I am big on hugs. I’ve always loved hugging people. I’m indiscriminate about it, because everyone needs them, and the benefit goes both ways. And if someone isn’t a hugger, they’ll just say no to the hug and that isn’t so bad. I always try and make time to stop and talk to homeless people, pass the time of day and offer them a hug. Nobody has ever refused.
I’ve never been very good at communicating about my feelings in words. When I was little, I was clingy with the adults I loved. After my parents found out that my brother had been abusing me, nobody spoke about it. I was scared to bring up the subject, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known how to describe what I felt. I was in turmoil and I craved the security of being physically close to adults I felt safe with. I didn’t talk to my mum, but I wanted to be in contact with her almost constantly.
A couple of years ago I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was an incredibly lonely time. I was in a desperate place and my default whenever I’m feeling upset is to seek physical contact. Being in a place full of strangers took that comfort from me. It was cold and desolate and I felt adrift.
After four or five days in hospital, I got to know a few fellow smokers in the smoking shelter outside. One evening, one of these women was anxious and tearful, so my reflex was to offer her a hug. She gratefully accepted and I was so relieved to have that human closeness after being deprived of it for what felt like weeks.
That opened the hug flood gates. I suddenly felt able to offer anyone and everyone there a hug. A couple of weeks later, I was hugging everybody in the hospital. Nursing staff, cleaners, the people working in the dining room, and all the other patients. This wasn’t really altruistic. It was all about me getting the connection I needed from people and feeling valued by them.
I ended up doing the same thing when I returned to work after six months of sick leave. In my office of around 50 people, nobody had ever really hugged each other before. Recently, when our Chairman retired, he came to see me to thank me for – in his words, ‘introducing hugs to the firm’. I could see past the irony that he didn’t recognise any of the 5 years of work I’d done for him and feel proud of this unusual achievement.
Therapy, however, is a tricky environment for a hugger. I’ve never experienced a relationship so close yet so physically distant. It’s tough trying to open up and be vulnerable without having the reassurance of being contained in a hug to soothe the feelings that come up.
I know that we all have different kinds of relationships with our therapists. Not everyone would want to have physical contact with their therapist. And there’s all that old school stuff about touch in therapy being totally off limits. Thankfully, my therapist doesn’t subscribe to that.
Every now and then my therapist offers me a hug. I never really know why J chooses those moments to ask if I’d like a hug. It seems to be a random thing. Maybe she just feels I need it. Or maybe she needs it. We had a hug on Thursday, and she did say that sometimes we both need a hug.
When we’re having a long break, I tend to ask J for a hug before I leave. It’s almost like that moment of feeling real closeness will sustain my connection with her until I see her again. After most sessions, I feel stirred up and depressed. But on the odd occasion that we hug on parting, I always leave feeling kind of uplifted.
I’m not sure exactly what J’s hugs mean to me. I guess I like that in those moments she isn’t clinical to me. It feels like we have a more human connection, and the balance of power is different. It feels more equal.
I think what’s most important to me though is the fact that when J hugs me, I can fully believe that she cares about me. When I talk so much about my messed up thoughts, erratic and extreme emotions, and the memories that cripple me with shame and fear, it’s hard for me to believe that she could even like me – let alone care for me. I can’t hear her reassurance that she isn’t repulsed by me, even though she reiterates it every time I’m crushed by shame and self-hatred.
But when she offers me a hug, I can feel the reassurance. I feel that she doesn’t find me disgusting. I suppose I just haven’t learned to speak and hear adequately when it comes to this stuff, so I need the physical demonstration to make it all real, to let it sink in.
Perhaps that’s why I go around hugging people all day. Maybe it’s about more than the moment of feeling close, maybe I am just desperately seeking reassurance that I am alright. I am not repulsive. I am worthy of affection. I am an OK sort of human being.
Photo: Allison Matherly, Creative Commons.