By Colleen Duffy
For a while, I was obsessed with giving everyone high-fives. I took it so far as calling myself a high-five enthusiast, high-fiving random strangers and chasing shots with high-fives. I think I was only able to do it because the nauseating pang of liquor was overwhelmed by the flush of liquid intimacy I was so thirsty for. It was fluid.
I find myself longing for the simple intimacies of life. The kind felt between siblings and friends. The welcoming hugs that serve as greetings. The movie night cuddles and a shoulder to cry on. But I always shy away from these interactions, instead acting like I don’t want them, but staring jealously at the soft brushes of hair or heads rested on laps. The need for intimacy surrounds me like a wet blanket.
I guess that’s what happens when you spend most of your adolescence in psychiatric hospitals, not allowed to touch anyone. I remember it so well. The yearning. The discomfort. And most of all, the loneliness. It started when I was sent to the psych ward at age 13. I suppose they had good reasons to not allow touching, but I don’t think they expected kids to spend so much time in places like that during those crucial teenager years. The years when you start to make sense of the world and develop lifelong behaviors.
It was embarrassing and degrading, asking if I could hug my friend. A friend of only a few weeks, but a friend whose soul was spilled out in the ward… a fellow broken, young soul. So young, misunderstood and lonely. You don’t get to know people quite like you do in a place like that. And if permission to touch was granted, it was too brief to matter. Soon you were ripped away, never to touch, never to see each other again. That was another rule. No contact in the “outside world.” We couldn’t exchange numbers or even email addresses. It was all: bond on levels you never thought you could bond with someone, then permission to hug and part ways. Hugs meant a permanent goodbye.
You would lose points for touching without permission. Lose levels for showing them you cared, for wiping away tears after an unusually challenging therapy session. You would exchange secret hand strokes under the table and slip notes as you passed by, hoping not to get caught. But you would do it anyways, not caring about the points or if you ever left.
There was so much longing. Longing to be touched. To be loved. Craving a connection or to feel understood. Simply wanting some validation. After a while, the cold leather of the restraints, the firms grasp of the nurses holding you down, the rubber bands cutting off circulation for blood withdrawal — those became my intimacies. That was the human contact I began to crave.
It seemed every place I was sent to had this no touching rule. And when I was finally able to touch, it was too late to matter.
On long lonely nights, I go back to my childhood, when my mother was still alive. She would stroke my head until I fell asleep. It’s the only way I can fall asleep now. So I never do. I go back to recently, when my sister teased me for not letting her cuddle, struggling to get out of her embrace, struggling to tell her how I felt. She still doesn’t know. How can I explain it? Maybe it’s because I didn’t realize it until recently.
Why am I always yearning for it, but feel so uncomfortable when it does occur? Is it because the hugs aren’t as tight at the restraints? Or the strokes aren’t as sharp as the needles? I don’t know how to be intimate. The behavior is something I never learned. I think that’s why I was so obsessed with high-fives. It was the closest I could get to that intimacy, that touch, without feeling uncomfortable or like I needed to explain myself. It was sharp and brief, like what I am used to.
I’d like to say I’ve gotten better, that I’ve begun learning how to be intimate or at least begun explaining myself. But this story has no happy ending. No resolution. No lesson. It simply ends with that same cold teenager, wishing to be hugged, but incapable of doing so. Sometimes I fear that it’s too late to learn such things, so for now, I’ll stick to excuses and high-fives.