Please, Stop Hugging Me

Photographed by Eylul Aslan
Come with me on a private tour of the intimate details of my recent journey into skin hunger.
It's a slow, painful uphill cycle in which we’ll spend weeks going along the long, cold, concrete corridors of not having been touched for months. We’ll discuss how a global pandemic forced me to wear my aloneness like a paper-thin protective second skin. I’ll linger too long at a not-quite-two-metres social distance as I let you go ahead of me. 
I long to be hugged. Hard. To be held. Gently. The threads between my shoulders tighten if I think about it too much. I remember the last time my skin touched another person’s in excruciating detail, the last time someone wrapped their arms around me, held me, comforted me, leaned in to kiss me, the soft skin of their lips making the connection with mine. I replay the tape as I’m waking up most mornings, just to remember what it feels like. Then I do some cardio to forget and take a long bath because it’s as close as I can get to an embrace. 
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Too often lately I feel scratchy. Reading a text message can be torture. I feel like I’m hallucinating when I watch the news. Raindrops hit my skin like tyres running over a bed of leaves. I almost like it. 
Humans, you see, need to be touched. The lack of it is known as "touch starvation" or "skin hunger", both of which have been a side effect of the measures put in place to stem the spread of the novel strain of coronavirus sweeping through the world. 

I long to be hugged. Hard. To be held. Gently. The threads between my shoulders tighten if I think about it too much.

The science is simple: being touched has been found to lower our cortisol levels, which reduces stress. Not being touched means that levels of this hormone remain high, which can cause anger, depression, anxiety and insomnia because our body enters a perpetual state of fight or flight. 
We’re born this way. Physical connections are integral to our psychology and our physiology. As children, touch is an essential part of our emotional development. As adults, it can decrease aggression. In 1999, a study which looked at how much teenagers in France and the US hugged, stroked and kissed one another found that the French were far more tactile than the Americans, who fidgeted and cracked their knuckles more as well as showing more "aggressive verbal and physical behaviour". 
"High-touch cultures," the authors of the study concluded based on data collected from both countries, "have relatively low rates of violence, and low-touch cultures have extremely high rates of youth and adult violence."
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One of the cruellest things about the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is that it has severed our physical connection to others. A handshake, a hug, a kiss are all now potentially harmful conduits for the transmission of the virus. A show of affection could, in theory, make someone (however far along the infection chain) incredibly sick; it could even kill them. 
The news is screaming "WE’RE STILL IN A PANDEMIC". And yet with the easing of lockdown, everywhere I go I see people who shouldn’t be touching, touching. At the park they’re on dates they aren’t supposed to be on, snogging. I squint at large groups to see more than six people congregating around picnic blankets, jumping up to embrace new arrivals before sitting back down, edging ever closer to people from whom they ought to remain further apart. At night I hear helicopters and check Twitter to find that, down the road, people have given up entirely and are having a massive rave.
Two months ago, the rules were tough but clear. Stay at home. Don’t have anyone over. Do not go anywhere near another person. Wash your hands, all the time. It was a difficult but simple time. 
Now, somehow, things feel more confused even though little has changed.
How far do we go? What is acceptable? Who do we see, for how long and from how far? 
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The science is simple: being touched has been found to lower our cortisol levels, which reduces stress. Not being touched means that levels of this hormone remain high, which can cause anger, depression, anxiety and insomnia because our body enters a perpetual state of fight or flight. 

Hesitation reigns. Some people don’t seem to know that they’re not supposed to touch. Others do and are choosing to do it anyway. Many don’t mean to but find themselves acting instinctively and impulsively in the moment, only to feel confused and guilty afterwards. 
One friend who we call the "superspreader" can’t stop hugging everyone. Another is so anxious that she can’t leave her house, not even to go to the shops, in case someone brushes against her. Another recently whispered down the phone to me that she is breaking the rules. "I meet a friend in her front garden and we just hug...then we go for a walk." I can’t pretend not to be jealous. 
The leaders of other nations have directly addressed our need for physical connection. The Dutch government has issued specific guidance for single people, advising them to find a "sex buddy". Here, meanwhile, neither Boris Johnson nor any member of the revolving set of senior male suits who chair the daily briefing on his behalf has explicitly addressed whether or not we are allowed to touch people we like and love
Robotically, they repeat the new mantra: Stay Alert. Stay Safe. It means that social distancing is still in place. For some reason they can't just say that so we find out via other sources that whether or not you can touch another person is now not a private matter but a public policy issue. Having sex in your own home with someone you don’t already live with is now a (largely unenforceable) offence. 
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They’re missing a trick – seeing Boris and his advisors talking about touching, lip locking and sex would probably be enough to put us all off it for the foreseeable. Nonetheless, the fruitless fact remains that what we do with our bodies and how we address our needs is no longer up to us. 

I hope, whenever I leave the house, that nobody tries to touch me because I fear I won't be able to 'stay alert' and stop myself touching them back. 

Yet while our brains say one thing, our bodies do another. In the street, I move towards my friends instinctively, only to remember when they recoil that we’re still in the middle of a crisis. I’m overwhelmed by my own muscle memory when someone comes towards me as though they might stroke my arm or touch me gently on the shoulder; every fibre of my body comes together longingly to lean into it. 
It takes everything I have to pull back while I remember that Dominic Cummings and that 28-year-old Belgian prince barely paused for thought before they broke the rules. It makes me angry, probably because I haven’t been hugged in so long and because, as this crisis enters its fourth month, I’m painfully aware that we will probably be living in a socially distant society until there is a viable coronavirus vaccine. 
Matt Hancock has confirmed this and, with his sadface to camera, attempted to express his condolences. Mysterious reports suggest that he is contemplating the introduction of a "double bubble" – the PG definition of which is that it would allow two households to join together so that they can touch. We can only dream.   
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Since this year began, our common bonds have been broken by something we cannot feel or see. Intimacy has been weaponised against us by our own bodies and there are only so many Zoom gym sessions that I can distract myself with. Only so many more mornings I can snooze my alarm while I try to stay between sleep and waking, holding the image of my last embrace at the front of my mind. 
I hope, whenever I leave the house, that nobody tries to touch me because I fear I won’t be able to "stay alert", to stop myself touching them back. 
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.

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