. One is touch that makes you feel good – a little baby holding on to your finger or a kiss from your lover or a hug from a friend. The next is touch that makes you feel bad, such as being hurt or invaded. The last is neutral touch, that doesn’t make you feel good or bad, inconsequential things like sitting against someone on the bus or brushing hands with a checkout operator handing you your bags.
I found this last category of touch collapsed completely for me and has been by far the hardest to get back. When I’m really struggling good touch goes too, but a lot of days when I can still enjoy good touch I can’t cope with neutral touch. I’m very sensitive to touch and it’s like my brain can’t work out how to handle neutral touch and does a very basic ‘what kind of touch is this?’ assessment that goes
- ‘does this feel good?’
- right then – ‘BAD TOUCH’
I’ve had to talk myself through re building a sense of neutral touch. It rests on feeling reasonably safe and calm, and for me at least, part of a community. Strangers don’t bother me if I am feeling content and like we’re all just people. Being able to cope with neutral touch is an important key for me to cope with medical and dental appointments, travelling on public transport and in lifts, accessing crowded places, using supermarkets – basic functioning in life.
Touch is actually a crucially important aspect of being human. Newborns need touch after being born. Untouched, they will simply die. Touch changes us on a physiological level, massages support immune function and health for example. Touch is crucial in attachment, in bonding, and in social connection. Touch communicates affection, loathing, power, or love.
As a child and teenager I was ostracised and bullied at school. Touch became a key issue. I struggled to define moral responses to abuse and contempt. I developed a basic set of parameters – that until another person touched me, I would manage the situation verbally. If they initiated contact physically, then I would defend myself physically. It became generally known in the school that I was not to be touched. This decision was to some extent effective in that it relieved me of the chronic anxiety and distress around how I was to respond to relentless bullying. However the unintended downside of this was that I struggled alone, untouched and without comfort. Following a major trauma I was diagnosed with PTSD and in that space – traumatised, alienated, chronically suicidal, and devoured by nightmares, my world without touch became surreal and terrifying. I craved touch, longed to be hugged, my self-made wall designed for protection left me free-falling, alone and outcast. I no longer felt part of the world or of humanity, without touch to connect me. With no anchors, I floated into surreal dissociative states, feeling unreal and chronically numb, punctuated by intense fury, distress, and self loathing.
A few years ago, I turned up to the Mental Illness Fellowship SA activity centre. My life had burned down and I was extremely isolated at the time. I sat on a couch, nervous in a room full of strangers. Someone sat down next to me and I concentrated on not flinching. As I sat there stiffly and awkward and silent, the whole side of my body next to the stranger began to warm. This yearning for contact came unbidden from deep inside me and I realised how solitary my world had become. The loneliness was profound.
Touch is powerful, and for some of us, touch has been withheld and we have starved without it, or touch has been used to wound us and now we struggle to define our relationship with it. Touch often defines power in our relationships – I’ve felt trapped at times with people who refuse me the right to withdraw from touch I do not want. I’ve become more assertive these days as I’ve discovered that if I protect my right to control touch, then my relationship with touch becomes less ambivalent and stressed. My good friends know to check before hugs, and not to take it personally if I don’t want to be hugged that day. Likewise, I do this for them. Because of this, touch has more and more of a place in my life now, which delights me.
People who don’t get this and fight my right to choose who and when and how I am touched are usually excluded from my networks. Some of them are simply bullies. Some are too naturally dominating to consider someone else’s needs. Some are under the illusion that if they impose touch upon me, I will ‘realise’ that it is safe and my boundaries are silly and unnecessary. Some take a preference not to be touched as a personal insult to them. The occasional few are sadists who enjoy touching someone who clearly is uncomfortable with it but lacks the social power to tell them to stop. I have a strong commitment in my life now; that loneliness is better than torture. People who don’t respect me, don’t get close to me.
Developing that power and honouring that need to protect myself has given me a lot more freedom. If I trust myself to protect myself (and my system trusts me to protect them – no accepting hugs if they’re screaming inside me) then suddenly neutral touch isn’t such a big deal. I’m not small and powerless any more, I’m a member of the community. I have a voice and I can take care of myself, which means I can engage. I don’t have to hide, or run, or fight. I can be part of the world when I want to. I talk about the mental flip from seeing other people as inherently dangerous to just regular people in my article Using Public Transport. Here’s an example:
I was on the bus the other day and a man was standing in the aisle next to me when I noticed that he had a big mop of long fluffy white cat fur stuck to his nice dark pants! I suspect he has a lovely white persian cat at home that had been sleeping next to him on the couch. It suddenly flipped how I saw him – from being a threatening man standing too close to me, to just a regular guy with a cat and not someone to be afraid of.
I crave this freedom. When the PTSD is too bad for me to handle crowds, strangers, confined spaces, being a passenger in someone else’s car, being out after dark, having other people in my home, being touched, new environments, loud environments, and so on, my world is very small, very painful, very lonely. I hate this place, it’s like being in a coffin.
There’s a thrill to being able to reclaim my place in the community. The more I protect myself and make myself feel safe, the more ‘risks’ I can take, like going to a concert I love. As I learn to reclaim touch it helps me manage experiences that typically are nightmares for me – like dental or medical appointments. It also frees me to have the ability to offer touch to someone else in need, to give a hug to a friend who is struggling or hold the hand of a psychiatric patient who is confused and distressed.
Touch is powerful. It can be my biggest trigger for anxiety and dissociation, such as when I get hugs following my talks at big conferences (see The Voices Vic Conference). It is also one of my strongest grounding techniques during anxiety attacks or major dissociative episodes. It’s a powerful way of communicating between people – acceptance, or rejection, affection or loathing, mutuality or domination. If touch is an area that has been damaged for you too, you can change how touch works in your life. You have the right to use it as a tool, to protect yourself from it, to seek out good touch, to be aware of the messages you send and accept through touch. There are more, and better, options than being touch starved or having to put up with touch that you find distressing and disempowering.