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pandemic

Compassion, Guest Posts

Without Touch

July 5, 2020
touch

By Liz Prato

This is a story about my lying on my own massage table in April 2020, where my clients usually come to me for therapeutic touch, but haven’t come to me for touch since March 11th. Because most of my clients are in their seventies and therefore technically “at risk,” I stopped seeing them two weeks before the Oregon Governor said massage therapists could no longer see clients, to cut down on the potential exposure to and spread of Covid-19. The last time I’d received professional bodywork was March 3rd—one month from when I was lying on my own table, with my husband giving me a massage. Although it had been twenty years since he, himself, trained in or practiced massage therapy, he still knew how to effleurage, petrissage, and knead muscles.

The previous day I had slumped over our dining room table, my entire physical and emotional body dysregulated. Pain twisted through my hips, it yanked at my low back, it burned my jaw and my thighs. I was depressed, desolate, unable to picture how I was going to live like this for another month, or two months, or however long it would take before I could again access to one of my primary forms of health care.

I live with chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic pain, insomnia and depression. I am easily overwhelmed by external stimuli, especially noise. My health care team includes an MD, a naturopathic physician, a psychotherapist, a cranio-sacral therapist, an assisted-stretch therapist, a Rolfer, a Reiki master, and a massage therapist. The MD is the only one who doesn’t “get” my chronic fatigue syndrome and pain. Since I was first afflicted in 2013, all MD’s have assumed everything wrong with me was a by-product of depression. Never mind that I was on anti-depressants, and relatively stable mood-wise. It’s just that Western medicine is stumped by chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s idiopathic, meaning they don’t know what causes it. Western medicine is all about applying cures to causes: medicine, or surgery. If they can’t figure out what’s causing a disease then they can’t figure out how to cure it—and then they’re out. All the other professionals on my team understand my health as a complex mosaic, and know there isn’t  just this one thing causing my problems. They recognize multifaceted dysregulation among my various body systems—nervous, digestive, endocrine, immune—and believe not just one tried-and-true cure exists.

Every day I swallow a dazzling cornucopia of prescription pills and supplements that act on my depleted levels of cortisol, vitamins B, D, and folate, estrogen and progesterone, and regulate my melatonin and serotonin. I receive some form of energy work once a month. I stretch a lot—with and without assistance. I haven’t had an ongoing emotional crisis for a few years, but I know that if I do, I can call my therapist. And every 10-14 days I get a massage.

Sometimes I forget to make an appointment, and can’t get in. Or my massage therapist gets sick or twists an ankle or has a family emergency and has to cancel at the last minute. Pain wracks my neck, my jaw, my arms, my spine, my low back—even when I’m still taking all those pills, and stretching and taking warm baths. I become stressed and depressed, and my productivity plummets, making me more stressed and depressed. Massage—effleurage, petrissage, kneading—loosens my tight muscles, it pushes away built-up lactic acid, and it stimulates my parasympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for feelings of calm. And it gives me something I never had as a newborn: the sense that someone cares.

#

The woman who gave birth never held me. I was born a month premature via an emergency C-section, because she had started hemorrhaging earlier in the day. Lots of blood was lost, is the story she told me forty years later, in one of two letters she wrote to me. We both almost died, she said. She told me she wasn’t supposed to see me at all, but she demanded they allow her. She didn’t hold me. She just looked at me, and maybe she said goodbye. I don’t know, because she didn’t share that part with me forty years later.

Ten weeks after my birth mother relinquished me, my adoptive parents took me home. It was the first time they met me, that day on August 11th, 1967, when Catholic Charities called and said they had a little girl ready for adoption. I hadn’t been available for adoption earlier because I’d been in an incubator, and after that “they” (Catholic Charities? The doctors?) were concerned I might be developmentally delayed. My parents—the ones who adopted me, raised me, loved me—told me that after my stint in the incubator and before they brought me home, a foster family took care of me.

“You were meant to be our daughter since the beginning of time,” my parents told me.

