So I have this thing called a ‘touch phobia.’

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.

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12 thoughts on “So I have this thing called a ‘touch phobia.’

  1. thankyou thankyou thankyou
    the more people talk about this the more normal it will become. I personally suffered from this during one of my pregnancies, and I thought I was losing my mind! I get it.

    I’m so sorry for your past and I’m equally as sorry for your PTSD, but I think this is the most positive outcome you can get from all the cards you have been dealt.

    Sending you strength sister. xoxoxoxox

    • I can’t imagine anything worse than experiencing touch phobia during a pregnancy or any other situation where you have to be regularly poked, prodded and crowded by medical professionals, and where even complete strangers can feel all touchy feely about your body. That’s awful!

  2. thanks for your vulnerability in sharing your experience. it sounds like you’ve done a tremendous amount of work, and i’m wondering if any of the therapy you have involved yourself in has been somatic in nature such as hakomi or somatic experiencing, or if you’ve read peter levine’s book “waking the tiger.” if you haven’t, i’d encourage you to start exploring. as a bodyworker and as someone who has also had experiences with recovering from trauma and becoming comfortable with touch, i’ve found that the most direct healing from these sorts of things can be through the body itself. best of luck on your healing journey, and thank you for your beautiful artwork and website.

    • Hiya! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I actually own Waking the Tiger by Levine (along with a bevy of other trauma and trauma recovery books), but to date, I am unable to participate in hakomi or somatic experiencing. Both are too retraumatising. I have attempted both, and my aphephobia became more severe as a result. I actually love the idea of somatic experiencing (which is why I tried it!) because I do think the body should be involved in therapy and trauma recovery as much as possible, and – of course – because so much of my own trauma impacts my body. But at this stage in my recovery, even just sitting in front of a therapist who intends to ask me to take deep breaths or feel my body is incredibly threatening, traumatising, debilitating.

      I didn’t write about it in the entry because I feel it’s less aphephobia and more my own expression of PTSD, but I also get phobic responses to deep breathing, or being aware of my body in front of other people. It’s getting better, very slowly, but when I push, I tend to retraumatise very quickly, and it’s probably not ironic that when I stopped pushing myself, I started recovering with much more speed.

      That said, the current therapist I see is an expressive therapies therapist and she’s familiar with somatic therapies. So when I’m ready, I will definitely be able to go there with someone adept at the practices.

      Thanks again for your comment!

  3. It took a while, but I read the whole thing 😉

    It’s wonderful that you’re so open about this stuff. One day, I know you’ll beat it.

  4. Hello, first of all, thankyou for your long and in depth account. I’m used to using the internet to find any bit of information I want and I had to search pretty hard to find this, and it’s certainly the best personal account there is. I suppose I should say that I’m Tom and I’m haphephobic; I’m also genophobic (which I’ll let you google yourselves).

    I’ve only really developed it in the last year or so, though when I think about it, I may have had lesser symptoms for a while. I’ve obviously thought about it a lot and have spoken with a good friend and a couple of professionals about it. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that it is caused by…the problem with this is that I can’t write certain words down, let’s just say “the things that men and women do”. Because I’m a Christian I’ve always wanted to avoid that stuff until I’m married, so in my attempts to avoid it, I’ve become terrified of it and, by extension, touching.

    I don’t think that I have it as bad as some people do. I certainly do have my good days where it doesn’t really come up. The bad days can be quite difficult though. It’s at the stage that, other than my family, there is only one friend I can hug, and her not very often. There are situations where I have had to leave clubs because there were so many people and where I have had to leave parties. Once, recently, I even violent pushed my house mate because he was standing to close to me. It wasn’t even a conscious decision, it just happened. Obviously, that was much more worrying for other reasons.

    I want to be able to show my friends that I care about them, and if I got a girlfriend, I’d want to show her too. One of my biggest worries is that I’ll get married and won’t be able to do anything. I said I tried speaking to professionals about it, but, because it is a phobia, I hate talking about it, I’m even a bit agitated typing it out alone in my room.

    Sorry that this became quite a long response, but there isn’t really anything else on the internet, and part of me just really wanted to get out with it. And again, thankyou for your account.

