It’s Who, not What, we Trust

One of the personal notes I wanted to share about the book review I posted last week, is that there was a quick blurb in the book about how Susan likes to bring in the significant other of someone she is seeing, especially when they are in therapy for a sexual-related trauma. She wants to give them some precautions, and notes that ” the precautions center around making sure your lover knows it’s you”.

I found that to be interesting, because most of the time when I see advice for significant others, it revolves around actions. The advice is usually about figuring out what actions make your lover uncomfortable, and avoiding those actions. However, in my own experience, it’s never been quite that easy. The amount of “touch”, for example, that I am comfortable with varies from person to person. My wife can touch me pretty much at will. Some friends I share a hug with most times we see each other, other friends I’m not that comfortable with, while strangers and those I don’t know very well I’m highly uncomfortable with touch. I’m more likely to hug a female friend than a male, but not exclusively. The deciding factor really is not in how any of these people touch me, it’s entirely about who they are. People I trust, I tend to be more able to connect with through touch. I’ve written before about the powerful sense of connection a slight touch, or hug, can give. I love being able to connect that way with my wife, and with the people closest to me.

However, I’m not at all comfortable connecting that way with people who have not gained that trust.

Let me give you an example. I have a regular massage therapist that I see every 6 weeks or so. Obviously, getting a massage is a high-touch sort of activity, not something every survivor would be comfortable with. In my case, I was willing to try this out to try and avoid migraines, and it’s been very successful. As it turns out, given the vulnerability of this activity, I did actually seek out a therapist who is female, and also one that is somewhat petite. Not because I care about her looks, but because I know that, for me, the knowledge that the person touching me isn’t large enough to physically overwhelm me is important. Typically, a session will start with me going into an empty room (which I always look around to verify is empty), getting undressed and under the sheet, and laying on my back. This allows me to see A enter the room, verify to myself that this is someone I have grown to trust implicitly, and then I can relax and enjoy the massage. Even when I am eventually flipped over on my stomach, I can hear whether anyone enters or leaves the room, so again, I’m aware of who is touching me, and that I trust her.

Obviously, A and my wife are really the only people I would trust to touch me that much without a second thought. I’ve had massage therapy by other providers, but that usually means I’m a bit more on edge, not as relaxed, because it’s not the same level of trust, but there’s enough of a professional trust to still benefit from it. If anyone else tried to touch me like that, it would be pretty inappropriate for one, and I would not be comfortable with it at all. Again though, it’s not the touch itself that makes me uncomfortable, it’s who is doing the touching. The same holds true for all different kinds of touch, and really all different sorts of behaviors that might trigger flashbacks or just a feeling of uncomfortableness.

The old saying about there being “no such thing as non-sexual touch” for sexual abuse survivors is actually only partially accurate in my case. There is such a thing when I trust that the person doing the touching is being non-sexual (or is my wife, someone who I have permitted to actually touch me in that way), but you have to gain that trust first. Like Susan said in the book, I have to know who you are.

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  1. Hi Mike, I’m glad to have found your blog. I don’t find many male bloggers out there talking about such issues. I have done it for a couple years… just glad to have found yours.

    I resonated with so much of what you said here. I was nodding when you were talking about feelings of touch. I have safe people and people I would never let touch me.

    I had several massages by a woman over a period of a couple months, and they were all very healing… then one time i got another woman, and I could just tell things weren’t right and I was triggered all over the place. Taught me a big lesson there.

    Thanks for your blog!

  2. Another great post, Mike! What stood out to me is that it doesn’t matter, male or female, abuse survivors really do share many things in the process of healing. I could relate very well to the things you wrote here.

    I am curious about how you feel about the policies being put in place for air travelers; i.e. pat downs and scans. I, personally, am outraged but I wasn’t sure if that is because of my sensitivities or not. What are your thoughts?

    1. Paul, thanks for stopping by. It’s odd how seemingly little things can throw us into a tizzy when it comes to touch. As I mentioned in the post, I purposely sought out a petite woman as my massage therapist, and I know some people think that was sexist somehow, but it really was so that I would know I could overpower her if push came to shove. As little chance there is of it every coming to that, it was important to me. 😉

      Karen, I wrote a bit about the TSA stuff on the news and reviews blog last week. It’s not a full-blown post of it’s own, but I think you can understand what I’m saying.


  3. I found reading your comments very interesting, indeed. Actually, when I ask the significant other of a survivor to come into therapy, I have a number of cautions I suggest. Some of these relate to sexual intimacy, and some simply relate to general living. DO NOT surprise a trauma survivor by jumping out at them, saying boo when you can see they are lost in thought, or otherwise doing some of the “fun” things one might do to a partner to gain attention and “play.” ANY surprise to a survivor is too much surprise. A survivor’s serenity and ability to relax and be calm depends on knowing what is happening and what is about to happen. Fear of the unknown is one of the biggest legacies of abuse.
    Another caution is similar: never come up from behind a survivor for a hug or a snuggle or anything. Survivors must see or hear you coming. I’m working with one survivor now whose partner insists on coming up from behind her and grabbing her breasts. She gets re-traumatized every time. (Yes, she’s asked that it stop.)
    During sex or intimacy of any kind, the survivor must constantly know it’s “YOU.” Talk, hum, make noises in your voice, and pay attention to the survivor’s body language. If the survivor goes into a rigid freeze, stop what you’re doing and reassure the survivor that he/she is in control. NEVER crawl on top of a survivor. That out-of-control feeling, as expressed in the blog about needing a petite massage therapist, is automatic turn-off and fear.
    Hope these comments help. Knowledge is power! susan, author of The Many Faces of PTSD

  4. Glad I came across this.

    I was searching to see if my response to touch was unique as a survivor, and I guess it is not. I recently had a routine medical exam, and it’s incredible how out of proportion my response is — even knowing it’s routine and necessary.

    But I feel less alone now, thank you for posting your story.

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