The Power of Touch

In the family I grew up in, touch was rarely a good thing. When my mother touched me, it was usually rough and careless. Or it was to cause harm. My step-father could be gentle, but it was tied to sexual abuse, which was another bad kind of touch, and he was very capable of inflicting great physical pain as well. Touch was generally not a good thing to happen.

After that I spent eight years belonging to and with nobody. Touch did not usually happen, and if it did, it was in the context of random sexual encounters. Not the best kind of sexual encounters, so it was no gentle and ‘nice’ touch. It was basically a continuation of what I already knew.

Then I met and moved in with my family. I was very suspicious of touch when we met. Or I understood it to have sexual implications. Gee, that woman is being gentle, she smiled and ran her hand over my shoulders, does she want to fuck me? Don’t laugh, that was what I thought. And I was suspicious of her motives for being nice for a long time. By now I call her mom and don’t think she wants to get in my panties anymore. (Snicker.) And I have learned to enjoy touch.

I used to go stiff and had an urge to squirm when I was touched. Now I can enjoy it. So what happened?

The most important thing is probably that I experienced that there is such a thing as safe, loving and respectful touch. That it can actually feel good. What made it feel good was that my mom always challenged me with regard to touch, but never forced it upon me. Forced touch is not safe, loving or respectful, it just sucks. Mom always respects it if I shrug her off, but never tires of trying again. And over the course of many, many months, the kinds of touches I would tolerate gradually increased.

Safe, loving and nurturing touch also has a tendency to reinforce itself. It feels good. Physical touch releases oxytocin, which is the chemical in the brain that is connected with everything good. It is an antidote to stress chemicals. It promotes bonding between two people. It helps bring the brain into a state in which it is capable of learning and re-wiring. It causes a good, safe and warm feeling. In short, it’s a pretty awesome chemical.

And then, on a psychological level, the fact that my mom touches me is really important, too. For one thing, it means that she is not grossed out by me. I have issues with feeling disgusting, and that sometimes makes it very, very hard to accept touch. But in turn the fact that my mom touches me, wants to touch me, helps me feel better about myself. After all, she wouldn’t touch me if she was repulsed by me, right?

For another thing, it means that she loves me and that I’m special to her and that I am her child. This is especially important to me because I was not born hers. But now I am and it means that she may touch me. Other people may not, but she may, because she’s my mom. If she stopped touching me, it would probably make me afraid that she doesn’t love me anymore, doesn’t want me as her child any longer. That she touches me is a daily reminder that everything is alright.

On a practical level it helps me feel myself. I have not a very good body perception and my mental representation of my own body has been really bad. The sensory feedback helps me be more aware of my body as a whole, of the individual body parts, and how it all feels. And how it feels different to get touched in different ways, like light touches, firmer touches, hugs and everything else. It all feels different.

And for yet another thing, the way in which my mom touches me, loving and gentle and nice, gives me positive messages about myself. She thinks this is the way I should be treated. I don’t always agree, but it does feel good nonetheless. It probably also helps me to tell unpleasant touch, like the kind that borders on abusive, apart from good kinds, because I *know* good kinds now.

Well, and for one last thing, it’s nice. I like it, because it calms me down, but also excites me in a good, happy way. I love the attention that goes with it. But also the slight thrill of trusting someone else to not hurt me and getting my trust rewarded with touch that feels good. It’s relaxing, too. Look at that picture of me smiling. That’s one of the rare authentic, happy and relaxed smiles that are usually reserved for my mom and for moments when we are “in touch”. Figuratively, but quite often also literally, like because I snuggled up to her, or she is stroking me.

I’d say that’s a pretty long list of the advantages of touch. That said, I’m still very far from being a touchy-feely person in general. I’m still guarded around most people and feel uneasy and uncomfortable when they want to touch me. I’m still quick to think of touch as sexually suggestive when I’m in a bad place, emotionally. I also struggle with certain kinds of touches, because they are triggering for me. Someone grabbing my upper arm, for example, makes me panic, or someone touching me when I don’t expect it, or from behind, unless I know exactly what’s happening. I also still hate getting touched by people who I don’t fully trust. But even with all those limitations it is very, very nice to now have a counterweight.

