When staying safe means staying apart, a lot of us are missing out on human touch. Non-sexual intimate self-touch can help.
On a Friday night five weeks ago I was seated at the only empty chair I could find in a crowded Dublin bar, scrolling through the news headlines while I waited for my friends. Ireland was one day out from its first official confirmation of Coronavirus, but already the media were heeding warnings of how the public should behave. One headline caught my eye: ‘Coronavirus advice: Wash your hands and avoid hugging, kissing and hand shaking.’ I scanned the room, observing the crowds of people sat in small groups, leaning close together to hear one another speak over the jovial hum of voices.
The advice was at odds with the scene before me making it easy to make light of as one tends to do at the penumbra of a crisis, when you know the worst is yet to come but the present hasn’t altered enough for real worry to set in. I joked that it was my civic duty to patrol the bar and break up any kissing couples. Back then it seemed comical that the State concerned itself with the intimate Friday night activities of its citizens, offering well-intentioned warnings usually delivered by parents to the turned-backs of teenagers as they head out.
62 days, 20,612 confirmed cases and 1,232 deaths later the government’s intrusion in our personal lives has been welcomed, demanded even. With the entire country in lockdown my in-person social interactions are limited to three family members, and my movements restricted to a 2km radius. When I do leave the house, strangers wait behind a corner or cross the road to avoid me. No one has touched me in over four weeks.
This isn’t the first time in my life that the absence of touch has registered itself as a physical deprivation. Over the last four years I’ve moved to a new city six times, each time finding myself alone amongst strangers. The experience is not the same as self-isolation or social distancing, but when you know no one and no one knows you, it can feel like everyone is crossing the road to avoid you. You don’t find yourself being touched very often.
It wasn’t until I left Ireland that I came to appreciate how much Irish people like to hug one other. We are a nation of huggers, embracing friends old and new with equal enthusiasm (often to the bewilderment of visitors).
Each time I found myself in a new city trying to imitate the local greeting customs I found that I sorely missed being hugged. There is no greater feeling of intimacy than when someone wraps their arms around you and pulls you close, squeezing the distance between you to almost nothing. The weight of their bodies tells you, ‘I am here for you, I am present’, far better than words ever could. It is the opposite of feeling alone.
What better life-giving affirmation is there than the fission of skin-to-skin contact? To be seen, desired, acknowledged, to experience the warm glow of human connection. We spend so much time communicating through our devices or living in our own heads that we have become oblivious to subtle bodily sensations. Touching and being touched offers us an escape from the incessant chatter in our head; guided by instinct and desire the cognitive side of our brain disengages as we become both the giver and receiver of pleasure.
Although I recognised my internal restlessness during periods of yearning, I always looked outside of myself when I craved touch, operating under an implicit belief that this need could only be satisfied in the hands of another.
It wasn’t until I came across renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel’s ‘Where Should We Begin’ podcast series, which allows the listener to ‘sit in’ on an hour-long couple’s therapy session, that I began to think about this differently. In one of the episodes she helps a client overcome his physical discomfort by coaching him in masturbatory touch, which she defines broadly as touching one’s entire body for pleasure (in contrast to its common usage referring to genital stimulation for sexual pleasure). She encourages him to stroke himself, to caress himself, and to pay attention to the pleasurable sensation it arouses.
I had never considered touching myself in that way and realised that I am not nearly as good a lover to myself as I am to others. Although we touch ourselves constantly (our face especially, as we’ve realised as of late), we are rarely conscious of these absentminded movements nor the sensations they evoke.
Even my daily beauty routine is be performed with a heavy hand, moisturiser slapped on, rubbed in, washed off aggressively.
I compared this to a recent afternoon spent getting a facial and a massage. Over the course of two hours the beauty therapist blended oils, creams and lotions into my skin. Her movements were tender and gentle, and I lay there like a baby submitting myself to her healing touch. The experience was utterly relaxing, devoid of the pressure to respond a certain way or perform the receiving of pleasure often expected of lovers (women in particular).
I realised that I had been neglectful towards myself and needed to be more conscious of how I handled my body, that I should be gentler, more loving, more affectionate in my actions. I also realised that I needed to value the power my own touch if I wanted to unlock its potential to bring myself comfort.
I felt my loneliness most keenly lying alone in my double bed at night. I decided to put Esther Perel’s advice into practise. Applying delicate pressure, I traced my fingertips along my collarbone and across my chest in a sweeping back and forth motion, tuning my attention to the faint tingling sensation left in its wake. The effect was incredibly soothing and slowly the ball of tension in the pit of my stomach began to unravel.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic we find ourselves experiencing unprecedented levels of collective distress, while simultaneously being closed off from our regular stress-relieving outlets. With the virus having weaponised our social instinct, the panacea found in the company of others is the very thing we must avoid at all costs. The absence of a clearly defined exit-plan from our current phase of state-sanctioned celibacy is immensely frustrating, but on the bright side, it has created the ideal conditions for us to spend time alone and give more attention our relationship with our own body. In a capitalistic and social media driven wellness era the affection we give ourselves is often undervalued. Now is the perfect time to change that. Save each other, touch yourself!