I wonder if we're mistaken in our culture's emphasis on the tip of the iceberg -- the tip of the brainberg -- in our insistence on treating, primarily, the cortical and cognitive expressions of depression and trauma. Are we missing something? I think so. The label "mental illness" -- at least insofar as depression and trauma are concerned -- will get us nowhere because "mental" is nowhere. What we call "mind" or refer to as "mental" is a process, not a product. We can't lay our hand on the mind or its movements like we can lay a hand on a table, a cat, or our own skin ...
And it's there, on our skin, where the magic can happen. The magic? Yes.
Touch is our touchstone, our built-in miracle, our best medicine, and the one we're least likely to use.
A few days ago, one of my dear friends came to visit. We've known one another for over 26 years; we've witnessed one another's deepest shadows. She's gentle and kind and she insists on my goodness, as I do hers. I trust her enough to ask her to touch me.
During our visit, I asked her to lay down in my bed with me to share a "spoon." She lay down beside me and rounded her body to mine. We were quiet ... and eventually both of us dozed off. We lay for maybe an hour, and when I awoke, I felt it: the warming, the full-body sense that everything in me was touched. Boundered. Contained and present. Expanded within. Softened. I felt whole. The all-through-me warmth lasted throughout the rest of the evening, and I curled around myself at bedtime, remembering. I thought, "I slept with my friend." What a gift.
"I slept with someone." -- What error usually lies in those words! "I slept with somone" usually means, "I had sex with someone." That's about as sleepless as it gets! How'd we come to equate the acrobatics of sex with sleeping?
There are people in the world who are practicing what's known as "cuddle therapy." They're on to something. We are immersed in touch during our gestation ... and we scream for that heat, that pulse, that purest of presence as soon as we're born.
Freud, too, was on to something when he mused that we all want to return to our mother's womb. We can't, of course ... but we yearn for that containment for the rest of our lives ... for that feeling of being completely embraced, warmed, rhythmed in sync with a beloved pulse.
A popular saying goes like this: "We need four hugs per day for survival; eight hugs for maintenance, and twelve to thrive."
Popular science points us to what occurs when we are deprived of touch. I'll never forget learning about Harry Harlow's rhesus monkeys: infants taken from their mothers and caged in metal wire with only a tower of more wire to cling to. The luckier monkeys got a tower encased by a towel ... and they fared a little better than the ones who only had wire. Cold metal, harsh edges. The babies with only metal to touch became utterly lost, despondent, broken in being. We could call them psychotic -- out of touch with reality.
Out of touch with reality. Our first, our most formative reality, is touch. We know that we exist, that we matter -- that we are matter -- when we touch and are touched in safe sanctuary. the word matter actually derives from mater, which is Latin for mother. There's no bonding agent like our own skin moulded to another's. No other medicine, no other intervention, can calm our autonomic nervous system like this. Our presence rebounds ... our brains become quiet ... our jittering slows, then comes to rest.
No pill can calm us like this; no cognitive practices; no talk. We don't need to talk when we touch. We need only to breathe and receive ... the reciprocation is natural. The brain signals safe ... and we melt.
I have a friend whose primary devotional path is Tibetan Buddhism. He once told me, during a meal we were sharing, that "we have all been one another's mothers." I froze. What he said struck me to the marrow as right. My first thought in response was, "...then we have all been one another's children." Imagine what our world, our societies, our relations might be like if we all understood this. We are all one another's mothers and children. How might our attitude about touch shift if this were so? Might we be more open to hugs, to soothing hands laid across our shoulders, to sitting close enough to one another so that the outsides of our thighs nestled together? How many more twosomes of all kinds might we see holding hands or linking arms as they walk along? How easy might it be for us to ask someone we love, someone we feel viscerally safe with, for a cuddle? How might our practices of medicine and psychotherapy change if practitioners could initiate more than only diagnostic touches? Bessel van der Kolk, one of our world's great trauma sages, wrote in his recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, that "the most natural way that we humans calm down our distress is by being touched, hugged, and rocked. This helps with excessive arousal and makes us feel intact, safe, protected, and in charge. Touch [is] the most elementary tool that we have to calm down..."
I mention mothers and children ... and I include men in the mix. Men can be mothering. It's all in the approach, the intention, the heart that wants to nourish another.
I had a friend who lived out of town. He'd come to stay with me for a weekend, and he'd wear my pink flannel jammies to bed. We'd tuck in together and spoon. We'd giggle; we'd wiggle. We both felt utterly safe. Kids on a sleepover.
He's gone now ... been dead for over seven years. As I mourned him, I'd lean over myself and curl into the memory of his lean little body moulded with mine. I'd keen for him. There are days now when I keen for the ones I love who are still in the world, for my cuddle-companions. Three come to mind ... all women who are single, as I am. I've bedded down with each of them -- for cuddles. We've held on, belly to backside, under duvets and blankets; we've melted into deep rest, our breaths and pulses slowing and merging. We hold one another sometimes, like mothers hold their children.
I admit that I could pass much of each day in this sanctuary. I was born two months premature in the late 1950s, when mothers and preemies were not allowed to touch, to bond. There were no "kangaroo holds" back then. I was gravely distressed at birth, not breathing, and went into cardiac arrest three times in my first three days. I was incubated in isolation for three months. Every hand that touched me was paradoxically both invasive and life-saving. Tubes, needles, procedures, interventions. No cuddles; no breast to smoosh into; no skin to meld with. I've hungered my whole life for deep, quiet touch. I trained as a somatic psychotherapist; I touched the people who came to me for care. My dearest mentors touched me, contained me, molded my body to theirs and held on. Two held me through storms of rage; one would press her palms to my temples when I felt myself dissociating from presence. Another wrapped her body around mine when I cried like that bereft infant I once was.
I once had a mate -- a husband. We touched constantly, with deep affection. We cuddled; we spooned. We'd lay in a tangle of limbs and blankets, often with a cat (or two or three) mushed into the mix. Sometimes one of us woud say to the other, "Let's go to bed" ... and we meant simply that. Let's go to bed and nestle in. Let's snooze; let's warm one another to the core. We'd fall into sleep ... all boundaries softened into purest ease and trust. We once held each other while showering, belly to belly, in quietude under the warm water, utterly still and simply breathing ... and the sense of cherishment I felt nearly buckled my knees.
It's so easy to reach out and touch another ... and it's what we tend to fear the most. What might it mean if I lay a hand on your arm, your back, your leg, your face? What might I want? What might you? Our bodies respond in totality to touch ... Sometimes, erotic and sexual feelings arise. They're simply part of the whole. It's what we do with those feelings that matters. We can breathe into those sensations, and disperse them into an expanded warmth. We don't have to do anything with them, or about them.
I sustain myself on the alone-days with memories of those I've melded with, melted into, held and been held by. Sometimes I lie down in my bed and lay a hand over my heart, and I reach deep for the solace of skin-to-skin recall. If I'm in bed, one of my cats crawls under the covers with me, and the other likes to lie on my chest, kneading my neck, gazing into my eyes and purring up a storm right into my heart. I read somewhere that humans, in contact with beloved animals, release twice the amount of oxytocin, "the love chemical," throughout the body than we do if we're in touch with a beloved human. I know this for sure: my cats keep me alive.
I admit to this bone-deep loneliness because I sense that we all share it to some degree. If you live with beloved humans, and especially someone you can cuddle with, you are blessed beyond measure. On every night that you can bed down with someone you are deeply bonded with, you are given Life's supreme gift.