Magic Touch

I'm withering without physical contact and desperately need to hug it out

"He doesn't love me," I sobbed to my mother as I threw my 8-year-old self on my bed. "Daddy doesn't love me, because he never hugs me." I craved my father's touch, because I assumed that physical attention meant emotional affection.

My mother carefully explained that, despite my feelings to the contrary, Daddy did love me. Raised in an orphanage, he just wasn't comfortable showing physical affection. Didn't he take me to zoos and museums and the observatory? Didn't he talk to me endlessly, patiently trying to answer my zillion questions about why we burp and what eternity means? Didn't he carry me in a baby backpack all the way up a Yosemite trail to the top of a waterfall?

While Mom was soothing me with words, she was also rubbing my back and pulling hair from my tear-stained cheeks, so it wasn't like I was totally deprived of tenderness.

During the rest of my childhood, I romped with our overgrown poodle, wrestled with my kid brother, and had my hair brushed and braided by my girlfriends, just as I brushed and braided theirs.

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And then in adolescence, I learned about boys. I sat in movie theaters, tingling when a boy would brush my fingers with his or daringly hold my hand. Later, in the back seat of cars, boys were so desperate to get to third base, second base, any base at all, that they'd rub my neck or fondle an elbow until it was numb. Touch was not just affection then, it was teasing and electric and mysterious. Luckily, I could get as much physical contact as I wanted; it was up to me to set the boundaries.

Fast-forward to college, where I majored in English literature and minored in, shall we say, grown-up touching. And, later still, when my brother had kids, I spent as much time as possible with my nieces and nephews. "Tag, you're it" and piggyback rides gave me a great deal of essential tactile satisfaction.

I then married, and our marriage was exuberant and fulfilling in ways both romantic and nurturing. Being married taught me a lot: that making love with someone who truly loves you is a mind-blowing experience, quite different from the casual encounters of my past; that, when I got a tattoo in a place that should have hurt a lot, holding my husband's hand meant I barely felt a thing; that, when I was sick, he could make me feel better merely by tucking me into bed and stroking my forehead. Touch was seemingly boundless and life-affirming.

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Marriage was amazing—until it wasn't. We divorced. And since I'd grown accustomed to meaningful sex, I could (and can) no longer settle for casual encounters. Plus, my nieces and nephews are grown, too old nowadays for wrestle/hugs with their needy aunt.

I'm withering without touch.

Romanian orphans showed the world that lack of touch and stimulation result in brain damage, emotional deterioration and psychosis. My father still bears the scars of his days in an American orphanage. Luckily, most of my life was filled with physical communication, but now I find myself craving connection like never before.

Friends, quoting the latest medical studies, suggest I get a pet. As I secretly think cats are going to jump me and suck out my soul, I'm a dog person. But "dog" really means "big dog," as I find tiny dogs yappy and neurotic. Big dogs, however, don't thrive in confining urban apartments. Would a lizard or turtle be a viable sensate companion? (That was rhetorical; the answer is "Ew!")

I do get massages. Masseur or masseuse, they work out cramps in my back or kinks in my neck. But most of all, they bring touch into my life, no matter how briefly, no matter that I have to pay for it.

Unfortunately, I can't afford daily massages. I enjoy living alone, and I refuse to think of my life as empty without a partner. While I hug friends hello and goodbye, I don't give them piggyback rides (although that's not such a bad idea). What next?

Looking for possibilities on the Web, I learned that lack of touch is a problem in many peoples' lives, not just mine. And many have created Cuddle Clubs, where (for free) you can hug and be hugged by strangers.

I'm not sure that would work for me. I need more than an anonymous group hug.

Maybe I should rethink getting a cat.

Tags: family