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.

Love Conquers All – the power of love . . . and its limitations

I grew up in a very loveless home. The closest thing to love were probably the moments when my stepfather was comfortably drunk and watching football, being at peace with the rest of the world, as long as my mother went in and out of the room to provide a ready supply of beer and food. During those moments she was the most important person to him and no crap came my way. Sometimes, in a rare moment of generosity, I would be given a handful of potato chips. I used to love football. With some luck it meant calm and peace while it lasted.

Most other things that could be considered ‘love’ were one big tangle of sexual abuse. Hugs and cuddles were never just hugs and cuddles. That I was not used to real love and understood positive attention and affection to be mere precursors to sex probably made it quite obvious to people in the helping profession that I was pretty much in need of love.

Maybe I should mention that to most people I seem to look physically attractive. I’m short and light and have long blonde hair. I look younger than I am. I seem to look a lot more innocent than I am, too. 

I was aware that many people I met along my way – social workers, nurses, therapists, you name them – took to me. For reasons of pity, charity, so I could be their success story, or just because they were idealistic . . . I don’t know which. For some reason I attracted their attention, even when I tried to be invisible. I can’t count how often someone thought that what I needed was love and kindness, someone to take an interest, good experiences . . . and I’d be better.

I suppose it’s a lovely thought. Love conquers all, and all that. But I never bought it. Love is just a word. If someone was kind to me, I absorbed all of the good stuff that I could take, I liked the person and even thought they were the one who would save me, that they were finally the one good person, but as screwed up as I was I had unrealistic expectations. That someone good couldn’t possibly disappoint me. So when it happened, I turned on them. I am capable of very awful behavior, and they were sure to get the worst of it. And I turned on me as well, for being such a horrible person.

But often before they disappointed me, I disappointed them. They invested feelings in me – some even said so, that what I really needed was some love – and were bitterly disappointed when I did not react as they expected. When I lied to them. Didn’t open up. Didn’t get better. Stole from them. Or others. Or that when they were so generous to invite me to their house I ended up having sex with their husband.

So they gave up. Declared me beyond repair and a despicable creature. Even by crazy people standards. Abandonment. Once again. Like I knew was going to happen. Fuck love. If love did shit, I would have gotten better. I hate love. Nothing but lies and deception and people feeling you owe them.

Then I met the people who are now my family. Went to live with them, because heck, what did I have to lose? Government run group homes sucked. So once again someone wanted to love me. Great. I knew how this was going to end. Knew it by heart. But hell, I’m a sucker for attention and they gave me plenty. Against better knowledge I also don’t tire of being tricked into feeling like THIS person will be the one good person, the one who will fix it. So I got a set of new therapists and family people.

And the mom there loved me. Said so, too. In English: everything was set up for failure!

Except that it worked out. The mom there was kind and affectionate, patient and gentle. But she was also not easy to manipulate. She would not melt with pity at some tear-jerking story I dished up. She was firm and consistent. She could be fun and good times, but no-nonsense, too. Yet never threatening. Or, well, very threatening, because I found love threatening and relationships threatening and everything threatening, but she managed to see that I was scared and found ways to bring the fear down to levels I could tolerate. She never allowed for situations to end before I felt safe, for the time being. More than once that meant staying up all night.

She has become my mom. She loves me. And it makes all the difference. Sometimes she, too, says “love conquers all”. Then I laugh, because that’s what all those people before her thought too, and I know how that turned out. But my mom is not delusional. She does not mean it in the way that love itself fixes stuff. It doesn’t. 

My mom has a metaphor that she uses when I laugh at her for saying love conquers all. She agrees that the way that won’t work is when people expect love itself and love alone to do the fixing. She says that’s like loving on broken china. You can love and love and love it all you want, it won’t magically become undamaged. BUT if you really love that piece of china, it will give you the strength and endurance to go looking for ways to fix it, even when it isn’t easy. The china will never be the same as before, because it will always have been fixed, but if you love it enough, you’ll do the very best you can to mend it the best possible way, even in the face of difficulty and setbacks and things taking a long time. Even when it doesn’t turn out perfect. Or not the way you originally wanted it to.

And even when I still laugh at her (come on, who’d spend ages trying to fix a piece of china? 😉 ) I think she might have a point. I think I finally got what love is. And I love my mom back. So, so much.

Love conquers all. Or well. Maybe not all. But a lot. If used properly.

(And now I’m done being philosophical. For at least a week. LOL. That took ages to write!)

Starved for Physical Affection

I used to be aloof and didn’t like to be touched. Except for sex, when I went on autopilot and didn’t care about what the other one did anymore as long as there was fucking involved, I never felt comfortable with touching people or with getting touched. It felt awkward and like they were invading my space. And I still shudder at the thought of some stranger accidentally brushing against me, like on a busy street. I hate that as much as I hate busy streets.

As far as my mom is concerned, however, I am starved for touch. For physical affection. For feeling she is there, physically, and wants ME there, holds and touches me. It’s not sexual at all (thank goodness, now THAT would be awkward!), but sometimes it really is an impractical amount of affection that I want. I am aware of it, yet I can’t stop myself.

It’s embarrassing to even write about. One part of me feels like I shouldn’t be so needy for physical affection. Like it’s some dirty secret that I am.

The other part of me doesn’t care. My mom hugging me feels like the sweet relief (ab)using benzos used to bring on initially. When I’m upset, feeling her hold me calms me down. When I feel like I don’t exist, it affirms that I’m there. When I’m nervous about something or anxious inside, it’s soothing. When I feel like nobody cares about me, her embrace allays the feeling. When I hate myself for craving it so much, her hugging me seems to say “it’s okay, it’s just right”.

being physically close

I think I annoy her a lot sometimes. I touch her to make her pay attention to me. I tug at her clothes or at her hair if I’m unhappy with something or feel unrest inside. I push up against her, especially when she’s busy talking to someone else, because I am jealous of the attention she’s giving them and feel like she has to make up to me for it, and because I can tolerate her directing her attention at someone else better when I can physically feel I’m still connected to her and she’s still aware that I am there, too. And I probably annoy her because I can’t hold on to the good feeling it gives me. The moment she lets go of me, it’s like stepping from a warm room into chilly night air. It doesn’t take long until I get cold.

I suppose my greatest contribution to anything resembling self-soothing is that I have learned, over the last months, to seek her out, rather than stay miserable by myself. And while I feel like it would be more appropriate, age wise, to have a boyfriend to turn to, I doubt boyfriends are fond of overly attached, over-jealous, smothering girlfriends. LOL. (Unless they’re even crazier than I maybe.) So a boyfriend would probably feel like I am getting too clingy and controlling, he’d want more space, I’d feel rejected and abandoned and the relationship would be a mess. So it’s probably good that I got a new mom instead of a boyfriend.

Even so, I wonder if it gets better. If I’m done being starved for physical affection eventually and am able to feel okay with less touching? My mom says she’s confident it will happen when the time is right. That scares me because right now I can only imagine the abandonment I’d feel if my mom stopped being there for me. So my crazy self hopes the time will never be right, because I like it the way it is and don’t want it to change. Ever.

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