Tag Archives: touch

During and After

When do you feel the emotions associated with key moments in your life? Are you conscious of them in the moment, or only once you have time afterwards to process what has gone on?

I find in my life, I tend to have stronger emotions reflecting on what previously happened, than in the moment (though there are exceptions).

When I was an undergraduate, my friend Kate gave me an unexpected kiss when I made her tea at a black tie dinner – she didn’t like coffee. In the course of the next 48 hours it dawned on me that a beautiful woman of my own age had given me a kiss (for the first time ever in my life) – and I woke up to the fact I was living among a community of touching, feeling, human beings and not really taking part (a bittersweet awakening).

Much more recently, celebrating a significant anniversary of my priesthood, a friend I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years (and who hadn’t RSVP’d to say she was coming) surprised me by turning up, and leaning in close when someone took a photo for us. This is all the more precious because that friend had left me a note, rather then saying goodbye in person, when our work situations took us in different directions. Although I didn’t feel powerful emotions at the party, my long-term memory of that event is marked by very positive feelings.

Throughout the two decades when I’ve woken up to interpersonal emotions, I’ve had more experiences of this kind (“I’m really glad that happened”) than times I have felt something positive in the moment (“I never want this moment to end”). Awkwardly, I think the latter sort have only ever happened when I’ve been touched by a person I have “fallen in love with” at some point in my life. 

Is it the interpersonal chemistry itself which is enabling the feelings in my otherwise unfeeling psyche? Is it the rare fulfilment of a desire to be close to that particular person? Or is it simply that in these cases the emotional volume is loud enough for me to hear what is always there but which I am otherwise deaf to?

To look at it another way, how might I feel when someone touches me or hugs me?

Warm and fuzzy – but this solely applies when it’s a person I not only trust but also experience some chemistry with.

Intellectually satisfied – when someone I trust but don’t have chemistry with, because I recognise the sign of affection

Annoyed – when it’s someone I have given verbal or body-language signals to, that I do not wish to be touched.

I wonder how much of this is peculiar to my Aspergers’ way of experiencing the world, and to what extent it is true for typical human beings?

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A Touchy Subject

Last time, I pondered the question of why people don’t do things when it comes to food. This time, I’m asking the same question concerning touch.

A while back, I was walking alongside my pre-teen godson in a pilgrimage. We have a close and loving relationship, and I rested my hand on his shoulder. But his Mum wasn’t happy. “Only a Dad should touch a boy like that – you don’t see other godfathers doing that, do you?” She was also concerned that onlookers might misread the situation and assume I was a child abuser.

Once again, I have failed to make a study of typical human behaviour – in this case how godfathers normally show affection. And once again, even if I had noticed the absence of such behaviour, I wouldn’t have known the reasons why they don’t do it.

Indeed, in general, I don’t have a good sense of how really close friends behave when they are together in private – I don’t get to go to that many family parties. There are plenty of books guiding Aspies who want a sexual relationship, but none on how to navigate close yet chaste relationships when you are celibate. For instance, when you are a house-guest with a family, should you offer the hostess a kiss on the cheek when you retire to go to bed? There are clearly circumstances when you shouldn’t – if she’s asked you not to, or you know it would make her husband jealous. But is it the kind of thing people don’t do in general? I haven’t been a house guest alongside enough different guests to know! It’s just one small example of the difficulty of not reading the emotional melodies in a life which is occasionally ambushed by affection.

Another thing a close friend asked me not to do is to look into her eyes for too long. I’ve written previously about how I can’t read the emotions in other people’s eyes, but there’s also some good scientific research establishing that gazing into one another’s eyes promotes a sense of bonding – and even gazing into a pet’s eyes produces the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. As a celibate seeking to avoid, and avoid provoking, falling-in-love there’s one clear conclusion – don’t look for too long!

X + Y

Have you seen the movie “x + y”? It’s a drama based on the life of International Maths Olympiad competitor Daniel Lightman, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s aged 16. The movie’s main character, Nathan Ellis, is mainly but not wholly a reflection of Daniel, who also acted as a consultant to help keep the portrayal true to autistic traits.

A key part of the plot stood out for me – here are necessarily spoilers, so be warned!

The plot shows how Nathan deals with touch. Repeatedly we are shown how his mother wants to touch him, especially in moments of high emotion, but Nathan draws back. His mother needs closeness for her comfort; Nathan needs space for his. But in the course of the movie, Nathan enters a relationship with a girl who has strong feelings for him; he overcomes his aversion to touch when they kiss. Shortly afterwards an emotional dam bursts and he is able to weep for his late father, recognising for the first time that the tender memories he has of his Dad are a sign of what love is; he is finally able to accept his mother’s embrace as she comforts him.

I can recognise the time in my life, up to age 19, when I basically didn’t want to be touched. I had various elderly aunties who expected to be greeted with a kiss, sometimes on the lips, and I always found that to be most uncomfortable. I understood that Mum expected a kiss on certain occasions, but when I gave her one it would be perfunctory.

Then a girl kissed me. Not a snog – I have never snogged anyone in my life! – but a simple thank-you kiss on my forehead for doing her a good turn. And over the next few days, a dormant part of my psyche awoke. I realised I was living in a  world of touching, feeling, human beings but missing out! No-one who was a friend rather than an auntie has kissed me before. This was amazing!

There followed a rather embarrassing period in my life when I tried to kiss lots of my female friends without understanding when and how this might be acceptable. On the plus side, Mum got the first sincere kiss of her life from me when I got home from University at the next vacation!

