A friendly pat on the back, a hug between two squealing women who haven’t seen each other in a couple of days, a squeeze of the shoulder. These are all examples of the kind of everyday physical contact that makes me cringe.
I would play dumb and say, “I don’t know what happened,” but I know exactly what happened that resulted in my abnormal reactions to being touched. Rape, sexual assault, dating violence, and childhood sexual abuse. In short, I have PTSD. After several instances in my life where I was touched violently, intimately, and without my consent, ANY physical contact is incredibly overwhelming. When people touch me, I react viscerally. I jerk away, I can’t breathe, and I panic. It would be easy to say, “No thank you,”or “Please don’t touch me,” or “I’d rather shake your hand than give you a hug,” but when someone–especially a man I don’t know very well like many of the “old-timers” at AA–comes in for that obligatory hug and kiss on the cheek, words fail me, and I simply go limp and let him invade my space.
Although this is very much a feminist issue, I’m going to ignore that aspect for now. Yes, it seems men have less of a concept of personal space, and they don’t quite get the idea that MAYBE not everyone wants a big ol’ man in her space, but for me it’s more personal than a feminist debate.
At crucial developmental poins in my life, from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood, I have not had bodily autonomy. My body has been controlled and “owned,” both implicitly and explicitly by various men who were close to me. I want my space back. I want to be able to decide who touches me, in what context, when, and where.
I was raped five months ago by a man twice my age who I thought loved me. Yes, it was stupid and naive on my part to get involved with someone like him, and even though I don’t completely believe that it was in no way my fault, he still had no right to violate me in the way that he did.
The mechanics of this event were quite confusing for me, and in the haze of dissociation and medication that I used to help me forget (It didn’t help that much, FYI.), I have a hard time remembering exactly what happened. I do remember my face being pressed against a wall and his hand on the back of my neck to hold me still. A few months ago, my dad was coming down the stairs and wanted to give me a hug. I felt bad denying my dad’s affection, but I couldn’t help shying away from him. He tripped, and in an effort to simultaneously hug me and regain his balance, he put his hand on the back of my neck.
I love my dad. He is a fair, levelheaded, kind, loving, goofy man, and I hope that he will be around to walk me down the aisle, to see his grandkids become b’nai mitzvot, and even to see his grandkids graduate college and get married. But in that moment, my body did not know that my kind, honest father had his hand on the back of my neck by sheer mishap. All it knew was that there was a hand on the back of my neck just like when I was raped.
As the time wears on and I process the trauma, physical contact has somehow become harder instead of easier. All physical contact except holding hands or a handshake feels like an attack. I know it is not meant this way, but my body cannot help processing it that way.
I’m asking all of you who are reading this to think about how you occupy others’ space. Are you a close talker? When someone backs away from you, do you move in closer? Do you “attack hug” people, or grab them from behind? These are touchy subjects (no pun intended), and I hope that you will rethink these actions. Ask before you hug someone. This doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process. It doesn’t even have to be verbal. A few of the regulars at AA know that I don’t always want to be touched, and they will extend their arms, pause, and look at me questioningly. Sometimes, I’ll go in for the hug, and sometimes I’ll just give them a high-five, a handshake, or say, “No thank you.” After all the times people have touched me without permission, I really appreciate those who ask.