Welcome to the pandemic version of ‘home alone’, a place where stillness has a roaring sound, and touch is a thing of the past. We are embracing a new normal – without the embrace.
As SNL’s Roseann Rosannadanna used to say, “It’s always something”. Sometimes, that ‘something’, creeps up so sneakily you don’t even notice it until it pokes you on the shoulder. You might have thought it was in the rear view, then, bam — whiplash. Like your very own Pennywise, the shapeshifting clown, it feeds on what gets to you most. It gets under your skin because it’s there that this particular taunting creature, called ‘loss of touch’, lives.
Yep, loss of touch is a thing. Humans need to be touched. When our arms and cheeks are stroked, nerve cells release boatloads of happy-making endorphins. Simple cuddling can slow the heart rate, and speed up digestion, helping our immune system to be its best self. We instinctively look to hold hands when we’re frightened. We put our arms around each other to comfort; kiss one another to show affection. We need touch to feel safe, anchored — and seen. But, those of us who live alone are on our own – literally. In a time of grief, of quarantine, we go without touch of another human for weeks and months. Stuck in the middle of today’s epidemic ‘touch starvation’, mental health professionals see depression, insomnia and anxiety issues in unprecedented numbers.
Why talk about skin hunger now, when it’s dwarfed by people dying in shocking numbers from a worldwide pandemic, and fear pulses beneath every face mask? Even with an epidemic raging across the globe, we are each quarantined in our own small worlds. Our thoughts, emotions, and feelings still live and grow there. Most have partners, kids that share their quarantine and touch may not be an issue. But domestic violence also finds fertile ground in quarantine and loneliness, anxiety and depression make no distinction between households. Whatever was lacking, lost or thought to be quieted, now has a loud voice and things like absence of touch takes on new life.
Too often we underestimate the power of a touch. Leo Buscaglia
When I was first widowed, disjointed emotion and grief were in strong competition. My thoughts centered on coping with the worst trauma of my life. Sudden loss of the person you thought you’d go through time can do that. I assumed nothing, from that point on, that life could throw at me could be worse. In fact, I was pretend badass enough that not even a scary car accident a year later could knock me over. But, when the fog cleared, I realized the elephant in the room was a spouse’s touch I’d no longer feel. Funny how simple neck massages and hand holding can kneecap you. But loss of intimate touch, the kind that says ‘You’re mine. I have your back. I love you” leaves a lasting mark.
To any grieving person, distance is not a new concept. In fact, it’s probably the hardest consequence of loss. The distance of sound, touch and connection gets only wider between us and the person no longer in our world. When we were younger, in the midst of busy lives and busy households raising kids, we barely gave ‘touch’ a thought. We had plenty of it, whether we wanted it or not. Yes, I do remember those times I thought “Puleeese stop poking me” to kids or dogs anxious for attention. Back then, our tapped-out selves yearned for the utopia of sublime peace; maybe even an undisturbed month — alone. I get it. I lived it.
My older, now alone self might just slap some sense into that kid today. I’d beg her to pay attention to what we what we thought was a little thing, a thing we took for granted – the lifeblood of touch.That ‘peace and quiet’ we daydreamed about then? I don’t recommend it. When solo living rings the doorbell, it comes complete with a loss of intimate hugs, hand holding and tender touch. That’s how it works. In these last years, my rose colored gratitude for sweet barnacle squeezes of grandchildren and the hugs of my kids and friends, kept the worst of touch loss to a manageable hum. No, platonic hugs can’t compete with the intimacy of an ‘other’, but I was still thankful for whatever touch I could grab. Then social distancing arrived.
Touch is the first language we speak. Stephen Gaskin
Welcome to the pandemic version of ‘home alone’. Solo inhabitants of our very own desert island, where stillness sometimes has a roaring sound, touch is a thing of the past and the only laugh is yours. Yet, in our thoughtful moments, we also realize the flip side of the pity party is knowing our extremely small place in a very big global picture, where emotions are quickly whittled down to size. For those dying of COVID-19 without family near, the touch of ‘healthcare heroes’ may be the only point of compassion and love. For families out of work in this new economic landscape, the worry about food for their family transcends touch. And for small businesses, watching the flame of their dreams slowly going out, touch also takes a number behind survival. With so much heartache, so much fear worldwide, it’s hard to justify my small world of loss when I still have so much.
Still, we can’t ignore or outrun our feelings of disconnection. We can only walk tentatively, nervously or purposefully through it. We can curl in a ball or stay engaged with the world around and outside of us. We can donate what and wherever we can, and recognize those who are going above and beyond. We can nurture community in whatever ways available, remembering one thing we all share, is the human condition.
Nothing is so healing as the human touch. Bobby Fischer.
Together, we are embracing a new normal – without the embrace. While we connect with our tribes through up close Zoom calls, texts and social media, touch is not in the picture. Like weighted blankets, they are a for-now substitute for the real thing. Skin to skin contact will always be vital for mental, emotional and physical health, but if all we can do right now is wrap ourselves in a shower curtain hug with another or get all the feels from a tummy high grandchild squeeze, do that.
In the end, no, I still have no good answer for touch deprivation, so if you expected one – sorry. I won’t lie and tell you I put all my feelings to bed. (They stay up late to watch Stephen Colbert.) Nor will I say cuddling your pets or a stuffed animal could ever take the place of a significant other. Um, no. But, when we can’t change a situation, all we can do is roll with it. We can and should be thankful for all we do have, and when the door to touch opens again, and it will, hug the hell out of everyone we can. They may be as hungry as we are.
In the meantime, as Elizabeth Gilbert said “Embrace the glorious mess that we are”.
Hey, it’s an EMBRACE, right?