Over more recent years, I have noticed friends and parishioners becoming more likely to touch me. I don’t know how much that is to do with my body language changing, and how much is the maturity of the people I am mixing with. But this is also a bittersweet truth. Now that it is not so rare for someone to touch me, touch seems to have lost much of its emotional power. So was it the touch itself, or the novelty of being touched, which once provoked an emotional reaction in me?

 

Ambushed by Affection

The British media have recently made a great stir about Pope (St) John Paul II having a close female friend to whom he gave his precious Brown Scapular and with whom he enjoyed a deeply emotional relationship – without any hint that he broke his vows of celibacy. Traditional Catholic wisdom is that one should avoid the “occasions of sin” – but very often, an occasion of sin is also an occasion of great good. If you cut yourself off from close relationships, you also cut off the possibility of experiencing affectionate friendships, and since God is love, God lives in such friendships. Nor can any absolute distinction be made – Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged that there will always be a blurred line between the self-giving Christian love called agape and the base sexual instinct which is eros. There are two choices – avoid the possibility of close relationships at all; or walk the tightrope which seeks to give and receive affection without straying too far into arousal.

Last month, I wrote about how my way of being an Aspie means I can’t read the emotions in people’s eyes, and since facial expression conveys more than half the emotional content of a human interaction, that’s a pretty significant handicap. Another Aspie has said this:

Neurotypicals faces shine with “looks of love.” They show it with their eyes and tone of voice primarily. Neurotypicals are constantly saying nasty things to each other while at the same time shooting each other looks of love. It’s like saying, “You’re hair looks crazy today,” while their eyes and voice are saying “but I love you for it.” Talk about mixed messages! The same way that Aspies love to figure out riddles and solve puzzles, these are “social” puzzles for neurotypicals that they love playing with and figuring out. It’s considered “sophisticated” social interaction. Plus, the looks of love are very rewarding for them and make them feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Because I can’t sense these “looks of love”, they aren’t going to make me warm and fuzzy inside. But I do have close friends, and it is possible for my friends to communicate something that makes me feel warm and fuzzy. This only happens when someone unmistakeably and directly communicates to me that I am loved. It might be some words whose meaning is crystal clear. It might be an action that helps me with a project, when someone clearly understands what I am trying to achieve. But most commonly it will be because a friend has actually, physically, touched me.

A hand on my shoulder, a kiss on my cheek, an embrace that lingers longer than a perfunctory hug – all of these things can and do tell me that I am loved. But for me, they are not the crescendo in a symphony of love smouldering away in someone’s eyes – if one of my close and trusted friends does this, I find myself ambushed by affection, taking me from no awareness to strong awareness in a moment. This is a bittersweet experience, because it means for me there is only a very narrow gap between the kind of interaction which won’t communicate affection at all, and the kind I want to avoid as a celibate because it would move into sexual arousal.

It also means that I am not very good at using touch to show affection to others. Because what I experience in my life is being ambushed by affection at seemingly random moments, this is what I naturally reproduce in the way I have tried, in the past, to tell my most trusted friends that they are loved. When it is physically possible to offer a backrub or casually touch someone’s arm, I have done so – and until the last year or so, have been puzzled by feedback from friends who have asked me not to try so hard. Surely human beings want to be told that their friends love them, using the appropriate love languages?

I’m only just beginning to understand that the love languages are the icing on the cake, where the sponge-base is the visual communication. That must be why some of my trusted friends have counselled me to “stop trying”, and why I can never seem to join in with “teasing” or adult “play fighting”. What I am trying to do only works when it’s orchestrated as part of the symphony of non-verbal communication, and I can’t hear the basic melody. My friend Chelsea does assure me, though, that my eyes do communicate – she knows that I feel comfortable in her home because she can see it in there.

Not understanding the underlying melody, until now I thought that touch was all about how comfortable am I with you as a person, and you with me. If you put a hand on my shoulder and I’m comfortable with that, I thought that meant “OK, now we are close enough we can put a hand on each other’s shoulder at random moments”. But obviously not – there are much more subtle indicators for context. The meta-golden-rule strikes again!

It’s not easy, learning this as a Catholic priest. There are very few safe relationships in which I can practice. In my professional relationships, I will always err on the side of not touching unless I am absolutely sure it’s OK (holding the hand of a dying person is generally OK). I will never have a wife or experience a dating relationship (I never had a girlfriend before becoming a priest). I’m aware that there are such things as cuddle parties where non-sexual cuddles are available, but I find the idea of being touched affectionately by someone who’s not already a trusted friend quite repellent. In my professional relationships, my constant awareness that I have a duty to keep appropriate boundaries means that unexpected touch from others is always slightly uncomfortable. And that leaves only a small handful of trusted friends who, though they aware of my Aspie diagnosis, do not go out of their way to communicate affection in direct ways which they themselves might find uncomfortable – nor can I talk to them about this often, because I get the impression that conversing about “how do we show love to each other” is uncomfortable in the context of anyone other than a current or future spouse.

Sadly, this means that every time I visit such a friend, I never know whether or not I am going to be ambushed by affection. On a good visit, if I spend 1-2 nights staying in the home of one of my closest friends, there is a 50:50 chance they will do something that effectively communicates affection. There are few things more lonely than driving home from a visit where I experienced no ambush, knowing that one of the few trusted people in my life who could communicate love has failed to do so (through no deliberate fault of their own) and it might now be several months before I next visit a friend by whom I might be ambushed. If I feel warm and fuzzy six times in a year because someone has effectively communicated love, it’s been a good year. That’s not much love to live on, but it looks like it’s all I’m ever going to experience.