The Story Series: Touch Me
I can be felt, but not touched. I can be seen in lines on faces, and I live in troubled places.
Personally, I believe we each have an issue close to our hearts. Someone says something that hits a nerve, or there’s a subject that, if seen or heard, you’ll engage. There was an article that made the rounds on Facebook — I’m not going to link to it because, for me, it … strikes a nerve but we’ve all seen them. The
click bait headlines and articles and photos that are “shocking” on purpose or cleverly written to get you to read it. You click on it because something about the wording means something to you. We may not all act or even acknowledge to ourselves or anyone else what these issues are– there are plenty of people who go to their graves with secrets — but still, they are there. For me, it’s abuse. Specifically, child abuse, but I’m not too particular, honestly: Gabby Petito was very triggering and sparked numerous conversations around the house and with the girls about the various ways abuse can look. Touch has been a hallmark of my life. But, in 2011, I wondered: what would happen if you were never touched?
As a psychology student, I’d learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ; I’d read about Harlow’s experiment that showed monkeys would choose a cloth mother who had no food over a wire “mother” with food, suggesting that touch was important, and that, without it, growth was impaired. I took these studies I knew about and started digging. Were there children who were literally never touched? If so, what happened to them? The research revealed heartbreaking stories. A German emperor named Fredrick II wanted to know what language children would speak if no one spoke to them, ever. So he took babies away from their mothers and raised them in total isolation. All of the babies died. In WW2, children died and were found dying in orphanages despite receiving adequate nutrition and medical care. Only human touch prevented some of their deaths. Romania’s “Homes for Irrecoverable Children” lent further case studies of how neglect—and the lack of appropriate touch–causes significant harm. While it’s unlikely in our culture or, prayerfully, anywhere, for a child to be so totally isolated that they’d develop “marasmus”, a disease in which children quite literally starve themselves to death as a result of emotional or physical neglect and/or abuse. I thought, This is a weird story. This is a story that will never be understood by anyone. But Jessie, my character in 2011, didn’t care. It was her story.
I took facts: sleep was always affected in children who were touch deprived. Growth was stunted despite access to proper nutrition. They would rock themselves back and forth. Some became aggressive. If they survived, they would come to fear touch. (This… this revelation was a nerve striker to me; they would have felt the same fear I feel, but for a different reason). Even when adults communicated with children, the total lack of loving touch irrevocably harmed kids. The adults in Jessie’s life couldn’t berate her because then readers would misunderstand the point. They couldn’t strike her. She couldn’t be raped or brutalized. She couldn’t be locked in her room or denied access to medical care or education. The only thing missing in her life would have to be the presence of positive touch.
Jessie’s story is hard to understand because this is not a problem frequently seen or heard about. Instead, we hear the horror stories: children like Dave Peltzer , whose mother called him “It,” and told him after he was grown that if the authorities hadn’t stepped in, she’d have killed him. We hear stories of infants being raped, of ten-year-olds being sold in “marriage” to men who could be their grandfathers; we hear of kids being bullied so badly they end up taking their own lives or assaulting others when the rage explodes. We don’t hear of the silent ones, the ones who aren’t screaming for help. The ones who have no bruises on them or who haven’t been violated sexually; they aren’t screaming “help” because they aren’t sure if anyone’s hurting them. There are plenty of people who are, at this very moment, having their spirits broken, one word at a time, by people who claim to love or care for them. There are plenty of people who, at this very moment, are aching for a hug, and are hurting because they think no one wants to give them one. And there are children who live in homes in which they are invisible; they aren’t seen, and they aren’t heard. There are plenty of kids being left to fend for themselves, both in poverty stricken neighborhoods and in my safe, beautiful, “Mr. Rogers'” neighborhood. There are plenty of people having their self-esteem destroyed, who are being taught that they are incapable of measuring up, or of making important decisions on their own; they are being taught they don’t deserve to be respected or loved.
In the era of COVID-19 and all the other craziness that this world has become, people are scared of people. In 2020, if you so much as sneezed in public, you would have been ostracized. People started wearing masks even in their own cars, when they were alone. I personally used a disinfecting wipe to clean the handle of a gas pump; I then sanitized the crap out of my hands when I got back in the car. I remember staring at the steering wheel, at the empty seat beside me, thinking, what is on that? Oprah Winfrey won’t let people, even those she loves, come to her house unless they’re vaccinated with the booster, tested, and, also, quarantined first. The fear of becoming sick, or of making those we love sick, has changed our lives. Frankly, we probably should have always been sanitizing things more than we were and I am vaccinated and boosted and I don’t want to get that terrible illness again, as having it already in December 2020 was plenty for me. This is not a political statement; it’s simply an expression that all of the fear, however well-intentioned, has left us more alienated. People were left to die alone in hospital rooms, having to say goodbye to their family members via technology instead of a real hug or holding of the hand. How many children suffered through unimaginable horrors — even that of simply being subjected to watching a parent die alone — without being comforted through touch?
