Chapter 14: Touch

Galleons, some days I think I should come with a User’s Manual. And if such a magical tome existed, today’s post would be a very important chapter indeed (particularly because I get uncomfortable trying to explain this to people IRL, so it would be insanely useful if they could just read a quick bit and know the depths of my crazy)- the chapter detailing my deep-seated issues with physical human contact.

Yeah, make some popcorn- this is gonna be good.

***

As an infant, I wasn’t particularly fussy about being cuddled and carried about as folks are wont to do with their squishy, squally larvae. I was perfectly ordinary, falling asleep in my mother’s arms as she rocked me in the old wooden rocking chair she still sentimentally refuses to throw out. People petted, squeezed, stroked, patted, and snuggled me. And, from what I’ve been told, I reacted precisely as any normal baby does.

Around four or so, however, I apparently became increasingly fussy about who touched me, when, and why. So much so that, for basically the entirety of my fifth year of life, I flat-out refused to let anyone touch me. At all. I bathed myself, dressed myself, brushed my own hair. I hugged no one, I kissed no one. I used to play a game of duck-and-weave at family functions where my boisterous, affectionate relatives (who, despite being repeatedly told not to fucking touch me, always tried to violate my rules) would amble in for a wet peck on the cheek or an entrapment hug.

But it wasn’t just that- it was avoiding even brushing another person when walking past (which, considering my klutzy nature and crap depth perception, means keeping a rather sizable distance between myself and all other people) or when playing at recess.

I can’t tell you why this happened. I’ve thought about it and thought about it, I’ve talked about it with my parents and my old therapist… nobody can really puzzle out what prompted this desired cessation of touch. I do experience some hypersensitivity, though at this point it’s hard to tell if that’s developed from my habit of avoidance or if it was what prompted it in the first place.

Suffice to say, there’s this odd fissure in my childhood, so early that I can’t really remember much before it. Everything about me being a normal, cuddly baby has been related to me over the years, when I’ve attempted to discuss this with my parents. It’s not an easy subject for them, and my own awkwardness doesn’t help the situation, so what I’ve gathered is from a series of start-and-stop conversations, often ending with my mother snapping at me and telling me to drop it.

And I understand why she reacts that way- I hurt her (I hurt them both, to be honest, but I think my father has chosen to just let the past be- he’s easygoing like that). That complete rejection of her physical displays of love is a wound I will never be able to make up for. She will carry that strange scar with her for the rest of her life, and I will never stop feeling guilty for giving it to her.

Even though I don’t understand why I did it.

***

It might surprise you to know that my parents never had me tested for autism.

The school apparently suggested it, but my parents (both harboring a strong aversion to going to see a doctor unless it was unavoidable) refused. And, objectively speaking, there really wasn’t a strong case going for autism. Beyond my sudden, baffling exile from the world of touch, I was a perfectly well-adjusted child. I had a lot of friends, I did very well in school, I loved climbing trees and playing in the dirt and rollerskating. I read like mad and threw Legos at my brother’s face when he blamed me for things (they always believed him, because he was the baby) and picked plums that grew over our fence from the neighbor’s yard and chattered all the time, to anyone who was listening (and anyone who wasn’t, to be honest), claiming I had all these words in my mouth and they just had to come out.

I was so disgustingly normal that one aberration (however bizarre and large it might have been) wasn’t really enough for my folks to believe there was something wrong with me on a neurological level. They might not like it, but it was “a phase I was going through.”

They were both right and profoundly wrong, all at once.

***

I did eventually lift my ban on touching, but that year left its mark. I carry my own scars from it, scars I’m going to show to you now like a 12-year-old boy on the bus while on a school field trip (I always won those contests, not for my scars, but for the fact that I’m hypermobile in many joints).

In fact, the years since have been a slow, uphill struggle to try to learn what comes so naturally to most people. Hugging. A pat on the arm. A playful poke. A reassuring squeeze of the hand. Hell, holding someone’s hand. And it’s really a vicious cycle, because the less you touch others (and the more you kind of flinch away when they try to touch you), the less they eventually reach out to you. And the less receptive they are to you touching them. Which makes me want to attempt this whole touch nonsense less, which makes them touch me less… You see where I’m going with this.

So, maybe the easiest way to go about this is to outline the rules.

