Imagine your favourite food in the whole entire world was chocolate. It wasn’t just your favourite food, it made you feel better to eat it, it improved your mood, and nothing else really compared to it. It’s more than just a food. It’s something that you’re dependent on. You love having it, sharing it with others, experiencing it. It’s great.
Then – one day, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – it makes you throw up, and feel itchy and scared and aggravated all at once. It’s horrible. For a year – because you love chocolate so much – you make yourself eat it sometimes thinking ‘maybe it’s the type of chocolate, maybe it’s the brand, maybe it’s the ingredients, maybe I just need to stand upside down while eating it,’ every crazy thing you are thinking of. You are that desperate to get back the ‘feeing better’ and improvements of eating it. You try other foods. You try lateral thinking. You try crazy stuff that makes you feel more sick while eating it, and you try scientifically prescribed stuff that doesn’t make a difference.
Nothing else makes you feel as good, nothing compares to it; one day you remember that humans are biologically designed to need chocolate. Tests show that without nourishing, healing chocolate, human babies are more prone to die, to get sickness, to wither, to be emotionally stunted later in life. Damn, you think, I need this stuff. Not because of science, or my biology, but it just made me feel good. I was more human with it. It was part of my shared collective experience of what it was to be a human.
Then, one day, after thousands of dollars and years of painful therapy and problems with your friends and family members who don’t really understand it, you are considered ‘recovered.’ But your recovery is that simply – you can eat chocolate without throwing up or feeling itchy, most of the time – but you’ll probably never be able to taste it again. It will never make you feel better again. Or improve your mood. And people tell you that this is reasonable and okay and even think that this is a Good Thing (TM). You can functionally eat chocolate without being sick, so…goal achieved?
They are wrong.
Now, substitute ‘chocolate’ for ‘touch’, and you have haphephobia (aphephobia, or touch phobia). This is what I have. And this is what I’ve had for almost five years now (along with PTSD).
Man it would be horrible to be that dependent on chocolate! But the analogy stands, human animals are dependent on postive experiences of touch. We are social animals. Without the ability to enjoy touch, I will always be a broken human animal. I will be biologically and physiologically incorrect. But even more than that – I will suffer for it every day that this is the case, as I have suffered for it every day that I’ve had it. Not a day goes by that I am not heartbroken at my own condition. Don’t get me wrong, I think I am an extremely fortunate person in many respects. I enjoy many parts of my life. But not as much, and not in the same way. I have learnt to find the joy where I can find it; who wouldn’t? That’s what you do when you want to make the most out of life, but I’m not going to ignore the impact this condition has on me; even though I frequently try.
PTSD without a touch phobia – even when my symptoms were phenomenally worse – was ‘easier’ to deal with (I say that with a considerable amount of wryness, I mean it’s still PTSD), it was easier to cope with my life, it was easier to be resilient to all of life’s problems. I was a nicer person. I was less grumpy. I found it easier to forgive. It is amazing how the ability to touch someone’s shoulder, or embrace them, or kiss them on the forehead in a crisis makes you a nicer human being overall. Or at least, it certainly made me a nicer human being.
After five years of concerted, applied, fatigue-inducing, dedicated therapy with different therapists and even one specialist, and self-work, I can confidently say I have improved. And by improved I mean I can sometimes hug some of my friends and not feel awful or gross or like I need to run from the room about it. Sometimes I can hug my closest friend and not shudder with disgust or feel nauseous or sick. About four times a year I can do that.
Sometimes however, the touch phobia is so severe that even putting on my own moisturiser in the morning, can trigger a strong, phobic fear reaction. A couple of years ago a GP prescribed eight sessions of massage for a muscular condition; I went to one session and the massage therapist flatly told me they couldn’t help me. The muscular condition never healed as a result. I just don’t relax unless I’m unconscious! That’s a shame, I used to love massage too. And I get a lot of muscular conditions as I work as an artist, but also have crippling nightmares four or five times a night that leave me tense and sore every morning.
Touch often feels like ‘sandpaper rubbing vigorously beneath my skin.’ It’s worse the better I know someone which makes me a delightful dating partner, close friend, family member and on and on. And yes, it’s probably tied into my experiences of childhood sexual assault; though exactly how, none of us are sure. Not even after years of meditation, thought, self-reflection, therapy, dreamwork, clinical detached examination and etcetera. It’s additionally confusing because I haven’t always had a touch phobia, and I haven’t always been repulsed by touch. As per the above analogy, I used to have a very positive relationship to
chocolate touch. I craved it. I felt positive touch to be a joyous thing at times, soothing at others, a way of forging connections, showing compassion, and so on.
But no longer.
I am sure there are people out there who have recovered faster than me, because I will frankly admit that I like to take things slow in self-work and self-improvement, even if I devote time to it every single day. And I’m sure there are people out there who haven’t. It’s hard to know, because it’s a less common phobia, and it tends to affect those of us who have already been silenced by abuse of some kind.
It seems we’re the ones least likely to write about it publically, like I’m doing right now.
Most phobias are of things we’re not physiologically designed, behaviourally programmed to need and crave. I mean, humans aren’t really meant to experience positive growth upon encountering venomous spiders, needles, the number thirteen, germs and so forth. It’s just, on the flipside, not meant to create super dysfunction when one encounters them.
Touch is one of the exceptions to the rule. We are physiologically designed and behaviourally programmed to need it, to thrive upon it, to grow with it. It improves our immune systems, it makes us happier people, it reminds us we are part of a community, it’s a way of showing love amongst friends and lovers, and a way of forging a connection between business colleagues, and a way of being human.
All I can do is keep working on it. Sometimes consciously, sometimes laterally by approaching other issues in therapy, sometimes by standing on my head and focusing on the basics like eating well, keeping fit and making sure I get enough rest. Sometimes I’m in a better place about it than other times. December is always a tough time because my friends like to hug, and because once upon a time so did I.
I’m putting my own personal account of aphephobia/haphephobia out into the ether. I’m Ravenari, and I have a touch phobia. I’m working on it, I will always be working on it while I have the strength and the fortitude to keep doing so.
I can’t tell you exactly why I’m writing about this so candidly, except that I am very frustrated that there’s very few public personal accounts of aphephobia/haphephobia out there. There’s some clinical descriptions, there’s a few shorter personal accounts (boy I bet you were wishing this was shorter!), and that’s about it. So here’s some of my story. Do with it what you will.
PS: Please don’t hold my terrible chocolate analogy against me! Lol.