[This is a follow-up post to ‘The desire for touch – touch in psychotherapy, Part 1‘]
Even before touch became a subject of discussion in my therapy, I was always acutely aware of any occasions when my therapist and I were in very close proximity, or when we touched fleetingly or accidentally. Once, as I got up to leave, she pulled down a book from her shelves to show me something. We stood side by side, very close, not quite touching. As well as the physical proximity, I suddenly became aware of the height difference, particularly as I was wearing heels. When sitting down, that difference is not at all apparent, and it felt strange being taller; somehow incongruous with the fact that I often feel like a child in her presence, and she feels like my shelter and high tower.
On another occasion, as I sat on the floor next to her chair to show her some photos, our shoulders touched. A number of other times, our fingers and hands made contact as we have passed objects – a photo, a ring, a card, a rock – from one to the other, to look at. I’ve always wondered whether she noticed, and whether she wondered if I noticed, and what it meant to me. The moments have always been fleeting, and I have been careful to try not to do anything or use anything as an ‘excuse’ to grab more of them. Of course I’m aware that if I pass her something to look at, touch may happen. Do I want it? Yes. But I am as fearful of being accused of engineering situations specifically for this purpose, as I am convinced of the fact that I would not feel comfortable or respectful doing so. I make the choice to pass her something to look at, directly into her hand, rather than by putting it on the table beside her, or waving it in front of her. In that sense, I am choosing to ‘risk’ touch – I might even be hopeful for it. But it happens as part of an ordinary sequence of events – in those situations, to act otherwise would be to specifically try and avoid touch, and that in itself would feel uncomfortable and ‘forced’.
I’m not sure it would be accurate to say that I ‘enjoy’ those moments of touch – they are incredibly fleeting and too laden with complicated feelings, for that to be the case. I appreciate them and treasure them – as ordinary but special moments of connection and interaction; as grounding moments of her reality and humanity; as part of a memory of something that we have shared. I’m often very unobservant, but in those moments I notice things like the smoothness and neatness of her nails, or the softness of her skin.
But there is one overriding reason why I appreciate those small moments of touch; one key reason why they are so significant, as well as special – she never pulls away. When our shoulders touched, she didn’t flinch; she’s never drawn her hand back faster than she needed to. Either she didn’t notice the touching, or she didn’t mind. Either way, my fear and unconscious expectation was that she would both notice, and mind. It felt surprising that she didn’t draw her shoulder back; or that she didn’t try and grab the edge of a passed object so as not to come into contact with my skin. I didn’t expect her to lean forward palm up and open-handed to receive what I had to show. I didn’t expect her to stand so close. I didn’t expect her not to pull away.
I spent a long time pondering why it was that I felt so ‘untouchable’; why I thought that my therapist would feel uncomfortable or threatened by my close presence, and would back away immediately from any contact. It didn’t feel logical that I should be so surprised at the fact that she did not seem to find contact distasteful. My parents never showed a reluctance to touch me or hold me – if anything, the reluctance was mine, as my mother has always desired much more physical contact (such a hand-holding or hugs) than I have felt comfortable giving. I could see plenty in my upbringing that would make me feeling ‘unlikeable’, but nothing that would make me feel ‘untouchable’.
And then one day as I was sitting in a café reading an article on touch in therapy, I had an unexpected memory of secondary school, and suddenly the feeling of being ‘untouchable’ made sense. There is so much in my life that I have discounted from being significant or formative, simply because it happened in not-so-early childhood, or because I survived it and never thought about its import at the time. I loved school – my love of learning over-rode everything, as did the existence of my own group of friends, the support of teachers and the structure of the environment. A child gets through something because they have to – I’m not sure I’d have the same strength now.
I was not the only one who experienced bullying; my friends did too, though it was something we never talked about, and I don’t think we even really saw it happen to each other – we were too busy trying to emotionally protect ourselves. The bullying was never physical and it wasn’t even that frequently verbal. But every day when lining up and filing into the school hall for assembly, I was aware of the gap that was left where people were trying not to stand too close. When sitting down in our lines on the floor, some would leave a large gap or try and start another line, not wanting to be near me or occupy the same physical space. I would try to think where to position myself so that this was less likely to happen, or less obvious if it did. How could I arrange to be at the beginning, or at the end, of a line? How could I make it so that what was happening to me wasn’t as obvious and so that I didn’t need to feel any more ashamed than I already did?
There were the science classes where a larger than average gap would be left at the lab bench between me and the next person; or the fear and sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when classes involved ‘pairing up’ and I had no allies because none of my friends were taking the same subject. And for a long time there was that awful art class where the teacher would simply go away and leave us to it for a couple of hours and some of the others would talk about me as if I wasn’t there and would pick up strands of my hair with a pencil, to avoid touching any part of me. I’ve never had much admiration or liking for my ‘inner child’, but as I write this crying, I have no idea how she went through that with even a semblance of staying intact, and for that I have to give her some credit and respect.
When the subject of touch has come up in my therapy, it has often seemed to arrive out of the blue – partly, I think, because it is often brought to the surface when I come across posts or articles that others have written, that bring my mind back onto it again. My therapist has made it clear that touch is not a part of how she works; and although I know she is happy to talk about the subject, at the same time I suspect that she thinks an intellectual debate, triggered by the experiences of others, is of limited therapeutic value. But when my own lived experience interacts with my desire for touch in therapy, that’s when I know she feels the subject is present and relevant, and the discussion can bear fruit. It can address what is happening in the room and in my head; it’s something we can both engage with, in the here and now. It is something we can pass between us to look at and examine more closely. It is no longer a discussion about what I want and what she won’t give me; but about what has happened to me and how she can help me understand what it means. In these times, the subject of touch connects us, even if physical touch does not.
Personally, I don’t think it would be detrimental to my therapy if there was the occasional moment of touch, to express connectedness. In some ways, I’m not convinced that my therapist thinks that would be detrimental, either. If we happen to touch, and want to talk about it, then we can. What is detrimental – and this applies to numerous areas of my therapy, as well as to other aspects of my life – is my constant focus on what I can’t have, to the exclusion of all else, rather than on what I can and do have. What is detrimental, is my refusal to accept reality, and my difficulty and resistance to bearing the frustration of boundaries, limits, absences and losses. Though I can’t speak for anyone apart from myself, that’s where the real work of my therapy needs to lie, and I need to try and use the subject of touch as an enabler to that work, and not make it a stumbling block. It’s in that context that I will experience my therapist not just not pulling away, but coming closer to meet me on the road, and standing by me while I try to figure things out – shoulder to shoulder, you might say, and heart to heart.