“Your birth mother was very young,” they said. “A teenager. She gave you up because she loved you, and wanted you to have a good life.”

Decades later, I learned my birth mother was twenty-three years old when she had me. So was my biological father. They came from middle-class homes. They were not impoverished. They were also not in love, and were Catholic. Having a baby out of wedlock was a great shame. My birthmother’s father stopped talking to her once he learned she was pregnant. He sent her to another state to live with her godparents, to let her belly grow with me, to give birth, and to leave me behind.

I spent over ten years—from my mid-thirties until my late forties—trying to find out who this woman was, the one who gave birth to me and then left me behind. There was someone out there who knew me in my first moments of being. Someone who rubbed and soothed her round belly, and therefore rubbed and soothed me. Bit-by-bit, I collected pieces of my origin puzzle, never knowing what the complete image was supposed to look like. I was eventually allowed access non-identifying information about my biological parents and adoption, later followed by two letters sent to and received from my birth mother through an intermediary who wasn’t allowed to tell me her name, then my adoption records. I immersed myself in a short relationship with a half-sister that yielded more of her mother’s story, received a threatening letter from my biological father’s lawyer, was shut out by two half-siblings without them ever speaking one word to me, and, finally got my birth certificate. They were enough pieces to solve most of my puzzle, even though the center would always be blank.

The puzzle yielded this reality: I never lived with a foster family. I was in the Infant of Prague orphanage in Denver for at least six weeks, if not longer. After I almost died being born, no one touched me, except in the medical ways required to clean and settle a precarious newborn. No one who loved me came to my incubator and put their hands through the holes to touch and soothe me and say “you are ours.” For the first ten weeks, I was devoid of loving touch. It was a crushing discovery, but also explained so much.

Touch is essential to the healthy physical and psychological development of infants. Touch deprivation can affect every aspect of their being, from the regulation of digestion and sleep, to their social and psychological understanding of self. Even touch-deprived infants who are eventually raised in loving homes still show signs of developmental and physiological disturbances years later. They produce higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower levels of hormones that facilitate emotional and social bonding. While some who were touch-deprived as infants might have a difficult time forming emotional bonds with anyone, others will try to assume a deep connection with any adult, because they didn’t learn the difference between family and others in their early development. Children and adults who were touch-deprived are more sensitive to external stimuli, like noise and light, and less able to self-regulate their emotions. They are more likely to be anxious and depressed.

As a child, I cried easily. It was (and sometimes still is) my go-to response to fear, frustration, and uncertainty. As an adolescent I was desperate for romantic love. Every single day my mood would rise and fall based on whether or not a guy paid attention to me. As an older teen and young woman, my sexual potency was a measure of self-worth. How many men wanted me and how much did they want me?

Sexuality was the intersection of touch and being wanted. What good was being wanted (intellectually, creatively, as a friend) if I couldn’t get touch out of it? It got to a point where I didn’t even realize that my behaviors signaled sexual interest. Giving a male friend a hug from behind was touch. It was what you did with someone you care about. You try to make as much contact as possible. Since they were just friends, doing it without clothes on was out of the question. That barrier between skin-on-skin was still safe. Or so I thought. I didn’t realize the message others received was “let’s get rid of that layer of clothes.” I didn’t understand why their girlfriends got mad, or why it was so hard for those men to be just friends. I didn’t understand there was another way to get touch, one that didn’t blur boundaries, that could calm down everything inside of me that was so insecure and overstimulated and unloved and scared.

#

When my husband gives me a massage, there is nothing sexual about it. He glides over my skin and kneads my prone muscles from head-to-toe, and then glides up my supine body from toe-to-head. A week earlier, I’d done the same for him, treating him just like I treat all my clients, draping him in warm towels amid flickering candles and calming music. There was no sex, no sensuality, but what I know: muscles, nerves, bone and skin. I didn’t become a massage therapist by accident, and being a massage therapist is not just my job or my career. It is a calling from my fascia, from my nerve endings, from my soul. I need to give massage almost as much as I need to get it. I need to give and receive touch.

