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.

Things that make me feel safe & loved

Since feeling safe and loved is something I struggle with a lot, I thought maybe it would be good to make a list of things that help those feelings along. To get some clarity, and maybe to actively seek out those things when I run low in a way that’s a little more constructive than becoming a nuisance to those around me.

So let’s see.

Things that make me feel safe:

  • Knowing someone is home with me.
  • Being in the same room with mom or dad.
  • Having the lights on at night.
  • That mom and dad don’t yell and only rarely raise their voices.
  • Having the same predictable routines every day.
  • That my mom keeps an eye on what I do and where I am. (Okay, it’s annoying, too, especially when I’m up to no good, but then, it’s kind of the point that she notices when I drift south before I’m all the way there, even when I hate it at the time.)
  • That mom takes my hand when we’re out and about on the streets, so I can relax and don’t need to stress about getting lost, and neither about losing face by actively taking her hand (yes, life is complicated).
  • Knowing in advance what’s planned for the day.
  • Getting things explained to me, so I don’t feel left out or stupid for not knowing something.
  • Getting included.
  • Mom and dad staying calm when I’m upset.
  • That we talk about things in the family.

So far so good. I have a feeling that those were the easier ones. The ‘love’ part is more difficult because I have an even harder time feeling loved than feeling safe, and I also feel more embarrassed about the things that make me feel loved. But I guess the point of this post is to try and figure it out and be honest about it, so here goes.

Things that make me feel loved:

  •  Sitting on mom’s lap. Yes, physically I’m kind of too big to be sitting on her lap, but emotionally there’s not a single thing in the world that compares to it. I’m lucky I’m small and light, but I guess I’d like it just as much if I were tall and big. (Poor mom, though, in that case.) It feels loving and safe and like she must really love me if she allows me on her lap. After all you don’t let people be that close who you don’t really like that much, right?!
  • Small things like mom and dad never leaving the house and waiting for me outside, even if I dilly-dally and they are long ready to go. I’d probably be way faster if they waited outside, because I hate being left behind, but they always wait and only leave the house when I’m with them.
  • That they see through my relationship tests and use them for good stuff. I often construct situations that invite them to give me negative relationship messages, to punish me or to discipline me. I am annoying on purpose to see what it takes to make them snap and lose it and show their “true face”. But instead of snapping or losing it, they acknowledge that I’m stressed, make me aware that I’m stressed and try their best to help me figure out what I need to feel safe in our relationship again. That they do that instead of taking the easy way, makes me feel like they care about me and love me.
  • That my mom pays attention to what I do, even when it’s nothing important, and either smiles or says something to let me know how she feels about what I do. I often do things just to see if she will notice, and nine out of ten times she does. That makes me feel like I’m important to her and like she loves me enough to care.

Those are only four things, and I’m sure there must be more, but I have a really hard time becoming aware of those things. I’m actually pleased I made it to four, plus explanations. 😉

Self-soothing skills and Borderline Personality Disorder

Still thinking about the social maturity and emotional maturity issues. Still talking about it with my mom, too, because she helps me keep my thoughts together and knows stuff. One thing she has been saying for a long time is that one key ability is for me to learn to self-soothe.

What is self-soothing?

I understand it to be the ability to calm myself down, emotionally, when I get upset. Not by going emotionally numb or by dissociating and not by using some unhealthy coping strategy like self-harm or drugs or distraction. Proper soothing myself, calming down, so that I don’t go off like a contact mine if anyone, myself included, makes only one more wrong move.

Mom says it’s an ability people usually learn when they are still young. Like, as babies, when they are upset and cry, someone comes, attends to them, gives them what they need and they calm down. Their brains produce “upset and stress chemicals” (forgot their names), but those don’t hang around for long, because soon some caregiver will do things that cause the baby’s brain to release soothing chemicals that neutralize the stress ones. The baby is fine again.

Then, by watching how the caregiver does that, and by experiencing that it does work over and over and over and over again, the baby, as it gets older and becomes a child, learns how to do it herself. And also learns to withstand a certain stress, because it knows from experience it will go away soon enough.

Kids like me, whose parents can’t be bothered, and even added a shitload of stress instead of making it go away, aren’t as lucky. If my brain gets stressed, it’s stressed for good. And it doesn’t take much to get really stressed either. Sure, I can turn to artificial soothers, like alcohol or cutting, or I can dissociate and just disconnect from my stressed brain if shit gets bad, but I have a hard time finding ways to release those soothing chemicals that make me okay again.

My mom can do it. She can usually soothe me. I watch how she does it – by being there, by comforting me physically with hugs, by taking me seriously even when I’m being unreasonable and by talking with me until I feel calmer again, but also by taking no crap. In a good way. But even when I know what she does, and that it works, I have trouble doing it by myself. Although I’ve gotten a bit better. I used to immediately act upon my feelings, and I don’t do that so much anymore. Like with the cereal mess this morning, all I wanted to do was destroy something, like throw my mp3 player on the floor and step on it (yes, pretty darn clever, I know), but I didn’t. So I guess I have gotten better at tolerating a stressed brain. I have also learned some small things I can do to calm down a bit.

Healthy stuff that I’ve learned, which helps soothe me:

  • crying – I used to never cry much, but it helps and now I cry a lot, over anything, and it probably helps doubly, because it also alerts others that something is wrong with me
  • talking – well, or ranting, more like. I used to bottle everything up, so that’s a big improvement
  • music – I learned to play the guitar and I sing and I find it helps to express my feelings with music, like by playing and singing angry stuff when I’m angry or sad stuff when I’m sad, etc.
  • seeking comfort from someone healthy – as opposed to going for a mindless fuck, lol
  • awareness and thinking – go figure! since I know more about the mechanisms of these things, I have an easier time pausing to actually think before I act on impulse. At least sometimes.

Well, and there’s one last thing, which I am really embarrassed to admit to. In my family everyone knows it and it’s no big deal, but people in general don’t really understand. Ah well, but as I recently learned how vulnerability is supposedly doing so much good, what the heck, I’ll say it: I use a pacifier. Like the same kind babies do. Only mine are way cooler, because I picked cool-looking ones and am not stuck with whatever is popped in my mouth, like a baby would be! Anyway, I don’t know why, but they work. They’re comforting. They feel kind of innocent and pure and like a good part of childhood that I never had. And for some reason they feel like I’m contained and don’t fall apart so much when I have a pacifier in my mouth. I don’t know if that is because they give me something to focus on, or for another reason, but it helps. Guess they’re called pacifiers for a reason.

Otherwise I’m normal, lol! As normal as I get, anyway. And I figure it’s healthier than smoking. 😉 (Gee, and now please, vulnerability thing, work out.)

Anyway, the point is, I really hope whatever I do helps my brain to get used to some of the good, soothing, positive chemicals hanging around. Not of the artificial happy pill kind, my body’s very own chemicals. For stability. I hope I get better at it, too. The little good chemical bastards are probably not used to being called into action so much, but I sure hope they get more used to it soon!

And I hope everyone who’s struggling finds good ways to soothe themselves. And can find someone healthy who can help with it. I believe it makes a real difference.

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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