(Do)n’t Touch Me

CW: sexual abuse, trauma

I’ve been meeting a lot of new people lately. Which is exciting and terrifying and everything in between. One of the difficulties I have when meeting new people is establishing boundaries around physical touch.

I have problems being touched. I was sexually abused. So often when someone touches me without warning it creates a whole heap of trouble and conflict for me. My Complex-PTSD can make me react to physical touch in a variety of ways. Fear. Repulsion. Shame. Violence (another form of fear). Often I am just frozen solid.

A lot of the time I don’t have the confidence to speak up about my issues with touch. Someone might touch my leg in conversation and before I know it my brain is somewhere else. I disappear for a while, overcome by the flashbacks. Until I finally shake my head and bring myself back to the conversation with a smile and a laugh.

A strategy I developed recently was actually telling people that I don’t like being touched explicitly from the outset. So if someone goes in for a hug when I meet them I’ll say “sorry, I’m not a touchy-feely person”. But the thing is… That’s a complete and utter lie.

Despite my issues with being touched I actually LOVE being touched. My sense of touch is one of my most sensitive and beloved senses. This morning before I left the house my partner stroked my hands for maybe 20 minutes, with absolutely no words being spoken between us. I love the feel of a comforting hand on my shoulder, or a cheeky leg slap when I make someone laugh. I adore hugging those people whom I adore and keeping them close. I love the pressure of my dogs body against mine as we cuddle.

As well as loving being touched I love to touch. To run my fingers through hair, play with sand, the feelings of fabrics. I love baking because I love getting my hands dirty. One of my favourite feelings is rubbing my freshly shaved head against soft pillows. Eating with my hands make me feel more connected to food. Playing sport and getting covered in mud and tackling others makes me very happy. You catch my drift? I love to touch and be touched.

So this creates a strange paradox. One of my favourite ways of connecting to others and the world is also a significant barrier to me forming those same connections.

It’s a strange thing. I think my love/hate relationship with being touched demonstrates the complexity of trauma. My trauma doesn’t wholly define me, of course. But it does shape a lot of how I experience and respond to the world. And the more I heal, the more my true self emerges. The more I can freely enjoy touch without hesitation.

So you can understand why I make excuses about “not liking being touched” because it is so difficult to explain this duality. And I think a lot of my issues with touch come down to consent. When someone touches me, without my consent, it reminds me of other times I have been touched without my consent as a child. Which immediately takes me back to a place where I don’t want to return to.

We need to reframe how we view consent. It is never okay to assume consent, no matter how close you are to a person. There are even times with my partner, my most trusted person, that I am not receptive to touch. It is not necessarily about degree of closeness. But my own headspace and whether or not that consent has been respected.

If I could tell someone how to approach touching me I would say ‘do ask or don’t touch‘. We need to respect people’s boundaries and personal space. And it’s not that hard to do. It just takes practice. It really makes a huge difference to the quality of life of people like me.

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