It’s Been 50 Days Since I’ve Touched Another Person

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
By the time you’re reading this, I have spent 50 days sheltering-in-place in my 600-square-foot apartment in downtown Toronto. When the floor fell out from under us in March, and the novel coronavirus went from water-cooler conversation to full throttle, stay-home-at-all-costs public emergency seemingly overnight, everyone and their mother (mine included) suggested I defect to the 'burbs to ride this out with my parents. While we get along really well, and share a love of midday Aperol Spritzes, the reality of the situation is far more serious than a “cheers” over cocktails: They’re both over-70 and if either of them contracted this respiratory illness, it would undoubtedly take them down.
So, where does that leave me? Well, alone, basically. My brothers live within 10 minutes of our parents, and though my twin sister lives in the same neighbourhood as me, she’s immunocompromised, which means we have to limit our time to social-distance chats. Before I play my sympathy card, I will say that I like being on my own for the most part. My last relationship was over a year ago, and while I will admit this pandemic can inspire terrible feelings of loneliness, I’ve always felt comfortable in my solodom.
I’m aware some of my single friends are struggling in this new world, just as much as I know how challenged my couple friends are, and let’s also not forget the people who have no one at all. None of us is saved, but for me, this isn’t about needing a partner or emotional support, but something altogether different: What I crave more than anything is physical touch.
I express myself through physical affection; I always have, so much so, an ex used to tease me about how "handsy” I was with my circle of friends. I’ll throw my arm around anyone within shoulder distance. My family passes around hugs like we do bottles of wine at the dinner table. When I’m paired up, I will joyously express PDA on the streetcar, the subway, the sidewalk. Now, I can't recall the last time my finger skimmed someone's hand, nevermind a hug, pat on the back, or even a jovial slap on the knee. I mean, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve retrofitted my bed to feel a bit like a panini press: I now sleep between two of my massive (and heavy) throw pillows just so I can feel the weight of something on me. In desperate times, right? 

I can't recall the last time my finger skimmed someone's hand, nevermind a hug, pat on the back, or even a jovial slap on the knee.I’ve retrofitted my bed to feel a bit like a panini press: I now sleep between two massive throw pillows just so I can feel the weight of something on me.

This sense of loss has a name: skin hunger. It describes our primal need for touch as the universal resource for psychological and physical well-being; the more opportunity we have for contact, the bigger the benefits to our minds and moods and bodies. Which is why so many of us are sorely missing the tactile encounters — throwing your arms around a friend you run into on the street or dropping sweet smooches on the cheek of your niece or nephew — of our pre-pandemic glory days. Forty-five percent of Canadians (55% of women) are most looking forward to hugging friends and family when this is all said and done, according to a survey by the non-profit Angus Reid Institute. It turns out, touch is what literally connects us, human-to-human.
"Touch is such a critical language of connection and development from when we are babies," says Randi McCabe, a professor in psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University in Hamilton. Skin-to-skin contact benefits both child and parents, according to research, and can speed up physical and emotional development. That need for connection doesn’t diminish as we get older. Touch not only makes us feel better, research suggests it strengthens our immunity systems, reduces diseases associated with the heart and blood, and lowers our stress too, which, wow, could not feel more on-brand right about now. Physical touch increases levels of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that play a vital role in our brain's pleasure and reward systems, while also working to counteract feelings of anxiety. “Affection can temper the stress of conflict to help us cope better,” says McCabe. “While on some level our bodies are very adaptable to loads of stress, prolonged bouts, especially when you're without a support system, can be difficult to manage."
So what the hell am I supposed to do if our social-life forecast continues to trend towards self-isolation until who knows when? Public-health experts continue to grapple with the problem of loneliness on a larger scale, and yes, we will likely have to continue to course-correct on how we connect for months to come, but McCabe says there are effective antidotes to stay social, or, in my case, scratch that itch for a hug or hand-hold. (I’ll literally take anything at this point.)
“There’s no perfect substitute for human touch, but you can find a connection in different ways,” she says, recommending video apps like Zoom and House Party. (Being able to see loved ones even via video could help forge intimacy.) “Touch doesn't have to just be of the human variety,” she adds. “I feel tremendous joy in simply petting my dog every day." (It goes without saying that, although a cuddle with a pandemic puppy sounds like a perfect copying strategy, make sure you’re ready for the responsibility.)
Thankfully, in the territory of small miracles, not unlike how we’re collectively managing with COVID-19, on some level we’re all in some version of this no-touch reality together. Like everyone else, I'm counting down until the day I can walk out my door and do whatever I please. Personally, I'm most excited about that first time I wrap my arms around someone again — even if it’s the Amazon delivery guy.
You better believe I’ll be holding on tight.

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