Normally, Forget Me Not is not a book I re-read. In fact, I haven’t done so since practically 2011 when it was released. I was touched. In both heartbreakingly painful ways — but also loving ones. My mother made sure I was hugged every day; she and my sister and I never end a conversation without saying, “I love you.” The idea of not having that while I grew up is terrifying. I wrote this weird, weird story about something no one’s ever heard of or thinks about because I found it very moving to remember that, ultimately, pain is the same across the board. Your story is just as important, just as meaningful, just as impactful, as mine. My story is no less significant than that of the Holocaust survivor’s. The child who is neglected feels lost. The child who is neglected feels unworthy. The child who is neglected struggles with confidence. The child who is neglected feels a gaping hole in the heart. The child who is neglected wonders if anyone sees, hears or cares about her. These are emotions I’ve felt. The pain is the same; it’s universal.
Life, as seen through the eyes of a child, is a wondrous gift. Everything is new and everyone is a friend. A child will love you even if you hurt her. Children believe in magical things like Santa Claus, forgiveness and pixie dust. The world is limitless in its possibility. Children are simultaneously some of the strongest human beings I’ve ever encountered, and also some of the most fragile. It doesn’t take much to delight a child…. and it doesn’t take much to destroy one. Love is about more than your basic needs being met. Actually, on that hierarchy of needs, your basic needs like food and shelter are on the very bottom. These are requirements to survival: if you don’t eat, you die. If you’re exposed to extreme elements without protection, you die. Surviving is not living. At the very top of the chart is transcendence which is having your spiritual needs met which produces feelings of altruism and integrity. To get there, someone has to believe in you. Someone has to invest in you along the way. Self-made people don’t really exist, in my opinion. They’re only self-made in that they worked hard, they stayed focused and they were determined not to stray from the light at the end of their tunnel. Along the way, though, someone cared for them, even if in seemingly minute ways. Someone sparked the belief in them that there was more to strive towards, and that dreams were obtainable. In this story, Jessie’s basic needs were provided for. Her safety needs were met. Those were the only two tiers she made it out of.
My goal, my 2022 and every other year resolution, is to do everything I can to ensure that no one, child or adult, who enters my world, for a day or for a lifetime, ever has to ask me for a hug.
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I am loss: the lost doll to the child, the lost chance to the youth, the lost job to the adult. I am the void in the heart, the black hole, that the loss of something beloved creates. Humans lose a lot: they lose comfort, they lose innocence, they lose security, they lose each other. Much of who I am can be summed up in this truth: I am loss.
I am grief. I am the inconsolable anguish that makes you moan in the night. Expressed as shock or disbelief, I am grief.
I am loneliness. The late night talk shows that you don’t remember a word of in the morning; the craving for the assurance that you are not alone. I am the desperation that drives humans to having imaginary conversations, I am the million self-invented justifications designed to excuse inexcusable behavior. I am the hollowness that slowly eats away the insides, I am loneliness.
I am doubt. Skepticism is a mask I wear to hide the fear of inadequacy. I’m the motivating factor that makes wives question every one of their husbands’ business trips. People often express me with sarcasm because they’d rather inflict hurt than be hurt. I am the buried feeling of worthlessness displayed as arrogance. I am the all-consuming drive for the human’s definition of success, be that emotional or professional. No matter how is obtained, there is always more to do. Trust and faith are for gullible fools, that’s what I make humans believe. I am doubt.
I am fear.
I am anger.
I am unexplained tears. When tears fall from the eyes without her knowing why, that is me. When someone can’t explain why they are crying, not even to themselves, when it seems to make no sense, it is because I am visiting.
I am Goodbye, I am rejection.
I am a weight on the shoulders, the boulder that grows heavier every day it is ignored. I am the reason it’s hard to do mundane chores, like go to school or cook dinner for the family. It’s hard to live when there is a boulder on the shoulders.
I am an emotional flatline. When someone doesn’t care if she is promoted, or the cute boy requests a date, it is because I have been with her so long she’s numbed herself to all emotion. When he thinks laughing is stupid, that is me. When he doesn’t care if tomorrow comes or doesn’t, that’s me.
I am deceit.
I feel like fierce stabbing. I feel like nothing. I am heavy and I am empty, all at the same time. I am the burning in the chest, the ice in the heart; the disbelief in the impossible. I am sudden, but I can be slow. Like hunger and thirst, I require action before I leave. I am the wild animal that gives the urge to kick and scream. I am the huddled child cowering in the face of the bully. I am senseless, and I am strong. And I will not be ignored.