Learning the Importance of Touch

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.

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This entry was posted in Hidden Disability, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Learning the Importance of Touch

  1. Mia says:

    Hi Sarah
    This is so true! I am not wheelchair bound by my Fm/ME, but I know what you mean by a touch that causes pain! I am a hugger by nature and would rather experience pain than not touching, hugging and loving my husband and children. I wish I could fly over to the UK and give you a big bear hug!
    Much love XX
    Mia

  2. Sarah's mum says:

    Thursday is the day I cry. The day the new posts are posted. Even though I know most of the stories already. Even though I was part of some of the stories. Even though most of them are way in the past and things are somewhat better now. I cry because I remember. I cry because sometimes I’m caught unawares by things I’ve refused to think about because they hurt too much. I cry because my Sarah is not the only person in such circumstances and I’m not the only mum. I cry because I’m guilty of forgetting that. Thank you Sarah, and those who leave comments, for reminding me.

  3. quiall says:

    your words touched me. Like a cyber hug. I will not forget.

  4. Sally says:

    So true… and in today’s society we are almost actively discouraged from any physical contact that might be misinterpreted…. Such madness.

    Sending hugs from N.Ireland… don’t know how well they travel, but the thought is there! (((Hugs))) xox

  5. triciaruth says:

    I have always been grateful that my CFS/ME symptoms didn’t include contact/sensation hypersensitivity/pain as I’ve always been a hugger and the power of a hug has always been important to me.
    Thinking of you oxo

  6. I am sending you a huge virtual hug across cyber space. Your posts are always so touching and this one is more than ever. Reading your mum’s comments reminds me how hard this illness is on the people who love us as well as ourselves. I’m going to go and give my mum a big hug now. Sending you cyber hugs. Jx

  7. Stephanie says:

    As if this wasn’t poignant enough…the exchange between you and your mum really made me cry.

  8. Stumbled upon your blog. You have a beautiful way with words and your posts have touched me. My parents are with me so lots of hugs are shared but I began thinking of my elderly neighbors. I think it’s been years since we’ve exchanged hugs. You have gotten me thinking and I will be looking for opportunities to connect physically. Thank you for such an important reminder.

    • Thank you. Glad it’s got you thinking. So often loss of physical contact isn’t intentional. It just doesn’t occur to fit and healthy people that not everyone has the same opportunities to share friendship and affection.

  9. Bunny says:

    I love your blog. I have a very huggy nature. But, since my mom died young and I have no sisters, the only hugs I ever had were from friends. I remember, after I got really sick and had to drop out of life, it was years between any touch what so ever from human beings. I went to a doctor and he leaned his arm on my bare back to do some allergy scratch testing and I remember I had to hold back my tears because it had been years since I felt any type of human touch. I loved when my old doc used to sometimes shake my hand when he came in as it was another warm human touch. It’s been a hard 20 years of serious illness during the prime of life. I so miss having friends and people that seamed to look forward to seeing me.

    thanks for your blog, I’ve been meaning to leave messages but end up running out of energy.
    Bunny 🙂

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