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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Personal space

A few days ago I was chatting with a friend online. He said some things that made me think:

Friend: I have to say that sometimes it's confusing to be with you.
Me: Why?
Friend: You make me feel like you want to be close. You're huggy and smile a lot. But it's also like you have space issues. It's kinda interesting to watch you when someone invades your space. You never say anything, but somehow they figure out that they're too close--you use body language or something. I dunno what it is, but they back off.
Me: I don't think I have space issues, I just don't like to be touched without my permission.
Friend: No, you do have space issues.
Me: For example?
Friend: Okay, no one, except maybe your husband or kids, would ever just spontaneously start to cuddle with you--or if they did, they'd stop pretty quickly. I don't think your closest friends would do that.
Me: Do your friends do that?
Friend: Sometimes. Or they'll put an arm around me when we're sitting together. Who does that to you?
Me: Husband, kids.
Friend: But, Sam, friends do that. They touch each other. It's part of what makes them feel connected and it shows they love or care about each other. It also means they're really comfortable being together.
Me: And you would feel uncomfortable if we did that.
Friend: No. But you would.

Touch is a big deal for me. Especially touch that involves any kind of skin contact. And while I don't necessarily agree that all friends are comfortable with some sort of expressive touch in their friendships, I do know that I have difficulty initiating or accepting it. The problem is that my tactile memory is unusually strong. When I experience prolonged or meaningful touch I can recall nearly everything about it later. I try to be very selective about the types of memories I make. What Friend doesn't understand is that simply sitting next to someone who has his/her arm around me creates sensations that are very intense for me. For example:
1. I remember how that person smells--every part of him/her. I can smell perfumes/colognes, antiperspirant, body scent, hair products, laundry detergents/softeners--everything. There is also an underlying, unique scent that each person has. If you are a special person in my life I could recognize you with my eyes closed simply on the basis of that. I used to think everyone could detect that "smell" in people--I'm told not everyone does that.
2. I understand body make-up. I don't really think about what the person looks like, but I'm very aware of height/build. Wherever my body has come into contact with the other person's, I remember strongly how that feels. If someone is sitting close to me, arm around me, the sides our our bodies will necessarily come into contact in some way. That's a very strong memory for me.
3. If I touch your skin, the memory of how that feels does not fade. Even today, I remember the feeling of bathing my babies, shaking hands with strangers, touching a friend's face. I do not give or receive massages because of this. I'm told most people hold hands because they want to connect/express affection. If I touch someone's hand (other than a greeting handshake), it's because I want to remember what it feels like. I will probably ask permission, or tell that person what I'm doing, before I touch him/her.
4. This has nothing to do with just sitting next to someone, but I'm adding it anyway. Kissing is interesting because if I am kissed by someone, I rarely recall what that feels like, but if I return the kiss, or kiss someone on the cheek, etc., that is also a very strong memory. It's probably good that I'm not affected by people kissing me because Darrin's family kisses a lot (stupid Spaniards/Italians) and I'd be overwhelmed by them. However, I don't kiss them back. I only kiss people I want to remember.

One of my counselors mentioned that my sensitivity to touch and smell are somewhat unusual. She, of course, linked those things to the abuse I've experienced, but I don't agree with her. I recall vivid touch/smell memories from my childhood years prior to the abuse. I think it's just part of who I am. I might not be as careful about close contact today if those senses had not been abused, so there's a link there, I suppose.

Friend: I think you should stop worrying so much about touch and personal space and just let people near you. A lot. I think it would help you get used to it and it wouldn't be a big deal anymore.
Me: I don't think you understand.
Friend: Nope, I don't. But I do think you want to be touched.
Me: It's not that easy.
Friend: Yes, it is. You just have to let down your guard for once. When was the last time you relaxed with someone who wasn't your husband?
Me: I don't know.
Friend: Doesn't that get tiring? When we're together we laugh and talk--but it's pretty obvious where you draw the line. I feel it if I casually touch your arm, or hug you when you're not expecting it.
Me: I don't do it on purpose.
Friend: And I'm not offended. I just wish you could feel safer with people who love you.
Me: So do I.

The truth is that if I let my guard down, if I allow touch, or if I initiate it, the feelings are overwhelming and profound. I'm telling myself that I trust the person I'm with, I believe that person will not try to hurt me, and I want to remember him/her. Getting to that point, however, is next to impossible, and has happened very few times in my life. And when it does happen, lurking in the back of my mind is a plan of what I'll do when that person leaves, because even at that point, I still believe that will happen. Someday I would like to stop surviving, and start living.


  1. I can sympathize with a lot of what you said. I don't form strong associations all the time, but when I do they're hard to break. I do it with music fairly often, but smell associations are probably the strongest for me. The scent of the cleaner they used at the bathrooms of a camp that we had a family reunion at 16+ years ago, the smell of the basement in either of the two houses I spent most of my life in, the smell of pumpkin cookies, the smell of the cologne of a guy I liked...smelling anything close throws me back to the feelings I had when I made the association. Salad and I are actually working on breaking some of my associations (or rather, re-associating the smells).

    As for touch, I guess I'm not comfortable with close touch, either. I don't know why, and it's not conscious, but there are very few people that will choose to be physically close to me. I think Mulan and Salad are the only people in Utah who do it. Everyone else seems to instinctively know not to get close to me. Sometimes that really bothers me (being that my side of things is unconscious), but then I remember that I'm probably putting off a vibe that drives them off. Oh well.

  2. I think recognizing it is a good step, Samantha. I think now that you know this, and have consciously assessed it, you should be able to find healthy ways through it.

  3. You know, it's interesting. I've noticed so many people do it so differently. I've had friends who were super touchy-feely to the point that I was uncomfortable. They would put their arms around me or join arms or something and I'd feel weirded out because I wasn't used to it. Now I am and it isn't a big deal, but as you say, I'm also not as touch (or even senses) sensitive as you are. I don't think everyone (or even most people) are that touchy-feely either, though. I think that's the more touchy part of the population.

    Then, there are the people who just don't touch other people except for things like holding hands. I've known a few people for whom hugging was awkward and uncomfortable. I don't think it's always personal space issues or whatever, though I may be wrong. I think some of it is the culture (family, society, country) they were raised in. Sounds like you're trying to find a healthy middle ground. At least you can hug people, that's something! Or maybe that confuses people more because you're partially touchy and partially stand-off-ish?