    • Thank you for your response and I’m sorry I took so long to reply! All I can say is, I hope my entry helped, and I am so thankful and grateful that you shared some of your own story; since I know myself how hard it is to find information on personal experiences of aphephobia/touch phobia on the internet! I’ve decided to write a little bit more often about it, since it’s been amazing to meet more out there like me, and also realise how much pain and suffering we’re all in. I think it’s one of the very rare phobias where you end up terrified/repulsed by something that humans need! As opposed to spiders, which we don’t really need in the same way.

      I only wish there were more accounts out there, and more successful healing stories, though I hope we can both be one, one day!

    • I wish I knew of a cure, but I’m not even cured myself yet after many years. All I can say is that research has shown me that gentle therapy (and not flooding therapies) and sometimes pharmacotherapy (medication) can be helpful, but that it takes time, and patience. I wish I knew of something that was guaranteed to work; I’d be doing it myself if it was!

  5. Rav, you are generous to share your story. Not sure anyone is out here reading at this late date but figured I’d go ahead anyway and also share.

    When I was dating the guy who would become my husband, I was in my 30’s and there was no internet. One evening, we were in my apt and sharing a kiss when he pulled away. We had been together several months by that time, and where I noticed he wasn’t as affectionate as my previous BF’s, I was ok with it, loved him dearly and figured some of the issue was *my* love of touching and kissing. I was not overly affectionate; touch to me spelled affection and love, be it romantic, sexual or platonic. It was a huge part of what I considered giving and receiving love.

    When “Jeff” pulled away, he said, “You know, you kind of have bad breath sometimes.” At that time in my life, my skin was a lot thinner than it is now, and I became hurt and angry. I figured, “Great, not only does he not like to hold hands (acceptable to me) nor does he let me put my arm around him (also acceptable), nor is he a big fan of foreplay (to become a big problem later), now I have to live with this constant concern that my breath smells. Mouthwash and toothbrushing only last so long, I suppose I have to watch everything I eat, make an appt w/dentist and even a gastroent. I know that I should have either dragged his ass to therapy and made him stay with it for at least 3 months or broken up…(he was very much against therapy and I had such a good therapist at the time who really wanted to work with us and felt we would not make it together unless we got some help).

    I was heartbroken because I loved him and knew that by not breaking up and not forcing the therapist issue I was signing up for a bad ride for both of us. I would always be angry and guilty and he would just pull away more.
    Well we eventually did marry and of course, 20 yrs later, we are more like brother and sister, no kissing, no touching, no sex. I did lose my sex drive before we married, and definitely let him know that we shouldn’t be marrying, but he wanted to go ahead with it, so we did. What did I want? Who knows. I knew I didn’t want to start over again at 38 yrs old…I was tired of the game.

    We did have a child and when she was a baby, his mother told me that she so wanted to kiss and hug her grandchildren, but that she was not able to…that she just couldn’t do it. Wow, I was more than just a little “impressed” by that. Perhaps there is a genetic component to this condition, environmental (being brought up by a non-toucher), maybe a combo of both. At least I realized that it wasn’t me. But to this day, I am aware of my odors, breath, etc., as I have always had issues with obsessive thinking, anxiety and the resultant low self-esteem. I tend to find it difficult, if not impossible, to let these kinds of issues go, believing that it is really all about me.

    Through the years, I was to come to find out that all my husband’s bros and sisters have issues with touch as well as increcibly sensitive noses. No scents are found pleasant (except food) and many make them sick. All of them hug the same way….instead of a bear hug, they hug as if a grizzly was between you.

    This had been a huge challenge for me but I do not put all the blame on my husband. In raising our child and working full-time, I was just too tired to continue to try different ways of getting him to go to therapy or to change my behavior so that maybe he would change his. Hey, good luck with that. I gave up about 6 yrs ago.

    So we watch TV together, enjoy some sports and our daughter and other family. I have thought about some touch outside the marriage and my therapist encourages it…..but my anxiety keeps me at bay.

    Thanks for reading all this, if you’ve come this far. I will check back and see if anyone has any comments. I’d love it if this helped someone in any way.

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