It is forty five days since another human being touched me. Six weeks and three days.
I am alone, but I am not alone in this.
Many of us who are home alone during this lockdown are counting the days since we last touched another person, and comparing, and wondering when we will next be allowed to touch or be touched by anyone else. Or, allowed or not, feel safe doing so? Weeks? Months? At least a month ago I heard about a single woman asking for prayer for this issue and her request being dismissed by a pastor (no doubt married, and cosily snuggled up next to his wife at night) as ‘trivial’.
It is far from trivial. It is a serious issue with implications for the mental health and wellbeing of thousands. Journalists are writing about it (and stealing my thunder yet again, because, though I started this two weeks ago, it takes me weeks to write something they can knock out in an afternoon!).
Forty five days ago it was my hairdresser who touched my head and hair (yes, folks, I had the good fortune to get a haircut only days before lockdown!) which doesn’t really count, or at least only partly, as it was professional not affectionate, and we decided the hug I usually get thrown in with a haircut was too risky. So even that felt like a loss rather than a gain. (Except on the hair front, obviously.)
My last hug was forty seven days ago. It was snatched and illicit-feeling, a week before lockdown, when my eldest niece came to dinner just before going home to Bristol.
We had spent the evening carefully staying 2m apart – no small feat in my tiny living room – and then I thought, ‘Sod this, I don’t know when I will next see any of my family again but they are all hundreds of miles away and I do know it’s going to be weeks, if not months, and I’m flipping well going to hug this one while she is within reach.’
To be honest it wasn’t very satisfactory. We were both very aware that in the previous days she had been on trains and buses, and in a nightclub, and that I am vulnerable to infections and the consequences of infections, and hugging, even fleetingly, felt risky and dangerous which slightly cancelled out the good effects but it was, at least, brief physical contact with a person I love and who loves me.
The last real hug I had – one without fear or stress, or holding my breath and feeling maybe this is too risky and not a good idea and we’d better make it quick – was on March 3rd. That’s two whole months ago.
My MA research into issues facing single women in the church suggested that lack of physical touch was high on their list. Not sex – well, that was up there as a separate issue – but the lack of the human touch which all of my participants felt was crucial to their mental and emotional well-being, and which, as single women, living alone, they found hard to come by.
‘I can go an entire week, week and a half…no one’s even given me a hug…I could cope with not having sex for the rest of my life but if no one touched me, I think I’d shrivel up and die.’ said one woman in her forties.
A week and a half? Ha! Try two months…and counting.
Research suggests that, on average, individuals need at least 8-10 ‘meaningful touches’ a day to be emotionally healthy (and who the heck gets that other than those with small children?), and that touch deprivation can lead to depression in adults, and failure to thrive in children. Bad news for singles (and, I realise, many married people as well), at the best of times. Devastating in current times.
Many of us who live alone rely on church for hugs and our only physical contact with other people but, even before lockdown, contactless sharing of the Peace had been in force for weeks. My heart plummeted the first week we were advised not to hug or even shake hands on arriving at church or sharing the Peace. Elbow bumps and sign language are all very well but they do not really cut it when you are desperate for real physical contact and you aren’t going to get it anywhere else.
So far my worst moments were on Easter Sunday and the following days. It didn’t help that I’d overdone it the previous week and crashed physically. When I am more unwell my need for physical touch increases dramatically. At times physical connection to others and, via others, to God, and, even it can seem, to life itself, is the only thing which pulls me back from the scary and isolated world of pain and sickness my body is dragging me into.
Added to that it was my first ever Easter spent on my own. There was online church, and phone calls with friends, and a family Zoom call, but these served only to highlight my aloneness. Church began with photos of church members to remind us of our church family and community. A lovely idea, but all I could see that morning, were couples and families sitting side by side on their sofas, their arms touching, physically in contact with each other. While I sat alone on mine.
Having wrestled long and hard with singleness in my twenties and thirties it is not usually an issue for me now. And I am mostly happy living alone. But that day I wanted to throw things at those couples and families on the screen who could still actually touch and hug each other whenever they wanted to.
