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A touchy subject

Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth

This week I returned to my university city for the first time since collecting my things from my halls in July. The experience of travelling to move to another city is always pretty fraught, but the idea of moving away from the comfort (and often frustration) of my home with my parents into a new home with a new housemate At This Time made me feel a little more than the usual jitters that accompany change.

While I was trying to unpick why I was feeling so nervous, I happened to hear an episode of All in the Mind. The presenter Claudia Hammond was discussing the results of a national survey into our attitudes to touch, the Touch Test, which happened to close to entries just at the beginning of lockdown. How prescient the survey seems now! As I listened, I realised part of my anxiety about travelling from the relative safety of my home bubble was linked to this fear of touch – how many objects are you required to touch in the process of moving 200 miles from one home to another? How many more opportunities for pathogens to breach the safety of the bubbles you have created – both real and imagined?

During the programme, contributors described both the experience of feeling starved of touch and the relief of touch being currently off the cards. While I fall into the former category – I am desperate to return to a life where the beginning and end of hanging out time with friends is marked with a casual hug – I was intrigued to hear the experience of another contributor who mentioned that for her, light touch induces an almost burning, unbearable sensation in her skin, whereas firmer touch was bearable. She mentioned that a nurse stroking her arm in hospital was like the sting of a nettle. As well as being a timely reminder that touch in clinical context requires consent, this contributors testimony highlighted that the pandemic requires us all to behave as if skin to skin contact would indeed burn like a nettle’s sting – to touch anything or anyone is to risk infection. The infection risk of touch has of course always been a concern in clinical settings, but pre-corona, this risk was balanced with the acknowledgement that for many people, touch serves an important role in the therapeutic encounter, both as an important diagnostic tool, but also in and of itself. Indeed, the healing nature of touch feels like a universal truth, stories of its power are embedded into art and culture, and literary and religious texts.

We talk often about being visual creatures – but I would contend that we’re also contact creatures; many, if not most of us, require the right kind of touch in order to connect and bond with each other. This is something we understand and vital for developing babies, but it might be something that for adults we had forgotten or taken for granted, even as the research shows that many people who lead touch-free lives experience higher levels of loneliness and mental distress. As we move indoors for a covid winter and restrictions tighten across the country, our retreat further into a sterile, screen-medicated existence continues apace and our fear of the danger of touch grows. Right now, we need to keep our distance. When the pandemic is over, I hope it won’t take too long to overcome our fear of infection and reclaim the part of ourselves that needs to reach out and touch.

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