Sensory Deprivation?

I was no more than five years old. We were staying with one of my great-grandmothers for a while. She was an old lady by that point, with a sharp mind and a wicked sense of fun. She was also blind, having lost her sight quite suddenly one day on her way to work. We were there to make sure she would be able to manage on her own. My mother had gone out to get some shopping and Grandma and I were alone.

“You’d better go watch the cat,” she said, quite suddenly. Whether it was her hearing or her sense of smell that had alerted her, I never thought to ask, but she knew the moment that the resident moggy went into labour. The cat was curled up a cardboard box lined with clean rags. Grandma had me watch and keep up a running commentary, explaining to me what was happening and what to watch for in case the little mother needed help. Thankfully, she seemed to know what she was doing and, before my mother returned, six damp balls of fur were being licked clean and stretching uncertain limbs. It was the first time I saw a creature born into the world, the first time I held a newborn being. The second came soon afterwards when her son, great-uncle Wilfred, placed a half-hatched egg in my hand and I felt the new life emerge. Warm and damp, the tiny, ugly squab was the most beautiful thing in the world.

Five years later, I was privileged to help my baby brother into this world. I will never forget the wonder of that moment, nor that mine was the first loving touch that he felt. Later, I gave birth to two sons of my own, and the breathless magic of holding them for that very first time is etched in my memory. Many people will experience and recognise that feeling, but each time that ‘feeling’ is ours alone as it is through our senses that we experience the world as a unique and personal journey.

My sons, growing up, would bring me all sorts of injured creatures they had found. Some we could help, others died in my hands and I felt the life leave them. It seems more than the cessation of breath and heartbeat; one moment there is a living thing in your hands, the next, no more than an empty shell. When my partner died of cancer many years ago, it was the same. The much-loved shell remained, but holding his hand as I waited for the ambulance, I could feel the last flicker of life leave him and knew the moment of that final parting.

I have known the beauty of the sense of touch at both ends of life. I have clung to a hand that called me back from the confusion of illness and the blackness of grief and held out that same hand for my sons. I have known the gift of a friend’s arms, the warmth of a lover’s embrace and the joy of a child’s hand in mine. Touch is our first welcome and our last farewell in this world. It is a common human language that, in spite of cultural differences, we all understand and respond to at a level deeper than logic.

Our sense of touch is incredibly important. While the simple, sensory function allows us to learn about and navigate our world, the type of touch that evokes an emotional response plays a huge part in our health and wellbeing. An affectionate hug or a hand holding yours can change everything, from offering reassurance to easing both emotional and physical pain. It alters the levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and cortisol, the stress hormone, as well as having a beneficial effect on blood pressure and helps protect the heart’s physical health.   It helps shape our children’s ability to interact with the world, bolster our own self confidence and sense of self-worth and creates the social bonds of trust that we, as a species, all need.

I remember a time when I had first moved to Paris, wandering the streets… loving every minute, but desperately missing contact with another human being. It took all my self-control not to hug a stranger in the street… a wholly inappropriate impulse, but one that arose from a primal and gut-wrenching instinct. That feeling too is etched in memory.

I recognise the beginnings of that feeling now, when touch is being denied to so many, especially those who live alone and who rely on time with loved ones to fulfil this human need. People are beginning to notice and talk about the lack of affective touch and the longer this situation goes on, the worse it will feel. It is one of the tragedies of the pandemic that so many people are being starved of its comfort and reassurance.

I wonder how much collateral damage is being done to our mental and emotional health, just for lack of a hug. How much less stressful the current situation would be if we could hold those we love, instead of being taught to fear any kind of physical closeness. And, perhaps more importantly, how much damage prolonged social distancing and emotional isolation could inflict upon young children, learning to live and love in a world kept two metres apart.

When you open your arms to someone for whom you care, you are opening your heart to them too as you welcome them into your personal space. It is a gesture of trust and acceptance, a sharing of life and love, even just for a moment. For those who see Love as the heart of Creation, it may go deeper still, expressing and affirming the oneness of all.

42 thoughts on “Sensory Deprivation?

  1. A touching post, Sue. I felt quite tearful when you talked about all those moment at the beginning and end of life and the importance of touch in them.
    During this pandemic, we sadly lost a friend. A mutual friend knocked on our door to tell us the news (from a safe distance). My reaction was ‘I want to hug you, but I can’t.’ We both felt the need for physical contact that could not be given.
    I hope the social distancing won’t do too much damage to people, but I fear it will make us much more wary of strangers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The inability to offer and receive the comfort of a hug or a friendly shoulder is one of the tragedies of the current situation. That people have died without a hand to hold and lost loved ones they could not comfort, that there is so much fear and so much a simple hug could change… I find that a matter for grieving.
      Everyone must deal with the fallout of this in their own way and many are now fearful of leaving their homes, let alone interacting with others. I would never impose my own views on anyone else… but it will not stop me opening my arms to anyone who wants a hug.

