I once heard the phrase, “healing is not linear.”
When it comes to my personal experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this couldn’t be more of an understatement.
I’ve been sexually abused a number of times.
Understandably, these traumatic events have left me with a sense of fear. I feared sex, I feared to be alone, I feared human contact even when it didn’t seem threatening. At times, the fear disappeared. At other times, I’d take a sharp downturn in my healing process, only to find myself terrified by everything unfamiliar.
The sudden changes in my mental state felt like emotional whiplash.
At the worst points, I couldn’t touch anyone.
Even accidental or consensual touch was unbearable. People who I know and trust, like my family members, aren’t exceptions to this rule. Despite my best efforts to remind myself that I’m safe and comfortable, I was repulsed by the idea of someone touching me.
The reaction was visceral: I tensed up, I felt nauseous, I got dizzy.
[bctt tweet=”Despite my best efforts to remind myself that I’m safe and comfortable, I was repulsed by the idea of someone touching me. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
I realized that I couldn’t even consent to touch. On an intellectual level, I thought I didn’t mind someone greeting me with a handshake or a kiss on my cheek.
In actuality, I’d be extremely upset by touch.
I felt like I was programmed incorrectly because my brain wanted one thing while my skin wanted something else. For a while, I was in a self-imposed state where I couldn’t have any physical contact with anyone else. I simply avoided the problem by not allowing anyone to touch me at all.
Have you ever tried to go for long without touch? It isn’t easy. Avoiding touch is one hurdle, being untouched is another. At one point, I watched a movie where two people were cuddling, and I burst into tears because I longed to feel that comfortable with someone else. That prompted an epiphany, that my lack of physical contact was making my mental state worse.
Psychologists call it “skin hunger” or “touch hunger.” It’s about aching for physical human contact.
In a story on skin hunger for Broadly, writer Sirin Kale points to a study conducted shortly after World War II by a psychologist named Harry Harlow.
In the study, baby monkeys were separated from their mothers. They were given a choice between a ‘mother’ constructed out of wire that provided food and another mother, made with cloth, who provided warmth and sensory stimulation. The baby monkeys preferred the cloth mother to the mother that provided food. This suggested that monkeys – and perhaps other mammals, like us – needed touch more than food.
More recently, studies have shown that human contact stimulates the release of oxytocin, which has a number of health benefits. Clinical trials show that oxytocin might help people feel less fatigued and function better on a physical level. It’s also linked to stress reduction.
On a very physiological level, touch helps our health, which is why it’s best to feed your skin hunger with human contact.
For those who experience nearly no contact, such as those living in solitary confinement within prisons, a lack of touch can be torturous. This extreme form of skin hunger is believed to be one of many reasons why solitary confinement is so harmful to one’s mental health.
Our bodies are, arguably, wired to crave physical contact with other humans. On the one hand, that sounds wholesome. On the other hand, it means I’m stuck in a paradox where I am simultaneously afraid of touch and yearning for it.
It’s not about sex, not hardly. I want to be held. I want a hug, yet I tense up and recoil the second a stranger brushes against me on the bus.
I experience life through the tips of my fingers. I have always been someone who loved to touch things, who sought out textile and sensory stimulation. I touch clothes before I decide to buy them. I touch my food before I decide whether I’ll eat it.
I hold hands with people to figure out whether I want to kiss them.
My skin has witnessed a great deal of trauma, too.
In times when my mind stopped functioning, my body was still there, living it. It absorbed all the pain I’ve experienced, and even after I tried working through the trauma in my mind, I felt it in my body.
Maybe my fingertips will be my way out of pain, too. I use my fingertips to type stories like these so that I can make sense of them, and so that others can understand. I allow myself to use my arms to hold babies and pets and friends, hoping these positive interactions will dilute the awful ones.
Healing might not be linear, but I have the feeling that I’m on a steady incline. Fearing touch is always a sign, to me, that I’m starting to go downhill. Ironically, forcing myself to touch people is the antidote to a deep depression.
So I hug my friends, cuddle my nephews, and hold hands with the people who mean the most to me. I feed the skin hunger with sensory shows of affection. It makes me feel better, almost like ET’s glowing finger is touching me, providing me with warmth and healing by simply caressing my skin.
Even at the coldest, lowest points of my PTSD, I remind myself that it gets better. I tell myself that I need to be brave enough to work through the errors in my muscle memory if I want to get better.
It’s a form of self-care that requires me looking my persistent fears in the face and allowing myself to show affection despite it.