Monday, November 11, 2013

Thoughts On Touch

This I believe: We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth. 

- Virginia Satir


Carl McVey was coroner of my hometown for over thirty years. He was the pillar of the community, maybe more so than any other person from Carmi in my era.

He came to speak to my junior year journalism class once, and he told us the toughest part of his job was having the unfortunate duty of going to someone's home to inform them of the unexpected death of a loved one. One of the students asked him, what can you possibly say to someone in a situation like that to comfort them. 

His response was "in times when all words fail, I'm a huge believer in the power of touch." 

I'm paraphrasing, of course. It's been over 18 years. But that sentiment has stuck with me since.


The first time I really experienced the power of touch, however, was when it was absent.

When my wife and I separated in 2006, she left Chicago just two months after we arrived. The only people I knew in the city were through improv, who were great to joke and drink with, but not much for emotional support and all that. After only a couple of weeks of being alone, night after night in a one-bedroom apartment that now only had a futon and a couch, the muscles of my body physically ached. When I slept at night, I clutched a pillow tight to relieve the soreness. This was reflex; I didn't really think about what I was doing, but I knew why it was happening.

The first woman I held after my separation was a one-night stand set up by a mutual friend. The friend knows me well, fortunately, knows that one-nights aren't really my thing, and knew sex was was a distant second to my simple need for touch, and communicated that to my date. 

At one point during our encounter, I squeezed her so tight, she stopped and said, "It's been a while since you've been held, hasn't it?"

"Is it that obvious?" I asked.

The look on her face was all the answer I needed, but she still said, "Um . . . yeah."

The sex was almost an afterthought.


I've always been particular about how I am touched. I like solid, firm touch. In some situations, I enjoy light, feathery touch, but not often. A point of contention in one of my past relationships is no matter how often I explained this, she would give me light touches repeatedly, as if she did it enough, I would eventually like it.


Betsy's and my bed time routine: She lies with her head on my shoulder and my arm around her until she senses I'm nodding off, because I always nod off first. She'll then kiss me good night and roll over to her side of the bed, most nights listening to a podcast on her iPod. (Stuff You Should Know, with hosts Josh and Chuck, is her favorite. "Go listen to your mens," I'll say. And yes, I say 'mens' with an 's', but I'm not sure why.)

We may touch briefly if we wake up throughout the night, maybe even hold hands a short while, but most of the night, we're on our own sides of the bed.

One of the many reasons Betsy and I work is we're similar in how we like to be touched.


I don't give Betsy as regular massages as I should, considering what I do, but I'll usually rub her back for a minute or two while she sits in bed and writes in her journal. She offers to return the favor, but I know I would start getting particular about hitting this point and that, so I usually decline.


work in a profession that is complicated because people often have a difficult time delineating between caring touch, therapeutic touch and sexual touch. This is particularly the case in America, where massage establishments are often a front for prostitution. This often results in even otherwise intelligent people feeling they have license to degrade me and my profession. 

Even employers I've had. 

Even friends of mine. 

I used to call friends out on this, but I don't anymore. Partly because it's a headache, partly because it occurred to me some time ago that those most egregious in this regard have non-existent or unsatisfactory sex lives, and their words are merely a display and a by-product of this. 

When I taught at a massage school, I had a Hungarian student that was baffled by this aspect of American culture. In my country, there is no such nonsense, she said.   


Being a male therapist, my appointment book is almost always the last to be filled compared to my female colleagues. I have to be hyper-aware how my touch is conveyed when I work with female clients. It's known at one clinic where I work that if a female client makes an accusation of inappropriate touch against a male therapist, the clinic will likely have to take the side of the client, for liability reasons.  


It just recently occurred to me that the last time I felt my healthiest was four years ago, when I was in massage school, and getting massages regularly. As much as I preach the need for massage, I am not good at taking care of myself. This is common among therapists, and I'm resolving to change that in myself. 


It is my belief the world would be infinitely more peaceful if everyone gave and received a daily back rub, if even just for five minutes.


Touch has a memory. 

- John Keats

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