For most people, being touched is something they take for granted. It just happens. A hug from a friend, a hand being held, a pat on the shoulder for reassurance. These small moments of physical affection aren’t milestones for most people. They are events that are just done – like drinking a glass of water, doing up buttons, putting one foot in front of the other. For me, these small moments of affection are shelved away in my memory like wines in a cellar. And for the big moments of physical affection, I want to hold a press conference, telling the world that I’ve been touched.
I received lots of physical affection from my parents as a child. I would sit in between them on the couch since before I could remember. Dad would curl my hair around his fingers, ‘curly lurly, curly lurly, curly lurly’, he would say, letting each ringlet spring like a piglet’s tail. He’d give me animal rides on his knee, usually dipolodocus rides. And each night, and sometimes Saturday mornings, Mum would sit with me on the floor, me lying on her lap, while she combed the scale out of my scalp. I could not imagine letting anyone else doing this – it’s such a private experience. Lots of skin being removed, my scalp and emotions often equally raw. The feel of the comb on my scalp was both pleasurable and painful. My scalp would feel so tender, especially when I went out in the cold. Void of its protection. I used to cherish this time I spent with my Mum – we’d make up our versions of fairytales, and I’d tell her what happened in my day – often of how kids at school were afraid to touch me.
When I heard this lyric, it felt like I’d written it.
“Is my skin untouchable?
Do I remind you of a part of you that you don’t like?” ~ Darren Hayes, Unlovable
In 2004 and 2007, at his small concerts, Darren hugged me from the stage. In 2007 he kissed my face and I can still feel his bristles against my cheek when I think hard. A celebrity’s touch is pretty special. Especially when for so long no one ordinary wanted to touch me.
Getting bullied at school was fortunately not often physical. Kids were too afraid of catching my skin condition. Being stabbed with a protractor, pushed off my bike and being spat on provided enough distance between me and the bully so they didn’t catch anything. Despite the isolation, teasing and name calling, I still wanted to join in on their playtime – much of which involved some sort of physical contact. They didn’t want me to get my cream or skin on them. I wanted to have my hair plaited by the other girls, to have my thumb touched in heads down thumbs up, to have my held hand by a friend. This sometimes happened, and I was so excited if it did. It meant that I was normal like everyone else.
My Dad is not a big hugger – nor are my grandparents. I think it’s an English trait. Our hugs are clumsy and brief, like two humans in bear suits, just patting each others’ backs gently. I was never allowed to sit on my grandfather’s lap because I’d make it dirty. This is my main memory of time spent with him as a child.
Hugs and kisses as greetings are so common place now, even between strangers. Sometimes in a group situation, other people are hugged and kissed hello/goodbye and I am left standing there awkward, and waiting. I am not an initiator of this greeting, I never know if someone wants their cheek to be smeared in my vaseline, or have their black clothes peppered with my skin. People close to me don’t mind if this happens. I remember feeling my most valued in the workplace when a previous male manager reached over and pulled some skin from my hair. Awkward but valuing.
I wonder if whether the reluctance by people to touch me is not of fear for themselves – and it probably isn’t – we are no longer in the playground – but out of genuine worry that their touch will hurt my skin. It generally won’t. A hug is warm and can often make me feel better. Even a sales’ assistant’s hand brushing against mine when they give me change can give me shivers. I also wonder whether my skin is so sensitive is why the feeling of being touched is physically and emotionally heightened. I don’t think my nerve endings are more sensitive than the norm, but it’s like my skin is more receptive to touch because isn’t an every day occurrence.
Casual touches can feel miraculous to me, despite their innocent intent. A pat on the arm that means it’s good to see me can make me smile all day. And so intimate touching is literally etched into my memory forever. After so many years of peoples’ repulsion at touching me, the times when I’ve been intimately touched are amazing. Not necessarily sexual, but the hand holding, the brush of the arm to indicate interest, a kiss on the face. They’re all electrifying. The best feeling in the world. I can remember every single caress during the first time I was in bed with a boy – even though it was in January 2000. I remember everything about how it felt.
When I had long term (?) boyfriends I’d often want to go to bed extremely early, just to revel in more than eight hours of physical contact. I never felt like I woke up with my skin dry like I do when I sleep alone. It’s as though touch nurtures me.
Last year a strange thing occurred. As I slept in a man’s arms, it felt so amazing being held that the feeling of touch was squared. I dreamed of him holding me as he was doing so. And then I wondered whether this was my body’s way of responding to a form of deprivation, drinking up the sensory overload of being touched.