It’s hell not having any human touch: No hugs. No handshakes. Not even a manicure, movingly reveals LIZ HOGGARD who lives alone
- Liz Hoggard revealed it’s been more than six weeks since she touched anyone
- She lives alone in a maisonette flat in London, with her two cats
- Trying to avoid others due to coronavirus, highlights the importance of touch
- Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID
Looking at my diary, I realise it’s more than six weeks since I touched anyone — or anyone touched me. Forty-four days.
I can barely remember what an impromptu hug feels like, or a pat on the shoulder, someone brushing hair out of my eyes.
Like most people, I went into lockdown five weeks ago. I live alone in a maisonette flat in London, with two cats.
Nowadays, apart from darting out to the local shop for newspapers at the weekend, and my daily walk, I see no one. Even the poor postman has to deposit his parcel at the gate and run.
Liz Hoggard (pictured) who lives alone in a maisonette flat in London, with her two cats, explored the importance of casual social touch
But the loss of intimacy started much earlier. By the end of February we were avoiding hugs and handshakes. Close friends with ‘at risk’ conditions were already self-isolating.
At Pilates, the instructor stopped trying to guide us into poses with a light pressure of her hand. The swimming pool felt unsafe. I cancelled a massage. I was losing the language of intimacy bit by bit.
It felt reckless, selfish even, to touch flesh. Though in early March, I remember one rather nice collision at the end of a potential date. He stepped forward unexpectedly, I stumbled and grabbed his collar. We blushed. But by the following week, it was all over. Lockdown.
With both of us in our 50s, we knew the project now was to stay alive. A new flirtation was a luxury we couldn’t afford. As for the idea of kissing — too risky.
I couldn’t help thinking of the dystopian world created by Margaret Atwood, where the exchange of bodily fluids is highly regulated.
It’s strange not to have a recent sensory memory of touch. So much of our life is based on fleeting physical connections. These are the gestures that ground us, comfort us after loss or disappointment. Touch is the first sense humans develop in the womb. When a parent strokes a child, they are writing out the script laid down centuries ago. Experimental studies show that just touching someone lightly on the arm makes it more likely that they will respond to us in a positive way.
The last time I embraced my family was at Christmas.
Liz said she’s found herself trying to recall her sister’s perfume and her mother’s face (file image)
(I didn’t go home for Mother’s Day, feeling like Typhoid Mary, as the virus escalated in London.) Today I find myself trying to recall my sister’s perfume or my mother’s face.
And touch is so important to mental health. It threads wellbeing into the fabric of our being. A slight press of the shoulder slows down heart rate, blood pressure and the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
Touch also boosts our immune system, and leads to increases in levels of the hormone serotonin, which is our body’s natural antidepressant.
A few years ago it was revealed half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. (Age UK ran an important campaign called ‘No one should have no one’.)
But now it’s our social duty to be alone. We have to make the best of having no one.
It’s probably less painful for us uptight Brits than the demonstrative Spaniards and Italians who hug and touch every few minutes. Friends tease that I find social kissing a nightmare, anyway. I never know when to lean in, and freeze, waiting to follow the other person’s lead.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t love physical contact — that enveloping hug at the end of a night at Pizza Express, when you and friends are so high on conversation that you feel you could conquer the world.
Liz revealed she’s been experiencing vivid dreams of reunions that can’t happen and experiencing phantom figures who float out of her grasp (file image)
Where has all that energy and warmth gone now? Have I simply switched my body off? Told it sternly; ‘Sorry, I don’t need you. Please return to factory settings for the moment.’
The funny thing is our bodies are probably now in optimum condition. For those of us working from home, we sleep far longer, eat three home-cooked meals, do daily online Pilates, walk frequently. But there’s an unreal quality to it all.
I don’t think it’s sex per se you miss, living alone in lockdown, but sensuality. I’ve noticed I’ve started to caress fabrics and flowers and, of course, the velvety fur of the cats.
You need simple animal pleasures to sustain you. Nice sheets. Proper coffee. Hot baths. The pleasure of rushing out to the garden to see if the bulbs have grown. With such terrible news each night, it’s important that things still grow.
In the evening I have drinks with friends via Skype and Zoom and FaceTime, which is great fun. But there’s something slightly jarring about the exchange.
Apparently our brains can’t quite cope with the one-dimensionality of the camera. Unable to see the little gestures and familiar tics that help us to decode how friends and loved ones feel, we have to work extra hard to pay attention. Plus we don’t understand how they can be so close — literally in our kitchen — when their physical bodies aren’t there. My head hurts by the end of a session.
At night my dreams are so vivid — full of reunions that can’t happen and phantom figures who float out of my grasp.
Normally if you live alone, you can pay skilled practitioners — facialists, physios, beauty therapists — to soothe and comfort the body. Neutral touch is a lovely thing, especially if you’re bereft or heartbroken. But now that care is gone, too.
From linked arms in the street to a reassuring pat on the knee, Liz said she’s never take casual social touch for granted again (file image)
My hairdresser rings to talk about the disaster that is my hair, but there’s nothing he can do, bless him.
And I feel great sadness about the lost memories. The parties we never had. It’s only a few weeks into the lockdown, but already I’ve missed long-anticipated 50th and 60th birthday celebrations. A friend’s first grandchild was born last week.
We toasted her being a cool granny at 56 on FaceTime, but you could tell she physically ached from not being able to hold the new baby — the next person in her family line — and instead only gaze at photos.
Something feels wrong in the natural order of things. Although we understand why we have to make that sacrifice: too many losses already. Too many families riven by illness.
Most of all I hate having to be so hyper-vigilant when I’m outside the flat. It’s awful being so suspicious of other people, worrying they may be the one who brings the virus — completely innocently — into your world. Trying to avoid anyone brushing past you accidentally, or any spontaneous chat when normally that’s a pleasure in life.
It makes you realise how incredibly important casual social touch is in our lives. The jokes. Linked arms in the street. The reassuring pat on the knee. Spelling out that you are valued — and seen. I’ll never take that for granted again.
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