On a recent Saturday afternoon, my wife and I went for a country drive to one of the cute small towns in our area of the country. We stopped in a little coffee shop, and were greeted warmly by the elderly mother of the shop’s owner.
Unfortunately, this woman, while very sweet, may be dealing with some form of dementia, and really did not understand boundaries at all. After greeting us both and engaging us in conversation, she proceeded to rub my wife’s back, reaching around her to hold her in place while doing so. It was uncomfortable for everyone.
It only lasted a minute, by it could tell immediately that my wife was, in a minor way, traumatized by it. She was jumpy, and not from the coffee. She couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and the next day at church, she flinched when a person she actually knows quite well just touched her arm.
So what does this have to do with child abuse survivors?
Interestingly, after this event, and seeing the impacts on herself, she came to me and said “I know this pales in comparison, and I’m not comparing the two, but I feel like I got a small glimpse into what it must be like to have grown up being sexually abused, in the sense that being touched against your will, and being unable to get away from being touched is fairly terrifying, and makes you uncomfortable with anyone touching you.”
I’ve written before about the power of touch, in a positive way. I think unwanted touch is just as powerful, maybe even more so, but in a negative way. Instead of touch helping us feel connected and supported, it makes us feel violated and unsafe. When we grow up with that kind of touch, it’s easy to equate those negative traits with any and all touching. Thus the reason that survivors can be so wary of being touched at all. When you’ve not had that experience of unwanted touch, it can be difficult to understand why someone would not want a reassuring pat on the back or a hug.
By the same token, when you’ve had nothing but negative touch it can be hard to imagine there is such a thing as positive touch, but there really is. The key is knowing the difference.