Trigger Warning: Discussion of touch aversion/trauma responses including descriptions of panic attacks and discussion of disassociation.
Anyone who’s been around here for any length of time might remember I’ve mentioned I have touch aversion. If you know me in real life, this is even more apparent due to the fact that I sometimes wear gloves. What isn’t obvious is what touch aversion is and how it affects me.
It recently occurred to me that my touch aversion is something I regularly talk about but never really explain, as if everyone should obviously know what that means. A few days ago, I was having a conversation about relationships with one of my closest friends when I realized she had no idea what the deal with my aversion to touch was about, probably because I’d never explained it, and she felt like it was rude to ask me.
So here we are.
Before we get started, there are some things you should consider while reading this post. First, my touch aversion is a consequence of trauma. Touch aversion is also discussed in the autistic and asexual communities. I’m not a member of those communities, so to hear about touch aversion from their perspective, seek them out. Their experiences are different. Here’s an article about touch aversion from the ace perspective to get you started. Second, as is always the case with marginalized groups, we are not a monolith. My experience may not mirror the experiences of others, even those who have touch aversion stemming from trauma. I’m only one voice.
Furthermore, I don’t expect people to know about my touch aversion, which is why we’re having this conversation. I encourage questions. Not everyone feels the same, though, so respect these boundaries if/when they’re voiced. Mental illness is still extremely stigmatized and some don’t feel (and aren’t) safe discussing their deeply personal experiences. That said, I don’t mind (anymore). It doesn’t make me uncomfortable. If hearing someone talk about these experiences makes you uncomfortable, I encourage you to sit with that and examine why. It likely has to do with some stigma you’ve placed on mental illness that you might want to evaluate further.
Final prefacing note: I have consciously purged this post of the word “suffer”. It’s a loaded word. When I use it, I use it with a great sense of awareness and because I would say it’s an accurate word for my personal experience, but I know it can be painful, so I’ve removed it. Words are powerful.
Okay, this is long, so here we go.
Touch Aversion: An FAQ
Q: What is it?
In its most basic form, touch aversion is exactly what it sounds like. It’s not liking to be touched. When I use it to explain my personal experience, I mean: “Not liking to be touched by other people.” Touch aversion can extend to other living creatures and inanimate objects as well, but for me, it’s mainly people (although when my touch aversion was at its worst, I also had difficulty touching animals, including my own pets).
Touch aversion exists on a spectrum. Some people find human contact to be uncomfortable, others find it debilitating. Some people are okay with hugs but not kissing. It’s all variable and as such, is difficult to nail down. I was going to link to a medical definition, but to be honest, those definitions are all kind of gross to me, using words like “irrational” and “morbid” so I’ll just stick to “not liking to be touched.”
Q: What’s okay and what’s not?
Again, it varies for everyone. For me, I prefer not to make skin-to-skin contact with people (especially strangers). That’s why I’ll often choose to wear gloves when I’m in public. The layer of fabric acts as a shield. If I’m in a situation where I feel relatively safe, I’ll keep them off. If I don’t wear gloves around you, it means I trust you to respect my boundaries.
My stress level can usually be predicted by some common factors: the intimacy of the contact; its duration; my familiarity with the person; and the power dynamics between myself and the person touching me. If someone briefly bumps my exposed skin, I’ll sense it, maybe freeze or falter, but I’ll be able to brush it off quickly. Handshakes I can manage, though I’d prefer to be wearing gloves. Hugs are not my favorite, but I can usually get through them as long as they’re not prolonged, whereas rubbing my back or shoulders (even through clothing) makes me panic. More intimate forms of contact like kissing, cuddling, sex, etc. make me nauseous, skittish, dizzy, and eventually lead to either a full-fledged panic attack, fainting, or an emotional shutdown of some kind (disassociation).
Q: What does it feel like?
It depends. If I’m in a situation where my anxiety is relatively low, the person touching me is someone I trust, and the interaction is short, I’m mostly fine. I notice it, mind you, with acute sensitivity. I consciously register it, whereas someone else might not even think twice, but I can usually move on with relative ease. The flip side is, if I’m in a situation where my anxiety is high and/or with someone I don’t trust and/or am faced with an extended interaction, my anxiety can escalate to dramatic consequence. I might freeze, shake, be unable to breathe, throw up, and in the most extreme cases, pass out. Very, very rarely and exclusively in situations with male romantic partners, I’ll strike. For me, those situations hurt the most. I’m incredibly nonviolent, so when someone pushes me to violence by ignoring my boundaries, it’s soul crushing. The only times this has happened, the end of the relationship followed shortly thereafter.
