I am starving for affection. I live alone. And I am sad that prudent measures of healthy living in the midst of a pandemic include not touching others. So I looked it up and the definition of starve is “suffering or death caused by a lack.” I don’t feel like I am dying, but a hug or two sure would be nice.
As I write this I have done some research and learned that there is a thing called Touch starvation. It even has an alias. Skin hunger.
“When you touch the skin,” explains Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, “it stimulates pressure sensors under the skin that send messages to the vagus [a nerve in the brain.] As vagal activity increases, the nervous system slows down, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and your brain waves show relaxation. Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are also decreased.” Touch also releases oxytocin, the hormone released during sex and childbirth to bond us together. In other words, human touch is biologically good for you. Being touched makes humans feel calmer, happier, and more sane.
Without touch, humans deteriorate physically and emotionally. “We know from the literature that lack of touch produces very negative consequences for our wellbeing,” says Alberto Gallace, a neuroscientist at the University of Milano-Bicocca. He explains that humans are inherently social creatures; studies have shown that depriving monkeys of physical contact leads to adverse health outcomes. Our brains and nervous systems are designed to make touch a pleasant experience, he says. “Nature designed this sensory modality to increase our feelings of wellbeing in social environments. It’s only present in social animals that need to be together to optimize their chances of survival.”
For four months now, I have missed being able to show my affection for my friends. I have felt like the loneliness in this time has been exacerbated by not being able to touch those friends that I do see while practicing social distancing. I am humbling myself to admit that too because this world has become so big on autonomy and technology that I think the need for physical contact has been dismissed and devalued.
I am in a couple of support groups where hugging hello and goodbye is common practice. And this is especially good for people like me, who don’t get physical touch at home. Since March of this year, these groups have, for the most part, taken to the online rooms of ZOOM, where we get to see those we love, but the touch needs met by the hugs hello and goodbye are gone for now and into the foreseeable future. And I miss it terribly.
One of my most affectionate groups of friends are those that I spend all day Thursdays and half day on Saturday with at a place called Stuff Dreams Are Made Of in Jenks, Oklahoma. In this modest craftsmen house, full of vintage everything from postcards to buttons to trinkets to marbles and toys, we gather to make art. A different theme suggested each week. Some weeks a scribble is the starting point. Others a mandala of mixed media finds or doll making. But really, we gather to make connections. The art is merely a by product.
And our practice there for the year and a half I have attended religiously to grow my soul with the use of paint and found objects in the company of like minded travellers is to welcome each person as they arrive with hugs all around. Everyone gets up from their button sorting, doll making, painting or gluing to literally get in line and welcome fellow creatives into the room. And we all do the same whenever someone gets up to leave the house. “Hugs!” Linda exclaims, upon each arrival and departure. And we all follow suit, as she is like our Pied Piper of Passion.
When the pandemic rolled in, we had to take a break from gathering at Stuff Dreams Are Made Of. A month to honor the mayor’s “Shelter In Place” order. Stuff Dreams Are Made of was forced into slumber.
From mid March to June, I went through withdrawals. Gone was my reason to load up my art supplies on Wednesday night for the 15 minute drive across town to this magical place where my friends and I would gather to create art, eat, pray, love, laugh and tell stories.
Gradually, we started back up getting together to make art. A couple of times in the interim, I would sneak over to meet Linda over a social distanced Happy Meal in the driveway, the chosen faire of every Thursday when business was as usual. We all suffered through chemical soaked apple slices and skinny dry burgers just to get to the toys that have been proven to be the stuff whimsical art can be made of. And meeting her helped. It gave me a reason to leave the house with the payoff of seeing my friend.
The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of woke up from its long springtime nap on the first Thursday of June, opening its doors to a social distanced small group of masked creative zealots. And I was first in line.
It was strange at first. I felt socially atrophied. So when I found myself back in the social setting with these people, I found myself talking rapid fire for the first five minutes, saying practically everything I might say over an entire day. It was like the dam had burst and I had Post Lockdown Tourettes.
But the lack of physical contact for all of these weeks, that was something else to adjust to. And while we are back at our art making, we can only see smiles in our eyes as the rest of our expressions are blunted by a piece of fabric that acts like a barrier blocking good things and bad.
After a few Thursdays of not being able to hug hello and goodbye, I had had enough.
About a week ago, when I walked through the doors right after the door opened at 9am on Thursday, so happy to see my good friend and proprietor of Stuff Dreams Are Made Of, Linda, I looked at her, and I clapped. “I am clapping my hug to you!” I said and she grinned her big kid grin and joined me. I slapped myself silly from hand to hand as an energy came from it that surprised me with relief. There was something tactile in that touch, even if it was just one of my own hands slapping the other. Two senses were sated as I could hear the smacking of skin on skin and I felt some real satisfaction. Some touch need met.
So as the others began to arrive, one at a time, we welcomed them in with applause, explaining as they looked at us funny, “We are hugging you with applause!” And they reciprocated. This went viral in a good way as each person came and went throughout the day of arting as a group.
This may seem silly, but if you think about the world we are finding ourselves in, where human touch comes with a potentially high risk until further notice, why not get creative? For those of you who live alone and are used to the hugs from fellow travellers, who are choosing to be careful when it comes to physical touch, I dare you. Try this! And if I am right, let me know what you experience.
In the wise words of Herbert Spencer, 19th century english philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, and sociologist:
“There is a principle which is bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance-that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
Let’s start a new virus. One that won’t need a vaccine.