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On being an “adult with BPD”

It’s funny, because even as I type that sentence I snicker, it sounds so weird. I can’t speak for anyone else, so it might sound perfectly reasonable to others, but every bit of my BPD experience tells me there is no such thing as an “adult with BPD”. To me it’s an oxymoron, a statement that contradicts itself.

Adults know who they are. Adults know where they stand in life. Adults are capable of mature ways of thinking and feeling. Adults can accept responsibilities. Adults can make commitments and see them through, because they are able to realistically tell what they are capable of doing and usually have enough stability in their life so that outside factors won’t completely throw them either. Adults can handle their feelings. Adults can enter balanced relationships of give and take. Adults have enough emotional and social skills to deal with frustrations. Adults know how to keep themselves and others safe and healthy . . . I know that adults can struggle, too, and that things can be very hard for them, too, but in general they don’t fall apart and don’t just suddenly stop being adults.

People with BPD struggle with all those things that adults are capable of. When I look at myself, I know that I am very much capable of adult rational thought – but that’s about the end of it. I am an adult by years, but not by much else.

If you try to reach me as an adult, if you treat me like I were one, I will try to react like I were one. But it will be all façade. All faking it. I can only pretend to be an adult and it will work for a while, but you will not reach me. Can not reach me. Because there is no adult there. You will struggle just as much to tell who I am, as I am struggling, because all you get is air. A pretend adult.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like to get talked down to, either. I hate to feel overlooked and I hate it when someone isn’t taking me seriously. I’m really sensitive to getting called ‘childish’ or ‘immature’. I hate condescending remarks that suggest I’m an utter failure and not worth the time or effort. I feel horrible if I get talked to like I won’t understand a word that consists of more than two syllables. And just the same I hate it when people imply I am not my own person somehow.

I do, however, appreciate it, if people are – in a respectful way – aware that there is no adult at home in my body. I feel lost if I get adult responsibilities shoved my way. I feel lost if things are up to me. I feel lost if people expect me to be able to deal with the same things an adult can. And feeling lost makes me feel scared and helpless and terrible and like I can’t tell who I am at all anymore other than this great big failure, and that’s never a good thing to happen.

This probably sounds extremely weird to people who have grown up in a normal home in which they have learned all the things people need to learn in order to become an adult, who have yearned for the day when they finally get more freedom and more responsibility, for the day on which they can break free from the restrictions that their parents put upon them. It probably sounds weird to them that I yearn for the opposite.

I yearn for someone to provide healthy boundaries, healthy limits and making healthy choices for me. I yearn for someone to narrow my room down to something I am capable of handling. I yearn for someone to take me seriously, to love me and to give me a sense of who I am. I yearn for someone to care enough to limit my responsibilities and give me structure and a space I can overlook, and to help me with being successful within those limits. It makes me feel protected and loved, cared about and cared for and it makes me feel recognized for who I am, instead of who you wish I were.

I am convinced that the main reason why I have been able to improve as much as I have so far is that I found my family who were willing to be my parents for real. I live with many limitations. Other people in their mid-twenties who are proper adults would probably cringe and run. I’m not allowed to go places by myself. I’m not allowed to use social media, or to make phone calls that they know nothing of. They want to know where I am and what I am doing at all times. I am not allowed to surf the internet without someone keeping an eye on what pages I look at. I’m not allowed to lock a door in the house, except the bathroom door, which they could open with a tool from the outside if they thought it necessary. People who are of age shouldn’t get restricted like this, right?

Well, but in my case: wrong. My perspective on it is different. It doesn’t feel restricting, it feels safe. I’m okay with it. If I seriously disagreed, they wouldn’t be so restricting, but they are and it feels like they care. I don’t want any of those freedoms, I just want to feel that they are there, that they really love me and see the child that I am inside, without looking down on me or devaluing me for it. It’s the best kind of therapy I ever had. I’m gonna grow up when it’s time.

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