(Don’t even get me started on the Facebook posts of couples and families captioned: ‘So blessed/grateful to be in lockdown with my wonderful husband/wife/partner/children’! And yes, of course I know that there are many couples and families for whom lockdown together is hugely challenging, or even dangerous, for whom these photos could be equally distressing, and that even the seemingly happy pictures do not tell the whole truth.)
My Easter family Zoom call featured bad internet connections and both my sisters flanked by their children, the smaller ones hugging my youngest sister on screen. I managed not to cry. Just. Until later.
I’m guessing this is harder for some than for others. I have friends who actively dislike hugs. I have one who says she doesn’t do hugs because God should be enough. My response to this, like the little boy whose father tells him to imagine Jesus is hugging him, is that sometimes we all need someone ‘with real skin on’. We are called to be the hands, arms, feet and voice of Jesus: his body here on earth. Sometimes it takes the physical arms of another living person to enable us to feel, through them, the love of God for us. We are hard-wired for relationship and connection, and physical touch is an important part of that. It is a basic human need.
There was a book, popular in Christian circles a while back, called ‘The Five Love Languages’ by Gary Chapman which was cheesily American, and based on I’m not sure what, and which purported to help people improve their relationships with partners, family, and friends by exploring the ways in which different individuals perceive and experience love, affection, and support. It came complete with a questionnaire to determine your own primary ‘love language’ and, no surprises here, for me, ‘physical touch’ was the runaway winner. You can keep your ‘acts of service’, ‘words of affirmation’, ‘gifts’ and ‘quality time’; if you want to let me know I’m accepted, valued, cared for, loved, supported, a hug is the only thing that matters. (I exaggerate slightly: I’ll happily receive any of the others in addition to hugs!)
So here we are, those of us who need physical touch but who live alone, or rather here I am (did I mention, there’s nobody else here?!): desperate for physical contact, and less likely to get it at the best of times because I am single, childless, and living alone; more isolated and cut off from others, and more in need of physical touch than most singles, because of being ill; and now in lockdown.
Oh, and classed as vulnerable. So even when the lockdown eases and others are allowed more contact again, I am likely to be advised to continue rigorous social distancing. At that point I suspect I am going to be balancing the potentially serious damaging effects of even longer term lack of physical contact with anyone at all with the risks of catching the virus and will be looking for a low risk hugger or two to help save my sanity.
My small nieces have tried very hard to help. Early on they tried hugging the screen during a FaceTime call. When that didn’t quite work the youngest fetched all her cuddly toys to hug the screen, hoping that it might be more satisfactory if large quantities of fur were involved. For my birthday two weeks ago they sent me the biggest, softest, and squishiest teddy bear I have ever had. He has been named Bramley and is, indeed, very hugable. Not quite as good as an actual hug from an actual person, but he is definitely helping. (In our current strange times it seems entirely reasonable for a 53-year-old woman to be given a large teddy bear for her birthday and for most of her Zoom birthday party to be spent naming him.)
I had recorded the main Bible reading for church for the Easter Sunday service. And, as I heard myself reading those familiar words, right in the middle of my ‘I’ve got nobody else to sit on my sofa with me’ Easter lockdown crisis, one thing did strike me afresh about the Easter story. When Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus in the garden, and finally recognises him, he tells her not to touch or hold onto him. A surprising and apparently incongruous advocating of physical distancing, for that specific time and place, from Jesus whose ministry was so ‘hands on’, so full of the healing power of physical touch.
I imagine Mary running towards him, wanting to throw her arms around him, and Jesus stepping back, keeping a safe 2m distance away. Keep your distance for now. No hugging for now. Even as the death and resurrection of Jesus bring us into close relationship with the living God through his risen son, here is social distancing in that one moment at the heart of the Easter story.
How hard must that have been for Mary? And for Jesus? Even in our isolation, with our lack of physical contact, the risen Christ meets and identifies with us. No matter what our struggles are, he has been here before us. He knows how hard this is; he is here with us; he understands.