***

1. If we’ve just met, the most you are allowed is a handshake. I don’t see what’s so out-of-line about this one. I don’t know you. I don’t want to be groped by you. It’s simple. I don’t want you to pat me on the arm or clap a hand on my shoulder or anything like that. I just met you. All you get to touch is the palm of my hand, for the length of a simple, assertive handshake (and woe be unto you if you try to give me some of that limp-wristed, no-grip bullshit- I judge a person hard based on that initial handshake, so man up and shake it like you mean it). And then you cease contact with my person.

2. I will give obligatory hugs when it seems socially required. I will not enjoy them, and receipt of such a hug is not permission to hug me at any point in the future. When it comes to touching, there are moments when people with a certain degree of intimacy (i.e. “friends”- the quotes are needed because my definition of friends and the rest of the world’s seem to be very different) are almost contractually obliged to embrace. In celebration of a performance or achievement, for example. And so, I try to honor these contracts I unwittingly signed by associating with people and hug them when it seems appropriate. But this is not the Berlin Wall falling, folks. After this moment, you are not invited to hug me whenever the mood strikes you. We will not hug in greeting. In fact, I’d appreciate it if you just didn’t bring your body within 5 inches of mine.

3. Breaking Rules 1 or 2 will result in me noticeably flinching away from the contact, as well as garnering my immense displeasure. On a good day, I’ll let one infraction slide. On a bad day, you’re immediately on my shit list. I’m going to pop away from you as if you’ve burned me, or I will wriggle in the embrace like a small animal in a snare. There will be glaring, threats will be issued. And I’m really not kidding here, despite what you may think. I don’t fucking want you to touch me, so stop. It’s basically the ultimate violation for me, the one way a person can make me feel really uncomfortable. I will not forgive you for it for quite some time (if ever, depending on the situation).

4. If I have made an overture to touch you in a manner beyond the aforementioned obligatory hug, it means I care about you. This rule is my most important, simply because it is the point when I open myself up to touch from people in an honest way. I warn you, me touching you will probably seem awkward (it always does for me). It may even seem unintentional, like a casual brush against your arm as we’re walking somewhere. But if I’ve tried, in any way, from a hand on the arm to brushing back your hair, I’m really attempting to convey that you mean something to me. You have become a member of my innermost circle. This rule is hard in that you can’t just tell people this- you just have to hope they understand. The harder I try, the more you mean. It’s that simple. And it means I am open to reciprocation. In fact, I want it. I just don’t know how to convey that.

5. Don’t be put off if I accidentally flinch away from you if you have been cleared for contact. Just because you are an intimate friend does not mean I won’t, from time to time, balk at physical contact. It’s not because I’m mad at you. You haven’t done anything wrong. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction if you catch me by surprise, and I always feel bad for doing it. It’s what I’m trying to train out, so just bear with me, yeah?

6. If we’re having the sex, it’s all systems go. If you’ve managed to make it through the obstacle course of my crazy and have ended up here, first of all, kudos. Second, there are no touch barriers for you anymore. When it comes to sex, I like touching. I like touching a lot. And, as I stated, I’m a bit hypersensitive to touch. A simple hand on the arm can burn on my skin for minutes after the person has left, the sensation sticking with me and distracting me. Now imagine how intense touch can be for me when aroused, when the body already heightens its awareness and sensation. If I’m doing the sex (seriously, love that phrasing) with a boy, my hands are going to be all over him, and I want the same in return. None of that fussy, restrained nonsense. I don’t do restrained in bed, and it’s certainly not what I’m looking for in a partner.

***

I mean, it’s really not hard- it’s a progression. The better I get to know you, the more I trust you, and the more acceptable it is to touch me.

Sadly, it’s hard for people to transition as they move up in my regard, simply because they’ve learned that I don’t like to be touched, so they won’t touch me. What people fail to realize is that my stringent “no touching” policy slackens as we become closer. And this is where I get upset and frustrated, because I don’t know how to tell them. I’ve tried flat-out saying it, but that’s awkward and doesn’t often work. And, much as I try to reach out to them, it’s even more awkward and tends to seem forced and silly.

I wish people could crawl inside my skin for a few days and see what it feels like to be my particular breed of crazy. It’s this constant tug-of-war between the yearning for human touch and aversion to it. It’s maddening. It’s this puzzle I only have half the pieces for and have to do in the dark.

So, I’m sorry if I make you frustrated or confused or uncomfortable when I try to reach out to you. I’m sorry I’m awkward. I’m sorry something so normal is so goddamn hard for me.

Honestly- I’m sorry.

But if I don’t know you, seriously, don’t you fucking touch me.

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