Magic Hands


Do you get enough touch in your life?

Last night I had one of my “can’t breathe” attacks, the ones that feel as if my chest is being squeezed in a vise. More severe than the shortness of breath that often comes with an anxiety episode, these attacks really hurt. I used to get them often (and munch on Xanax or some such to treat them) and I’m grateful that they are pretty rare in recovery.

What does this have to do with touch? Well, when I started to hurt and gasp, I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my husband and daughter (an evening of wholesome family values) so I turned to him for help. I don’t do this enough–I think sometimes I try too hard to show that I am stronger now than I used to be, and I need to ask myself whether there is a little too much ego involved in this.

Anyway, I grabbed his hands and put one in the middle of my back and the other over my heart, so that I could imagine a current passing through the hands into my body. I positioned them the way I wanted them, nudging them here or there, then leaned my head against him and started trying to do deep belly breaths. I wasn’t talking; he wasn’t trying to comfort me in any specific way. I was simply linking my limbic system to his through the contact.

It turned out to be a short one, and I was better by morning. But it got me thinking about how rare conscious, intentional touch is for me sometimes, and how powerful it can be. Many of us are living in a culture of paid touch: unless we are fortunate enough to have a willing mate skilled in the art, the only time we receive focused physical contact is when we pay a professional to use their skills. Not that these people don’t deserve to be paid for their time and skill! But the human animal needs more than once a week. Heck, it’s been a long time since I could afford even that, and many never can.

There’s a reason owners of “pettable” animals reap benefits of improved mood and lowered blood pressure. I know that for me, our dog fills some of physical void I felt when my daughter grew out of the snuggly stage. Biologically, we are wired to be in contact a lot more than most of us are. Our autonomic systems benefit from it, and the right kind of touch speaks a language of all-is-well that the intellect can’t replicate.

Most inpatient psych facilities have rules forbidding physical contact between patients. Many rehabs do as well. I can see the rationale for this; sexual or romantic entanglements cause discord and distract from treatment or recovery. It’s also important to protect people from intrusive or unwanted contact. That being said, it’s hard to imagine times in my life I was more badly in need of a caring touch. A sympathetic hand to hold during meetings, or clutch like a lifeline during an attack. I know others felt the same way.

Once, when I was in detox, I broke the rules. A man in his fifties had been on the ward for eleven days, unable to be released to the main rehab facility because of swelling in his feet. He was being treated with medications, but nothing worked. One late night in the lounge I asked him if any massage or other treatments had been used. None had, and this just seemed wrong to me, so I grabbed some lotion and massaged his feet for an hour or so. No one caught us, and he was able to be transferred the next day.

In the outside world, it’s hard for us to ask for the touch we need and hard to know when to offer it to someone else. Those of us in twelve-step fellowships can get plenty of hugs, but they often do follow the social-hug rules and we find it awkward to ask for more. At least, I do. It’s hard for me to ask my husband to hold me when I feel touch-deprived, and it’s one of his presumed roles!

If I were completely free of shame–and certain that I wouldn’t be being intrusive or harming anyone–I’d ask for touch often. I’d ask for the specific nature, location and energy. I’d say, “Pardon me, but if you feel okay with it, I’d like to lean against your left side and have you gently stroke the side of my face with your right hand for about 15 minutes. Oh, and could you mentally paint your fingers a soothing blue color before you start. Thanks. I owe you one.”

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