The Phoenix Zine

Touch: The Most Frightening Word in the English Language

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Touch.  It sounds like an innocuous word, but it scares the crap out of me.  The other day a friend of mine commented that in all the time we’ve known each other, we’ve never touched.  He’s right.

Physically, I keep to myself.  I rarely initiate physical contact with anyone, and if I do, I am hyper aware of feeling awkward and vulnerable.  This is because in my life, there are three kinds of touch: medical (as previously discussed in my Boundaries post), intimate, and affectionate.

I’ve been dealing with medical touch ever since I was born with clubbed feet and a broken collar bone.  My primary years of development were a steep learning curve of letting strangers look at and touch my body, often in painful ways.  My parents did the best they could and were/are physically affectionate, but years of having little control over who got to touch my body and how had an effect on me.

Being expected to let some people (my family) treat my body with love and respect while allowing others (doctors) to touch me and cause me pain was a contradiction to me.  Somewhere along the way I decided the contradiction was too much for me and it would be easier to avoid touch altogether rather than deal with it.  My body could be loved, or it could be a test subject, and since my medical problems weren’t going anywhere, I chose test subject for emotional survival.

Time passed and I entered my dating years.  Contradiction re-entered my life in a heartbeat as I realised test subject mentality and intimate touch didn’t mesh well and left me feeling disconnected to my body.  In my opinion, there was my body, and there was me (my mind).  This disconnection serves a purpose when I have to deal with medical touch, but when it comes to intimate touch I have great difficulty being in my body enjoying sensation rather than in my mind, detached and observing. 

I was also mystified by the fact that while I was expected and even encouraged to let doctors who were complete strangers touch my body, I was also taught there was a time and a place for intimate touch and that was marriage.  As I grew older the disparity of the two ideas bothered me.  Impersonal, clinical touch is acceptable; loving, pleasurable touch is not.  Eventually I decided that if I had so little control over who got to touch me in a medical setting, then I was definitely going to take my control back by deciding who did and didn’t get to touch me in a intimate way.

Affectionate touch is separate thing entirely.  This kind of touch is often received from friends and family, although I have met strangers who are naturally affectionate.  I am not one of those people.  I tend to save my hugs and other forms of physical contact for birthdays and holidays, and when I see my four year-old niece I have to remind myself that it’s okay to touch her.

Of the three kinds of touch, affectionate is the one that scares me the most.  Medical and intimate touch both have a purpose.  For medical, it’s about examining and fixing the body.  For intimate, it’s about giving and receiving pleasure.  Affectionate touch is the most difficult for me because it is purely about love, and is unselfish in nature.  Affectionate touch has the power to make me question whether I deserve to be a test subject or not.  It also has the power to reduce my carefully established mental boundaries and defenses to rubble and me to a crying mess in the process.  In other words, affectionate touch is the most dangerous kind of touch in my life.

Having my heart transplant put me right back where I never wanted to be again, in the shoes of my two to six year-old self. I don’t like to think about that time of my life because while I don’t remember a lot of specifics, feelings of fear and pain overwhelm me when I do think about it.  That is when the disconnection between my mind and body began.  I retreated into my mind after my heart transplant again in the face of the increased medical touch, and avoiding affectionate touch is relatively easy when everyone knows you’ve just had your chest cracked and you’re immunosuppressed. 

My heart transplant is five months in the past, and I find myself envious of those to whom touch seems to be as natural as breathing.  Touch is something I have to consciously think about doing, and the anxiety it causes me often prevents me from following through. 

Now it’s about reconnecting my mind and my body.  Medical touch is always going to be a part of my life and I have to deal with that.  And although I hate the contradiction, I’m beginning to realise I can feel like a test subject and still be worthy of being loved at the same time.  At the moment it is about taking baby steps: shaking hands with a friend, not jumping when my niece unexpectedly puts her arms around me for a hug, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with my sister.  In time, I hope to put into practice ideas that have been nagging me from the back of my mind for a while.  Ideas like needing physical affection is normal and doesn’t mean I’m weak.  Ideas like I have a lot in my past to grieve for that I should let out.  And the scariest of all, ideas like grieving in front of others and seeking physical support is okay and, wonder of wonders, possibly even expected.