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.