with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Touching Clues

Tell a man that there are 400 billion stars and he’ll believe you.
Tell him a bench has wet paint and he has to touch it.

I come from anti-touching stock. Sure, as babies we were hugged and cuddled, coddled and cooed, but then something happened. Maybe it was the changes that occur naturally in children, when the body hair starts to grow and other parts begin to develop. Maybe it was the attitude that came with the new spurts of growth, an attitude that screamed, "LEAVE ME graphic of a mother holding a babyALONE," and the adults complied. I don’t know when the general touching stopped in my family, but it did, condensing itself into random and forced hugs and the occasional pat on the back. Their attitude wasn’t the only one to change. My attitude towards touch started changing about the same time, too.

After a few harsh lessons as a blossoming teenager, touch had to be evaluated. What does he REALLY mean by putting his hand on my shoulder? A business and advertising major in college, I learned how body language and touch can be used to sway a customer or influence a stranger. How the shake of the hand can be used to convey personality. I learned how touch can be used to manipulate.

animated graphic of shaking handsTeaching self defense and rape prevention training, I loved discussing unwanted touching and deciding which kinds of touch are perceived as "acceptable" and which aren’t. Slowly, I started learning that some people tolerate a lot of touching that I find offensive, while others avoid touching at all costs, consciously and unconsciously making decisions about touch based upon their personal experiences. My sensitivity towards touch changed, as did my attitude about touch. I began to see it as a symptom of a greater problem and decided to tackle my issues with touch head on – resolving the underlying issues. From avoiding touch all together, I started to allow more to come into my life. I started with my parents.

Not long graphic of a handbefore I turned 30, I started hugging my parents upon arrival, at least once during the visit, and at the end of the visit. Freaked my father out. Yet, once when I forgot, he reached out and grabbed me in an awkward embrace, squishing me as he squeezed too hard and then pushing me away in his embarrassment. My mother was a different story. After over 20 years in abusive marriages to survive as a strong and single woman, she found my hugs a lifeline in the quicksand of her life. She would hold on extra long as if to make sure it was real.

Meeting my future husband brought me into a new realm of touch. His family are cuddly folks, holding hands, sitting close, scratching and massaging each other’s backs, just happy to be near each other. I’m still learning to be comfortable around that kind of unrestrained touching freedom.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch,
a smile, a kind word, a listening ear,
an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring,
all of which have the potential
to turn a life around.
Leo Buscaglia

Coming to Israel brought a new form of touch into my life. Not accustomed to cheek kissing or hugging from strangers, I was immediately suspicious and cautious. Over time I learned that they do this with EVERYONE, not just me.

Spending several weeks in Kibbutz Lotan near Eilat, I enjoyed the solitude while my husband was out chasing birds with his camera. Spoiling myself, I scheduled a different kind of massage each morning with Hiddai Levi, one of the resident specialists at the holistic center. Over time, he challenged me on my concepts about my body and my attitude towards touch. He reminded me of how baby monkeys can die when deprived of touch. "People think we cannot survive without shelter, food, and clothing, but we also cannot survive without touch." I started to examine my attitudes towards touch and where these preconceptions and assumptions came from. This examination led me to some profound understandings of how I came to be "me", again understanding that my reactions to touch are the symptoms not the issue.

Touch is difficult.
Touch is the revolution.
Anne Sexton (1928-1974), U.S. poet. “Letters to Dr. Y…”

Using touch or avoiding touch gives us a tool to control ourselves and others. It is a defensive as well as offensive mechanism. We use it to build walls around ourselves and to push people away. The most important thing we can learn about touch is how we use it to keep us from living our best life.

Just before coming to Israel, I faced a mighty wall of sorrow and grief. At a time when I needed to be held and reassured through touch, my grief was so intense that I pushed my husband away. In retrospect, I ask myself why. I knew relief would come with the hugs and cuddling he is so good at. I didn’t want relief. I wanted to stay in my shell of agony. Why? Maybe those I had lost deserved this pain-filled measure from me to give their life respect and value. In reality I was selfish. For weeks I kept my suffering to myself, a martyr of grief, cutting off my loved ones so I could stand alone in the supremacy of my misery. This hurt my loved ones who wanted to "be there" for me. They wanted to share their grief, not hoard it. I stayed on my side of the bed wrapped in a blanket of myself and my pain, ignoring everyone. The longer I stayed there, the harder it was to come out.

I know I am not alone in using touch as a tool, maybe even a weapon. Talking to Holocaust survivors in Israel and America, I hear many stories of self protection by avoidance of touch and other emotional sensations.

graphic of someone comforting anotherMost importantly, I’ve learned that touch is the symptom, and it can be the cure. The first time I underwent surgery as a teenager, I remember coming out of anesthesia in a panic, feeling desperately alone. In a haze of pale blue and white, a nurse held my outstretched hand as I struggled through my recovery. Days later, the nurse laughed about how I almost broke his hand. "It was like you were drowning and I was the only thing holding you up." I was embarrassed to tell him that he was right. All I needed was someone to hold my hand and I was okay. Such a simple thing, but so incredibly vital at the time.

graphic of people holding hands around the worldHow do you use touch in your life? Are these methods a symptom of something bigger? The program for March’s Life Makeover monthly meeting will feature Hiddai Levi who will discuss these aspects of touch and give us some tools, mental and physical, in order to learn how to use touch in our lives for our own survival and to help us live the best life we can.

The Life Makeovers year long project has completed in Tel Aviv with Lorelle VanFossen and Ruth Alfi, but you can get involved or start your own group through the author of the book, Life Makeovers, Cheryl Richardson.

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