I’ve been feeling touch starved recently. Actually, I didn’t even notice it until someone touched me. That’s the thing about starving — you don’t really know how hungry you actually are until you eat something.
It wasn’t even a real touch; it was just a hand on my shoulder while laughing. I don’t think I would’ve thought twice about something like that eight months ago, but I do now. A casual hug or a playful push now fills me with both panic and bliss in the same instant. I’m reminded of the pandemic, and of life before it. And then their touch is gone, and I am reminded of how long it will be before someone casually touches me again.
Being touch starved doesn’t just mean that you aren’t having sex. Sex is its own completely different kind of touch. Sex expires. It ignites and then it burns out. And often the heat it gives off just makes you colder when it’s gone.
Sex can’t possibly replace what has been lost — a fairly constant stream of handshakes and hugs. I never thought of myself as a particularly touchy person, but maybe I was. Maybe I am. Because I miss the world’s embrace as if it were a lover who’s abruptly moved cross country.
I’d like to say that I know how to fix it, or at least that it will end soon. I can say that in the last eight months I’ve found myself sleeping with more blankets, taking warmer showers, even wearing less revealing clothing. It was just instinct — I was trying to trick my body into thinking someone was close to me, not standing on a faded marker 6 feet away. That I could feel their breath, not watch it cloud their glasses from inside their mask.
But I don’t think these extra layers are just to mimic that feeling. I’m covering the skin that those around me fear is infested with a deadly disease. The same disease that keeps me from my grandparents, my friends, my school. I’m ashamed of what my skin means. It’s hard knowing that no one wants to touch you — that they’re afraid to touch you. And it’s hard being afraid to touch others.
I really thought sex could be the answer to this. I thought that existing with someone else, with so little between us, would push the fear out of reach. That I would just forget about its existence. I thought having someone touch me without that fear would replace all the times others couldn’t.
And it did, for a moment. In that moment, I noticed every touch: a brush against my leg, a squeeze on my arm, a hand on my belly. When was the last time someone touched your belly? I absorbed it. I absorbed everything.
But sex is purposeful. At least, it has always felt that way to me. It can never act as a full replacement for casual touch because the intentions behind the two actions are so different. In sex, there’s a mutual goal that, when reached, ends. You can cuddle afterward, sure, but it ends. And today, you still have to go back outside, only now you’re more afraid that you actually are what those around you fear you are.
A casual touch serves no purpose. It’s like a genuine laugh or a wide, wrinkly smile — it’s just two people interacting. It’s supplemental for words. It’s unnoticed yet comforting. Or it used to be.
I had sex last night, but I feel no more cured of my condition this morning. It’s like I took a few Advil that have now worn off. No, it’s like I took morphine and now I’m in withdrawal.
But I can’t just keep taking morphine, dosing myself with fleeting moments of warm connection. It’s not healthy. Besides, the pain will still be there, only dulled for a little while. So when I come down and it hits me again, morphine might not be strong enough to hold it off.
So I have blankets. And layers. And warm showers. And I hold my boobs while I study (although I always did that). And I pet the dogs whose owners don’t mind. And I eat warm food that comforts me from the inside out. And I steal the boy’s hoodie to wear while I write to trick myself into feeling his arms holding me. And I hug my sister, because I can. And I talk and laugh with the people around me and imagine when I can hug them, too.
I wish I could go back to before I ever even thought about these privileges. Before I ever even knew there was pain to be felt. That’s always how it is with pain. With starvation. That part of you that was always full is now agonizingly empty, and the longer you wait, the harder it is to fill.
I’m starting to feel like I’ll never really be full again. I hope that I’m wrong.
Helen D’Orazio writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]