“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
— Margaret Atwood
COVID19 and the Global Pandemic that ensued has consumed us and tested us in ways that we could never have anticipated. It’s been 12 months of social distancing, isolating and avoiding human contact at all costs and I believe that it has left us feeling alone and disconnected. Let me be clear when I say that I firmly believe in the necessary and vitally important steps we have all taken in the attempt to save lives, but there is no denying the impact of what we have undergone, and continue to go through. While I have long been an advocate for the profound purpose of touch it was only when I went without it that I realised just how much that was true. As a massage therapist, my work requires me to be in direct contact with people for almost my entire work day. Outside of that I would consider myself to be a rather affectionate person; holding hands, cuddling, hugging and kissing those I love are essential for my day to day wellbeing.
In my books touch is as important as food & security when it comes to long term wellness. It is a basic human need that sustains us all, without it we can notice an impact on our mood, energy, and stress levels, it can also impact cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. When I think back on the most difficult times in my life it was the power of touch that got me through it; the ‘shakey hands’ part of the funeral as my sister calls it that reminded me that I was not alone in my grief, it was the loving embrace of my partner Ross when I would have a panic attack that helped me to feel safe, it was my parents rubbing my back or stroking my hair when I was feeling unwell that helped to soothe me, I could go on and on. In this time of COVID we find ourselves in a very stressful and trying period of our life and yet we cannot seek the comfort of our loved ones. When I think of comfort I think of physical contact like a hand on my shoulder or a loving embrace. Comfort to me is a physical reminder that I am safe. A gesture that suggests that I am not alone. It’s also an expression of someone’s care and compassion. So when this is removed because of a global pandemic, what do we do? How do we feel comforted without contact during a time when we need it most? How do we soothe and care for ourselves and our loved ones when direct and physical contact is not only discouraged, it’s actually unsafe!
With the onset of the Pandemic in March 2020 I came down with several symptoms that matched those of this virus. I was in doctor-ordered quarantine for 5 weeks until I was symptom free. As a woman in my mid thirties with no pre-existing health conditions I was told I would be fine, and that I just needed to ride it out. While it was the most ill I’ve ever felt, and the fatigue and the breathlessness were overwhelming, I recovered and I’ve had no issues since. I am beyond grateful for that. During this time I isolated in the bedroom of the apartment I live in with my partner. We stayed in separate rooms and we had no physical contact. I felt absolutely miserable but I wanted to ensure that whatever I had (we still don’t know for sure if it was the coronavirus as I was not tested at that time) that he did not get it also. Mentally and emotionally this was a challenging time. On top of feeling so physically unwell, all I wanted was to be held and comforted. In the grand scheme of things I know how lucky I was but it reiterated to me the value and the significance of human contact.
There has been one memory in particular at the forefront of my mind lately. I am sitting at the end of my father’s hospital bed while he is sleeping. He’s in his final weeks of hospice care. I’m sitting there observing him, watching his chest rise with each breathe wondering if the next breath will be his last. I remember feeling so powerless as I saw him fading before my eyes. I would have done anything to avoid that feeling. There is something truly profound that happens within us when we find ourselves helplessly looking at a loved one in such a position. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to be physically present with him and offer comfort in any little way I could. It was during this time that I began to massage his hands and feet while I sat with him. At his request we would choose his favourite oils, we would play Enya in the background and I would work on his hands and feet in an effort to feel as though I was doing something for him. This quickly became routine. To this day, I can recall those bittersweet memories with fondness and appreciation. It was a way for me to soothe and comfort him in his last few weeks and days. He talked about how much it helped him to feel calm and often he drifted off to sleep, something that did not come easy to him without medication at that time. I don’t think I understood or appreciated the value of what was happening, but I can see now that it provided a space for us to bond at a time when we both felt fearful and anxious. It allowed me to feel helpful in a situation that was overwhelming and heart breaking too. While I feel lucky to have been in a position to do this for him it does not take from the significance of holding someone’s hand, embracing them in a hug, stroking their hair, giving them a kiss or just being physically present with someone when they are going through a difficult time. That is the epitome of the power of touch and the comfort that it can offer.
When I think of those in hospital or palliative care now, it breaks my heart. They do not have physical access to those that they love. They do not get embraced, or kissed. They do not have someone to hold their hand or, as was the case for my father, someone to massage their hands and feet. I cannot begin to imagine the frustration for those being kept from their families during this time and the impact that may be having on them mentally, emotionally and physically too. There is no denying that COVID19 is affecting some people more than others, but there is a universality in what we are all going through and ultimately it is through connection and compassion that I believe we will come through this best. While touch may have been the one we previously turned to first, we have had to find other ways to stay connected during this uncertain time.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I don’t believe that the hardships or challenges in our life serve a higher purpose or that every hurt or trauma teaches us a life lesson. I do however believe that there is a growth that happens when we go through these difficult times in our life. Whether that be that we find out just how strong we are, or that we have a new found appreciation for something in our life. I believe that for most of us we will have a renewed appreciation for and acknowledgement of the invaluable importance of the power of touch. Until that time my hope is that we each make use of the ways in which we can self soothe be that through stroking a pet, doing yoga, giving ourselves a hand massage, hugging a tree, walking in nature or having a solo dance party in our pjs! I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that I cannot wait to meet with and hug all of my loved ones. I cannot wait to dance together, to share food together and to embrace each other with love and excitement. To quote Matt Haig “never underestimate the big importance of small things” and honestly that’s my plan going forward.
What I’ve come to realise throughout this year is that I have, often unconsciously, made an effort to find ways to self soothe while using the power of touch. I regularly do a face or scalp massage for myself now when this is something I would have done once in a blue moon in pre-covid times, or I’ll take a few minutes to massage my hands when I apply my hand cream. Even something as simple as applying my night cream or body lotion, when done consciously can be an effective act of self care and self soothing that I will never underestimate again. While there’s no cream or lotion or potion that will solve the problems created by the lack of contact we are all experiencing, I do believe the simple act of taking a moment to do little rituals like this for ourselves on a regular basis will have a soothing impact on our nervous system which will work wonders for our wellbeing in the long run. I have no doubt that when we are allowed to offer massage treatments again that we will be inundated with the demand because whether we are aware of it or not we all crave human contact in order to feel comforted and connected. If there was ever a time when that was needed more than ever, it’s right now!
Touch is the language we all speak when we are communicating with loved ones, whether we are aware of it or not. It is our default setting when words fail us. It provides both the giver and the receiver with countless benefits because of it and I for one cannot wait for a time when it will be safe for us all to do so again.