by julie parker
They told me I could tell you about my fantasies. They said I could describe in vivid detail who touched what where, and it would be okay. So I will.
‘He pressed against me with all his might as I struggled to break free’ . . . ‘She held me in her arms and didn’t let go, as the fire rose and the drumbeat quickened’ . . . ‘Our eyes met and he ran towards me, arms wide, calling my name again and again’ . . .
I don’t want to disappoint you, but nothing throbbed and nothing moistened. And the only thing that grew warm was my heart.
He pressed against me with all his might as I struggled to break free: He was 10 at the time, and sitting next to me in a booth in a restaurant where I was visiting his family. When I tried to slip out to pick up my juice, he leaned into me, keeping me captive in my corner of the booth, giggling and wiggling in the way a ten year old does best. He kept up a steady pressure against me, determined I wouldn’t leave. I leaned back, exhilarated, savoring the most human contact I had had in six months. I love this kid and his brother; horsing around with them is one of my greatest pleasures. It was his brother who ran towards me, arms wide, calling my name again and again the day they met me at the airport. These kids are the children of friends of mine, sort of nephews of the heart, and the time I spent with them was one of my greatest joys. It was their mom who held me in her arms and didn’t let go as we hugged one night around a bonfire. It was not one of those five-second hugs, but a hug that was just about holding on, loving, and slipping out of time. I am a heterosexual woman as is she, yet being in this woman’s arms was an intensely pleasurable (totally non-sexual) experience.
These are examples of what I call casual intimacy.
The longing for this kind of intimacy for those without access to loved ones’ touch is intense. Imagine being very thirsty and having to wait hours to drink, or very tired, and having to stand for hour after hour without a moment to sit down. Eventually, you will be able to drink, and to rest. Gratification is delayed, but only by a matter of hours. When you don’t have access to touch, the longing—the thirst, if you will—is accompanied by the knowledge that there is no eventual gratification—just an endless, aching need.
The everyday sort of touch—a squeeze when passing, a bit of horseplay, a child curled up in your arms as you are reading to her, a hug good morning, or the bump of a familiar stray body part in a warm bed—all of it becomes the stuff of daydreams, of fantasies unfulfilled. ‘Casual intimacy’ is non-sexual touch between any two people who care for each other, no matter the age, gender, or relationship.
When you measure body-to-body human contact in seconds, spaced days, weeks, or even months apart, fantasies tend towards the gentle touch of anyone you love. Well yes, the throbbing, arching, ‘age-old rhythm’, yes, yes, YES! fantasies still exist, but all-in-all come to play second fiddle to the yearning for casual intimacy. Men, women, or children—it doesn’t matter. It only needs to be loving family or family-of-the-heart.
My friend Dill and I sometimes compare notes. “How are you doing?” we ask, which is shorthand for “How are you managing? Have you run screaming into the streets yet? Have you ‘gone postal’?” as my friend Alyssa threatens to do from time to time when she’s at the end of her rope. Ours is a hurried, almost whispered conversation, as if we were sharing some kind of shameful secret. How are you managing to survive, much less thrive when you are missing that aspect of life which is so very precious? That is the undercurrent of our question.
There is a continuum of isolation . . . Dill and I are at the far end, being without spouse, parents, brothers, sisters, children—all of which makes in-laws, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren somewhat problematic. Most of my friends have children, some have a lover or a spouse, and others have the full complement of loved ones—the regulation husband, kids, and family dog. There are a few of us who ‘understand’. The rest don’t have a clue.
Some are quick to label those of us on the far end of the touch-deprivation spectrum as co-dependent when we express an intense need for loving connection. New Age moralizing holds that we should be totally sufficient unto ourselves, without need for human touch or companionship. We are told by these same people that “we are spiritual beings having a human experience”. Yes indeed. That means we have the requisite flesh, blood, bones, and NEEDS of a HUMAN. We were meant to live in a pack. We are meant, from time to time, to glory in the pile-of-puppies kind of contact that is warm, intimate, and totally without sexual content—the kind that is virtually nonexistent when you have no family.