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  2. A very touching post, Sue. I think it is the simple things that people will have learned not to take for granted. I’ve always been a hugger (definitely with a h not b – haha) and feel that a hug can often say what words sometimes can’t. KL ❤

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    1. I am not an overly tactile person, but a hug can indeed convey far more than words, K.L. and I hope that such seemingly small gestures will be one of the things we have learned to value.

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  3. A wonderful post Sue, touch is so important. I have never felt new life in its first moments, but have experienced that final farewell at my father’s side in 1996 and later in 2005 as the vet sent Barney to Rainbow Bridge.
    I am glad Hubby and I have been facing the current crisis together. We can hold each other, talk to each other and know we are not alone. I know that had he not been in my corner last year, I would not have come through it all as well as I did. When I was told after my first cancer in 2016 I wouldn’t need chemo, I so needed to hug my Mum who was almost 200 miles away. I reached out to strangers at a bus stop who both help me while I cried.
    Touch is being denied to so many, when for them, it is their only lifeline to humanity in all this, especially if they have lost their sight, hearing or the ability to speak..

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    1. I cannot imagine going through such a personal crisis alone, Di, and am glad you have had each other there. I am grateful for Ani’s presence. It isn’t quite the same, but touch means as much to her as it does to me.

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      1. I know exactly what you mean, it might not be the same but it is equally important as our pets are feeling confused and insecure. I know Maggie has been, especially with recent events, and at night she snuggles close to me. I always rest my arm on her flank and she soon falls asleep. She’s subdued and probably uncomfortable again after today’s jab, but if she sleeps, she’s healing. For my part, to feel her gentle breathing sends me off to sleep too.

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        1. Ani is not a cuddlesome dog… but she likes to nap under my desk an always has her paw up on the footstool, touching my feet ( I can’t reach the floor with short legs 😉 ).

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          1. Maggie is one of the most tactile dogs I’ve ever come across so it’s not surprising she likes to ‘feel’ company. If she was ever insecure or frightened, she’d go to Hubby, but not feeling well it was always me.

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  4. A beautiful post, Sue, though I share the concern about those who are missing the world of touch. I’m lucky that circumstances are “forcing” me into caring for my grandson and my parents (at distanced intervals). I have contact, and yet I still feel the isolation and can’t wait for people-time. ❤ Hugs

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  5. I, too, often wonder what the long range effect of distancing will be? I find myself longing for a hug, but worry that it will come at a heavy cost. The sociology of this pandemic makes for a fascinating study, the long term effects may radiate out for years.

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    1. I wonder whether the cost of not being able to hug those close to us will be worse than the fallout from not doing so. I really would not wish to live in a society that outlaws intimacy.

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  6. Not that long ago a little boy was born across the lane from us and he started walking just at the beginning of the lockdown here. Every day he trots past our front yard (garden) with his grandmother in tow, and I (Mrs Widds too, if she’s home from work) wave to him through the big picture window at the front of our cottage. He waves back enthusiastically and points to various things around him that have captured his interest. I make appropriate noises and point at things too. he blows me a kiss (way too adorable 🙂 ) and off he trots (he seldom walks) to further adventures.
    His mother, a single mum, works during the day, so these two women are the only physical contact he’s had for all this time. I wonder what he will make of things when people that he’s only interacted with from afar get up close and personal.
    I hope they give him the space to approach them on his terms.
    We certainly will. 🙂

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    1. How lovely 🙂 They are delightful at that age. I have missed half a year of my granddaughters’ growing, seeing them only from a distance twice during this whole mess. It may take some time for these young ones to adjust to the change…

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  7. A very poignant and deeply perceptive post.
    Our world has been changed.
    It’s odd, though the side effects I feel inclined to smile more at folks (a real change for me I’ve been a grumpy old man since birth!) and giving a lot of ‘thumbs up’ to delivery people, passing strangers etc.
    I guess we will adapt. As long as we nurture our Compassion.

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      1. Very true Sue.
        And to realise we don’t own or run this planet. In comparison with Earth’s total Life Span, we’re just another species. We can mess around as much as we like and eventually maybe wipe ourselves out, Earth will carry on, Life will carry on.

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        1. We seem to have a great ability to forget that… and that we are still ‘just’ another animal as far as the planet is concerned, subject to all the natural laws and apparent disasters that keep other species in check.

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