Touch Starved

Content Warning: Detailed (but super brief) descriptions of icky medical things and childhood abuse, section marked with **

We’re in the back of this french bakery doing Ro’s Birthday Celebration pt. 2 (of infinity). Big platters take up the entire table and those are covered with an assortment of little white plates daubed with smears of raspberry, almond, chocolate and god knows what else. The three of us are kind of lolling in our chairs, sleepy and floating on a decadent pastry high and there’s still food left untouched.

Talk about being spoiled…I’m so full of sweets and tea that I can’t even keep my head up. So I roll my head over onto the shoulder of my friend next to me and she lets me. After a minute her fingers are in my hair doing something between awkwardly patting and twitching her fingers around in a little circles. “Oh! You’re hair’s so soft and fluffy!” Across the table, my other friend is trying not to laugh too loud and I can only imagine the look on my face as I tilt my head over more and hope the petting doesn’t stop too soon. When I get home later, it’ll be anywhere between another 3 days to a week before I get another hug or friendly touch. Still, I’ve gone without for much longer periods of time.

Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels

The term Skin Hunger is what I found online when I looked up stuff about suffering from a lack of touch. Personally, “skin hunger” makes me think of cannibals, so I prefer “touch-starved”.

I can’t say how long I’ve felt this way. I guess it kind of waxed and waned. I was a pretty effusive, tactile little kid, I’m told. My dad still loves to tell me stories of me running around kissing little boys in kindergarten and hugging strangers. He was affectionate like a puppy – biting my nose for some reason and leaving wet kisses on my face (ew). My mom was the opposite, very contained (except when she was angry which was pretty often) and she had a big distaste for physical affection, often getting snappish at me when I wanted to be hugged or held. It was her that took me aside as a young kid and taught me that being so free with touch led to Bad Things.

**Touch, in general is a weird topic to talk about. Thinking about it my brain shoots off in too many directions. One of my best memories, a sticky summer day at Coney Island, sitting on the ground on the edge of a crowd in between two very dear people, one head resting on each of my shoulders. Lying in bed, holding a hand that’s not my own, tracing over foreign finger bones, an unknown map of lines in the palm. Bad memories: on my back looking at hospital lights, clothing scraped aside too many hands sticking on an EKG monitor, the tight burn of the catheter threading through my chest and the feeling that if I moved my whole neck would rip open, my grandfather’s hand around mine as he pulls me into his bedroom. The time my friend told me that she was giving her daughter the choice to hug people or not, how she wanted to give her the bodily autonomy that we never got as children.**

It’s complicated shit and, for me, it’s also stupidly simple. I want to be touched. I enjoy tactile sensation. Making that happen? That’s tricky. It took me roundabout ten years to work up the nerve to ask my friends for the head pats and even then, I couldn’t do it directly. Treat me like a cat, I said. Feed me and give head pats and I’m happy. It’s not my ideal, but it’s a safe, comfortable start.

Touch starvation can be weird to talk about, because the second you say something like “I want to be touched”, people assume you mean sexually touched. Or they present sex as the “cure” to getting all the touch you want. If that’s what a person personally wants, more power to them, but that’s not my thing. I thought about trying one of those ‘Cuddle Party’ things, but the idea of total strangers touching me…is not appealing. Getting massages has been fantastic for me, especially for my pain issues, but the cost adds up fast. But for me, touch isn’t just about touch. If we’re just talking about the most objective and general physical contact then I get that every time I’m examined by a doctor or have my blood drawn or am just shoved aside in a crowded subway car. That’s how I feel about the “sex cure” for touch starvation – it’s empty, ultimately.

When I was a kid, I asked my Mom why she didn’t like hugging me. “If you want a hug, get a boyfriend.” she told me. It was a mantra she told me more than once in my teens and 20’s. Once I got old enough (and finally numb enough to her weird bullshit) I shot back “the fuck do I want a boyfriend for?”. Of course, that’s a post for another time, but I never did get a boyfriend. Not a single one, over my entire life. Getting a boyfriend (or girlfriend or any other kind of romantic partner) wasn’t something I’d ever wanted, and getting one just so I could get a goddamned hug every so often struck me as a special kind of stupid.

Ro’s Birthday Celebration pt 5 (hey I celebrate all month) was out in Long Island where the trees outnumber the streets and you can actually see stars at night (and live goats, who are soft and adorable). I got a scrumptious mostly-homemade dinner and more chocolate than was probably good for me (worth it, so worth it). But the highlight was me and my friend wrapped up like blanket burritos, half sunk into her couch and watching Netflix’s Fireplace for Your Home for hours. We cheered when charred and blackened logs finally cracked and fell and narrated it like log burning was a sport event. It was fun and dorky and I totally didn’t want it to end. The only thing that made it even nicer was her reaching out from her blanket cocoon and patting me on the head, joking that she had two cats now. I could have probably floated by the rest of month on that just fine, but I didn’t, not when I wound up cooking dinner for a friend and her guest about 2 nights later and I got more hugs.

Mostly, I get my touch-fix from friends and a very few close acquaintances. Long hugs and the occasional demand for a head pat. It doesn’t sound like much, but I don’t need much. And while I’ve been lucky enough to have friends who aren’t touch-averse, even communicating with them about my wish for touch is incredibly hard (hence the cat analogy, because I might just drop dead if I ever communicated anything in a straightforward manner). I can’t even imagine how much harder it must be for people who don’t have any people around them to trust, who are just stuck with that hunger and isolation.

Featured image credits: Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

Additional reading:

Skin Hunger: Why You Need to Feed Your Hunger for Contact – Psychology Today

The Life of the Skin-Hungry: Can You Go Crazy from a Lack Of Touch? – VICE

Skin Hunger and the Taboo of Wanting to be Touched – Catapult

Published by Apocalypse Grrl

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