To Touch and be Touched
Today on Twitter, I said:
Forgetting and then remembering you can be very tactilely affectionate in a world that discourages it is momentarily jarring.
And it’s true. I think, as a kid, if I liked you, and hadn’t seen you in a while, my immediate impulse was to hug you in a sort of “welcome back!” gesture. I know that I would insinuate myself into people’s sides (or laps, when I was small enough) to be able to be with the people I liked. There are strong memories (and probably a few pictures) of me in some of my dad’s student’s laps during strike parties*, assisting in hands of Password, Domino, or rounds of Charades.
When I was growing up, I was told to stop acting like that. “Don’t climb into his lap, honey. You’re getting too big for that.” And sometimes, we translate it to mean people don’t want hugs either. In some ways, that’s perhaps because we don’t see adults hug (except at holidays, or after having been apart for long periods of time).
But I think that’s sad. At least, for the people who are all right touching each other. (Some people are very picky about when to touch or be touched, and it’s less about societal restrictions and more about personal safety or comfort preferences.) It creates a wall that can be hard to break down. We all need touch, to some degree. Even if our preferred method of delivery is via cat, dog, ferret, rat, lizard, snake or some other pet, we need affection in a physical manner.
When my mom was dying, it was hard, because she needed touch. But she was obviously uncomfortable with asking for it or even wanting it. She apologized, repeatedly, for needing help with daily tasks like getting dressed, getting up and down, trimming toenails she couldn’t reach. The one thing I found she didn’t apologize for (because it felt so good to her that she seemed to realize it was silly to apologize for wanting), was smoothing lotion into her skin after a shower. We basically set it up like a massage table, and I’d warm the lotion, then smooth it in. Cancer patients can have very dry skin and often be sensitive to scents. Her own sense of smell was almost dead from an earlier health issue, so we didn’t have to worry about that. We could use her favorite scent, and she could almost smell it (her whole apartment filled with the scent, luckily it was one I liked also). She was basically getting a good 20 to 30 minutes of caring touch, without having to worry about feeling awkward.
Part of what brought up these memories and oddness was seeing someone at her work the other day. I hadn’t seen her in a few months, and even though she was at work, I wanted to give her a hug hello. So I asked. And she grinned and said sure, and we hugged and had a nice, if very brief chat. It was awesome. But it’s not “normal”, even in the slightly off-kilter place I live in. On the one hand, I don’t care. And I’m not embarrassed I asked. But on the other hand, I kind of wish it was more normal.
Another trigger to my thought was noticing that when paying attention to training from my supervisor (who is also a very good friend) at a new job, I was comfortable leaning close enough to her to be basically pressed shoulder to shoulder to better see her screen. The line is a bit blurry there, but so far is fine. And we can be “professional”, but at the time we were trying to track down a weird issue and it was easier to be able to see all the screens from almost the same angle.
I think my brain is still just going in circles – where I grew up, this is odd behavior in an adult; on the other hand, this sort of affectionate behavior makes complete sense in family and friend groups.
There’s the added problem of people misinterpreting. I like being affectionate. I don’t like it when people assume I’m flirting. Generally, I like you if I’m leaning against you, I hug you, or I at least am attempting to reassure/soothe/connect with you if I touch you when talking to you. But I’m hardly ever actually flirting. And yet, I’ve watched people mistake all of those behaviors as “flirting” in others and myself.
So I just don’t know. I wish there were an easier way of being physically affectionate and expressive without it getting over-thought everywhere.
*A strike party is what happens after you “strike” or take down a theater set.