As to what it feels like in a sensory way, it doesn’t hurt in a traditional sense. It feels almost like an extreme case of caffeine jitters. It’s like an army of ants is crawling just beneath my skin. I want to reach down to my muscles and push them away but can’t. It feels like if there were some way for me to rip my skin open and let all that excess anxiety out, I would feel better. Often, my muscles will twitch and spasm, sometimes lock up and cramp. It’s not pleasant.
Q: Is it worse with certain people?
Yes. I’m much more anxious with men than women, and I have essentially no issue being touched by children. This is definitely tied to power dynamics for me. If you have more power than me (I’m talking mostly physical power, remember, my touch aversion is tied to trauma), then I’m more likely to be on edge.
Trust and choice have big roles to play as well. If it’s someone I trust who gives me the choice to engage (this is where non-physical power comes in), then my level of tolerance for touch tends to be higher.
Q: How does it shape your life?
It’s… hard. Friendships can be hard. Relationships are even harder. Fear of being touched keeps me from public spaces with regularity. For example, before this weekend, I hadn’t been to the grocery store in 6 weeks. People coming near me can throw my entire day into a spiral. It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. I’m worn out all the time from existing on edge. My muscles are constantly knotted, so I live with chronic back pain; I’ve ground my teeth to shit. Because I use clothing as a shield, I wear sweaters and long pants in the summer which can make me sick. I’m prone to fevers and nausea. I throw up so frequently my esophagus never heals, and I vomit blood. And the unhealthy coping mechanisms I’ve tried would take another ten blog posts to unpack.
I walk through life conflicted. Part of me has this deep desire to scream, “I’m not broken, don’t try to fix me.” Side note: If that’s how you feel, that’s incredible and amazing and you are fantastic the way you are. Be you. Whoever you is. If you’re happy, be happy. You don’t owe anyone your touch. You don’t owe society or your therapist or your partner or your friends or your family. It is your body. I cannot say this enough. Because I’m going to talk about change here in the next paragraphs, and I want everyone reading this who might experience touch aversion to understand I am not saying you have to change. If you are happy, be happy. You deserve that. And if you do want to change, dig deep to discern why. Do you want to change because you feel like you have to so you can conform or please someone? Or do you want to change for yourself? That seems like a simple thing, but it’s really, really not. And please, if you’re considering working on this issue, find the right therapist and the right therapy. This is so, so sensitive, and doing damage is so, so easy.
For me, the part of me that wants to say I’m not broken is not a brave voice, proudly declaring, “I’m different, and I am unafraid.” That voice telling me I don’t need to be fixed is the coward within, who is deathly afraid of change. That voice is the voice who says, “This is how I am and there’s nothing to be done about it, so let’s just keep going regardless of whether we’re miserable, regardless of whether we’re doing actual physical and emotional damage.”
Because the truth is, I am miserable. I hate being unable to be touched. It’s a burden. I want to be touched so desperately it hurts. I want to be able to shake hands with someone without flinching, and to have someone jostle my shoulder like a pal without grinding my teeth into nothing, and be able to stand in a checkout line without every muscle in my body tensed, ready to spring away should someone happen to brush up against me. I want to be able to kiss someone without having to turn off my entire emotional experience. I want to be held when I cry. I want so many things most people take for granted, and I can’t have them. And I can’t have them because someone did this to me. I don’t want these things because society tells me I should (though certainly there’s some of that at play), and I wasn’t born this way. This was done to me.
So yes, I’m miserable, and yes, I want to change, and yes, I consciously embrace the language “broken.” I am broken, but I’m not beaten. I’m working to fix myself for myself. Every day I’m working, and I’m getting better. Not better so I can meet some definition my therapists and psychiatrists want to place on me. Not better so I can fit in with the rest of society. Not better so I can please a future partner. I’m getting better for me. I’m defining “better” in a way that’s right for me. And that’s why changing is right for me. I’m not changing to conform, or to “pass”, or to be more pleasing to the rest of the world, I’m changing because I want to. For me. For my happiness. I’m taking back what was stolen from me.
Have questions? Put them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. And as always, please take care of yourselves.
P.s. With regard to touch aversion in literature, Leigh Bardugo’s Kaz in Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom comes as close to representing me and my experience with touch aversion as I’ve ever read. This is representation of a marginalized group done right.