Image: @matheusferreroWe are living in a touch-deprived society. This dilemma is exacerbated for those with eating disorders.
When I say, “touch,” I am referring to positive, nurturing touch. People with eating disorders often refuse touch for a number of reasons. We often feel shame towards our bodies. Some are scared of intimacy, socially anxious, or scared of losing control over their emotions.
Perhaps we fear touch because we’ve only known negative touch in our lives.
For some, that may be as detrimental as physical abuse. For me, it was hospital needles piercing my veins, blood pressure cuffs squeezing my bony arm, and icy cold stethoscopes on my bare skin.
The necessity of touch
But without nurturing touch, we cannot thrive. Being deprived of touch is connected to depression, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, and illness. The necessity of touch is most evident with infants, who can’t survive if not cuddled, held, and stroked.
Throughout my years spent struggling with anorexia, I refused to allow touch into my life. If someone tried to hug me, my emaciated body stiffened up like a board. Perhaps it was my chronic touch-depravation that eventually led me to crave something as simple as a hand on my shoulder. With recovery came the realization of the necessity of touch. This was a key influence that finally led me to become a licensed massage therapist.
Touch and emotions
The road from patient to caregiver was indeed a tumultuous one. Emotions are connected to physical touch. For those with eating disorders, igniting feelings, both physical and emotional, can seem terrifying. It takes determination and trust to break through our protective barriers.
With my first boyfriend, I was distant and unfeeling. Though healthy enough to stay out of the hospital, I wasn’t really recovered yet. I often shuddered and backed away when my boyfriend tried to touch me. Whenever he did touch me, I felt nothing―none of those warm and fuzzy or excited feelings one would expect to feel in a romantic embrace.
Not surprisingly, my boyfriend eventually broke up with me. Having been numb to my feelings for so long, It was shocking to feel so devastated. I had experienced a lot of pain in my life, but nothing was excruciating as this rejection. A friend came to comfort me as I drowned myself in a flood of tears. She said, “Well, at least you know you’re human.” My reaction to her profound statement is found in the following excerpt from my book, Hungry for Life.
Her words sent shock waves through my body as I realized I was human in every sense of the word. Not a disease, not an unfeeling apparition, and not a broken machine that couldn’t be fixed. I had human emotions. My heart had been broken. I could feel it. I could feel everything. I yearned for my anorexia to numb the pain, to close me away in a dark corner where I was safe and in control. If this is what it meant to be human, I’ll pass. How desperately I wanted my illness back!
Pushing for real recovery
Anorexia can be ruthlessly persistent. It tried to seduce me to give into the temptation of starvation. The battle in my mind had never ceased. But as badly as I was hurting, I would not allow myself to completely relapse. It was my festering sickness that had pushed my boyfriend away. I might push everyone away if I didn’t make a serious change. I could never bear to go through this type of rejection again. It was time to recover―really recover.
Pushing myself to complete recovery was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But it opened me up to the human experiences we all deserve. I didn’t know it at the time of my breakup, but life had wonderful experiences in store that more than made up for the bad ones.
As I matured and began to accept and respect my feelings, I welcomed nurturing touch into my life. I learned how to cope with bad feelings in a way that was productive, rather than destructive. I’m grateful for all my experiences, even the most painful ones, because they are what molded me into the person I am today.
Touch and feeling, an essential part of the recovery process
I am sharing this part of my story in order to demonstrate a crucial component of eating disorder recovery. To live fully, we must be able to accept feelings into our lives. Opening yourself up to nurturing touch is essential in this process. Physical and emotional feelings are intertwined.
Touch that is therapeutic and nurturing helps us know, accept, and take pleasure in our own bodies.
The benefits of massage therapy take healing to a whole new level. Massage can alleviate anxiety, ease depression, and boost self-confidence. It allows us to feel good in our bodies, and therefore feel good about our bodies, inspiring us to take better care of ourselves.
Massage therapy even helps to improve body image. The brain stores a map of the body. Too often, our brain’s maps lead us astray, resulting in a myriad of neuro-biological phenomena. This explains why amputees sometimes experience a phantom limb, and why people who have lost a significant amount of weight often feel overweight, even though that is not the case. Massage teaches the brain to accurately process sensory and motor input, thereby reconnecting the mind and body.
To live fully is to experience all life has to offer. It is the sum of our experiences that help us learn and grow into interesting, productive, and passionate people. Never underestimate the healing power of a pat on the back or a squeeze on the shoulders. Nurturing touch brings us closer to health and happiness, and connects us to the people we love.