I recently watched a documentary about the decline of ‘Meals on Wheels’ services in the UK. The cameras followed a volunteer to the home of an elderly gentleman. As they joked together, the volunteer put her arm around the gentleman’s shoulder only to learn that this was the closest to a hug he had received in several years. She left with tears in her eyes that in a supposedly civilised society, anyone could be deprived of physical contact for so long. I watched with tears in my eyes having a good idea of how the gentleman felt, because for many years I too have been starved of the kind of physical contact I once took for granted.
I am amazed to find myself writing this post (I’m sure my family will be too) because I have never been a particularly tactile person. Even as a child, physical contact had to be entirely on my terms. I would sit on adult’s laps as though on a bar-stool rather than snuggling close like most children would. I have always hated shaking hands with strangers and have never understood why someone would favour a kiss on the cheek above a verbal greeting.
I didn’t mind hugs from close friends or family and as a childcare worker it was impossible to avoid physical contact but I was rarely the one to initiate it. I envied the way other people gave and accepted physical contact so freely but for the most part, I could happily live without it.
And then I got sick, and for two years even the weight of a bed-sheet on my body caused intolerable pain. My mum would give me the gentlest of hugs when she visited, but I was much too weak to hug her back. I can only imagine how it must have felt for her to see the pain that even her gentlest touch would cause me. For a long time I was too ill for visitors and by the time I was able to see friends again, most of them were long gone; there was nobody left to give me a hug.
And then one day a phlebotomist came. It was the second set of bloodtests to be taken that week and my arms were already covered in bruises. As he took my battered arm to search for a vein I silently wept to realise that he wasn’t wearing gloves. It was several years since anyone other than my mum had touched me skin to skin. When the only people to ever touch you (doctors, nurses and carers) put on aprons and gloves before doing so, you eventually start to feel untouchable, like you are so distasteful that no one wants to be near you.
The truth is that when you’re housebound and live alone, no one ever touches you (unless for painful medical procedures). The ordinary touches you once took for granted just don’t happen anymore. No one shakes your hand, links their arm with yours or taps you on the shoulder. No one squeezes past you in a tight space or stands shoulder to shoulder with you on the bus. You don’t get jostled in a crowd or inadvertently brush hands with a shop assistant as you reach for your change.
I never imagined that life without physical contact would bother me. Yes I wanted to be married and have children but until then, physical contact was something I was perfectly content to do without. I simply didn’t realise just how much unnoticed contact I was getting in a day. Only when I found myself looking forward to blood-tests did I realise the importance of human touch. You see even touch that causes pain is better than never being touched at all.
The last person to touch me was a friend’s little boy who leaned on my arm to show me his toy on the twelfth of April more than six weeks ago. The fact I can even tell you that shows just how abnormal my life has become.
Now every few months when my mum comes to visit, I hug her for just a fraction longer than I would have before, and when my friend’s little boy leans on my arm, tugs at my sleeve, or climbs unbidden onto my knee, I fight the urge to hold him tight and never let go.
So if you know somebody who is elderly, or housebound, or even just having a hard time at the moment, why not go round this week and give them a hug. And if you don’t know someone who meets that description, hug your kids, hug your partner, hug a neighbour or friend (and be grateful you can touch them without causing pain) because everyone needs a hug from time to time, even a reluctant hugger like me.