One of the questions I was asked in my mental health interview was whether I liked being touched. It was one of the easier questions for me to answer because the answer was “no”. There were other questions around the same theme. “Was the feel of clothes more important than how they looked?”, to which the answer is “yes” and “Is the texture of food more important than its taste?”, to which after much consideration I answer “no” though now we are moving in into the realm of “that depends”.
The more I think about touch the more I think “it depends”. I don’t think I had really considered the sense of touch and clothes before the interview but that questions throws light on some of my behaviour. One of those behaviours is not clothes on skin, but a lack of clothes on skin. I enjoy the feel of nature on my skin. I think I wear shorts partly because I like to feel the wind and the sun on my legs, touch is a sensation that is real where other emotions will leave me blank. Touch on my skin gives me pleasure and that is a rare commodity in my life. Touch can mean that I am alive.
I think I prefer furry things on my skin. Cotton, particularly the brushed type, feels lovely whereas harsher materials don’t. I think it also depends on the fineness of the thread though. I think the shorts I am currently wearing are mainly synthetic fibres but because they are finely woven with a bit of stretch, I like the feel of them. In general I think wool is too harsh for me, whereas merino wool is fine in a jumper, it needs to be mixed with synthetic fibres if it is to be next to my skin. Silk would on the face of it be a good material for me, but I don’t like the shirts I bought when I went to Singapore many years ago; they feel too hard (more fabric conditioner required – hate the stuff though).
I also don’t like loose clothing, it just doesn’t feel right to me. This though continues to cause problems. I am quite athletic and slim looking (though the enjoyment of food spoils the effect somewhat) and because of this my thigh muscles are larger than nearly all trousers cater for when compared to my waist size and leg measurement. Simply put, trousers tend to get stuck on my thighs unless I go to a much larger waist size, which really isn’t what I want. Similarly my chest size is large compare to my waist so shirts that fit around my abdomen well, get strained across my chest and chest sized shirts feel like tents. This one however I can get around by buying youthful tailored shirts in a larger size though it can be a bit hit and miss, plus I was never into fashionable colours or patterns.
At least I get to choose my clothes and to a certain extent, choose when to feel the sun, wind, or water on my skin (I have forgotten to mention I love the sensation of water flowing over my skin either in a shower or cruising in a swimming pool). The problem comes when it involves other people.
I was never a cuddly child but I have always put that down to my parents not wanting to hold me but perhaps I also did not want to be held. I find that difficult to believe though because I have memories of standing by my mother’s bedside frightened by a nightmare and desperate to feel safe again. I couldn’t disturb her though (since being a parent myself, I wonder if she was awake anyway) and eventually found the courage to return to my own bed and the monsters that lived under it. A part of me wanted to be held though and even now as an adult there are times when I am frightened and want to be held. Asking to be held though requires some rather extreme circumstances usually based around a fear of impending death. No exactly an everyday occurrence then, even for me.
Social touching has always been troublesome though I suspect I was not the only kid to dread the sloppy granny kiss. Again, hugs and shaking hands just didn’t happen in my family so touching others tended to be focussed around the dance floor of the night club. Teenage angst and total body perspiration meant that slow dancing was never going to be my thing, and perhaps an unconscious fear of touch added the final barrier.
I have changed and adapted though. In the same way I learnt to look people in the eye, I have learnt to shake hands (firmly but not hard), hug when initiated by another party, and single/double/triple kiss on the cheek though I don’t think I will ever understand how many pecks are required. I have taught myself to touch friends when I am trying to reassure them and give them a hug when they are distraught. Being a parent may have something to do with this. I was determined that my kids would not be isolated by touch in the same way I was. As babies they slept on my chest and danced in my arms, as toddlers I carried them on my shoulders, held their hands when they crossed the road, supported them when they tested themselves on climbing frames and was the floating post they grabbed hold of whilst they played in the pool. Now as adults, they will still ask me for a hug and I in turn, have learnt to ask them for one too when we say goodbye.
It is very different though to hug somebody you have known for decades and somebody you have never met before or perhaps more realistically, don’t know that well. Generally I am the one that wants to be in control of being touched but reading a social situation correctly is vital to know when a hug is required or expected. Not being a social sleuth though means I don’t read these things (though previous precedent is a handy guide) so I stand there not knowing what to do, and if somebody else takes the initiative then I am sure I am giving off don’t-touch-me vibes by my rather stiff and awkward reception. Not exactly a good way to start an evening.
One of the great things about living in Scotland is that the tradition of social get togethers continues across generations through the gathering that is the ceilidh. I still love to dance (though I seem to be even more sweaty nowadays) but ceilidh dancing involves an awful lot of touching. Most of the time I am fine because I am dancing with friends, it is the progressive dances that are the challenge where you get a new partner every thirty seconds or so. I wouldn’t volunteer for a progressive Canadian Barn Dance for instance, but they tend to happen randomly amongst other dances so I have taken part. To be honest though, I can cope with these too, perhaps concentrating on the music and dancing steps helps, or perhaps the dancing itself bolsters my resilience to interacting with strangers.
Ceilidhs are great levellers and fun plus at the end of the day, nearly every child in Scotland learns about touch even if their parents are unable to hug them. Of course the other great thing about ceilidhs, at least from my point of view, is that I get to swirl around in a kilt and that feels absolutely wonderful (let that inner Gene Kelly out). Underwear is of course, optional.