Death by Deprivation
Isolation kills. The rates of depression and suicide are highest among people living alone. Though the elderly (in 1997) were only 13% of the population, they were 19% of the suicide rate. I have long felt that touch deprivation has a chemical component—as if it were some sort of vitamin that is necessary for healthy functioning. Lack of this ‘vitamin’ has serious consequences, one of which is clearly depression. Otherwise healthy people, otherwise happy people whose lives are going well, when they have their whispered, furtive conversations with those who understand, admit that a lifetime without casual intimacy is untenable, and suicide as an alternative sometimes takes on a rosy glow.
The Touch Hormone
Seems ol’ Dr. Phil has been on Oprah again, and he was talking about the relationship between touch and oxytocin. It turns out there is an abundance of information about the hormone and its connection with touch, women, and depression. Aha! I thought. I knew there was a ‘vitamin’ related to touch, and I knew it was absolutely critical to sustain life. Babies can die without touch and so can adults.
I am convinced that the touch of one’s own child—rocking a baby in our arms, holding a baby to our breast, washing jellied faces and wiping snotty noses—can give us a supercharged dose of touch ‘vitamins’. Those of us who have had not even one moment of this touch have a massive deficiency that can have a profound effect on our development as human beings.
Here’s what I’ve found out from the research:
(1) Physical touch boosts oxytocin levels in the body
(2) Oxytocin promotes feelings of affection and well-being
(3) There is a direct connection between human touch and protection from disease
(4) Without physical closeness, the full range of love is restricted
(5) Touch is a better antidepressent than pharmaceutical drugs
(6) Absence of touch promotes depression and aggression
(7) Touching, holding close, snuggling are critical to health—especially to the health of the heart
(8) Oxytocin plays a role in women’s higher levels of depression and interpersonal stress
(9) A close, regular relationship influences the responsiveness of the oxytocin
Tend and Befriend
What they have finally realized is that it is men, not women who have a “fight or flight” response. Women have an entirely different response to stress—they need to “tend or befriend”. Women have a deep, primal need to nurture in times of stress. They have an actual chemical need to connect with people they love. When women are denied this contact, their stress level can rise as high as sixty percent; blood pressure goes up; fatigue sets in. A myriad of stress-induced ailments are just around the corner. Beri-beri is the result of a B1 deficiency; scurvy is the result of a C deficiency, etc. Clinical depression, I suggest, may in many cases be the result of lack of touch.
“I Wish I Were an Oscar Meyer Weiner”
Temple Grandin—diagnosed at two with autism—is now Assistant Professor at Colorado State University, and an expert designer of humane facilities for livestock animals. She created squeeze chutes and restraint systems that prevent animals from being hurt and that also keep them calm. She built a similar device for herself, she said, “(1) to help relax my “nerves” and (2) to provide the comforting feeling of being held.” She goes on to speak of the neurological damage caused by withdrawal from touching:
“The machine provides comforting pressure to large areas of the body. One day about 12 years ago, a Siamese cat’s reaction to me changed after I had used the squeeze machine. This cat used to run from me, but after using the machine, I learned to pet the cat more gently and he decided to stay with me. I had to be comforted myself before I could give comfort to the cat…”
“I realize that unless I can accept the squeeze machine I will never be able to bestow love on another human being.”
“Therapists have found that deep pressure stimulation has a calming effect.”
An Inside View of Autism Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Grandin continues: “In the fourth grade, I was attracted to election posters because I liked the feeling of wearing the posters like a sandwich man. Occupational therapists have found that a weighted vest will often reduce hyperactivity.”
Yes! Me too! At the dentist recently, about to have a tooth pulled, I wanted to wear the heavy vest they’d put me in when doing the x-rays . . . its firm pressure against my body was the kind of comfort I craved while my tooth was on its way out. I wanted to take the vest home with me and wear it all the time. My longing for pressure against my body—a kind of “hug”—is so intense that I my keep bed pushed alongside the wall so I can press against it at night for comfort, even when the wall radiates nothing but a mid-winter chill.
I can see myself in Grandin’s device, being held for an hour or so every day, like a 5’3” hotdog in a giant bun. Without sexual touch, women are left to their own, uh, devices. Without non-sexual touch, perhaps what we need is our own squeeze machine, our own non-sexual pleasure device to hold us, comfort us, when we have no other choice. What are we to do, those of us who are ‘oxytocin-challenged?’ Do we call up Temple Grandin, order our own squeeze machine, and become giant human hotdogs?
Please pass the mustard!
First published in WNC WOMAN magazine, July 2003