We all need touch, a lesson being learned in the most cleaved, jagged way as we are isolated from each other during the pandemic. Some people are isolated with other loved ones who can hopefully provide a hug, a shoulder rub, fingers laced together. Some live alone and only have their own hands and their own skin. It’s not worthless, touching your fingertips to your own neck, your stomach, your foot. Nerve endings still meet nerve endings. Skin still meets skin. It is the self-calming, the self-regulation, that babies who were not deprived of touch know. Babies learn by mimicking. Someone stroked their skin and they felt better, so they know to do it to themselves. But it nonetheless lacks an essential aspect of touching another living being: bonding, connection, the knowledge that someone else cares, that someone else claims you.

It’s not an exaggeration to say I feel like I might die as these quarantined months drag on, deprived of the one form of healthcare that has the most profound impact on my entire physical and emotional system. Intellectually I know I will not actually die from this limited touch. I may suffer, but we are all suffering. There are worse forms of suffering than my body pains, my fatigue, my anxiety and depression. I have a husband who tries to soothe it. I know that when this ends—and it will, someday, end—I can go back to gratefully receiving massage, and I can go back to gratefully giving it, too. We can all return to that blissful state of knowing we are cared for, through the seemingly simple, but incredibly complex, act of touch.

Liz Prato’s most recent book is “Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai‘i (Overcup Press, 2019), a New York Times Top Summer Read, and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She is also the author of “Baby’s on Fire: Stories” (Press 53, 2015), and editor of “The Night, and the Rain, and the River” (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Her work was named a Notable selection in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing, 2018. Her stories and essays have appeared in over three dozen publications, including The Rumpus, Carolina Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salon, and Subtropics. She is Editor at Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals across the country.

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Guest Posts, Self Care

Madame Defarge in the age of Corona

March 29, 2020
knitting

By Caroline Leavitt

Years ago, in 2004, while my husband Jeff and I were sitting watching the election returns, I was stress knitting in terror. That evening, I made twelve (I’m not kidding) fingerless mitts that I, always the writer, embroidered with the words Hope on the left hand, Love on the right.

It didn’t help. Bush won. Crying, I wrapped up all those mitts and sent them to the friends I had made them for with a note: Maybe next time will be better.

Next time isn’t better. The next election, a day before I am due to go out on Book Tour, for a new novel, Cruel Beautiful World,  about how the world drastically changed from the late sixties to the early seventies, my world drastically changes as well. Trump wins. I get on a plane and people are crying. I have two events, ticketed, $70 a pop and five people show up for the first, and only three for the second.

I keep writing. I keep hoping. I have a new novel coming out in August and I sold the one after that, too, though on a partial, so I have to write it. And as I hoped, this year is something very different, but not in a good way. Trump terror seeps into everything we hear and see and do. People worry that he might stop the elections, that he might make himself Emperor for life, which given his erratic sociopathic nature, is not implausible or impossible. A second term would be a disaster.

And then in the midst of this, sneaking in on little virus feet, is Corona.

I live in the NYC area, and things are quietly surreal. On the subway, I actually can hear the usually garbled announcement which urges everyone to wash their hands, to cough into their elbows, to not panic. Don’t panic. Don’t Panic. Don’t Panic.

Panic.

Of course we all do. A man coughing in the subway is glared at. More and more people are wearing masks. I try not to touch the poles, to keep my hands away from my face. For the first time in years, I am not biting my nails. Stores are emptying out of goods and people. Things are being cancelled. Concerts and plays we had tickets for. A big event I had for my novel coming out in August. Gone. The Poets & Writers 50th anniversary extravaganza. Gone. Publishing houses are working at home. Even my cognitive therapist tells me we can do sessions by Face Time, since she has just come back from a vacation in Germany.

I’m so anxious I get a refill of Klonopin and my therapist tells me that small motor activity might be a good idea, even if it is just tapping my knees. Is there something I can do, she asks. “I can knit,” I tell her.

I haven’t knit it years, not since my first terrible marriage a million years ago, when I designed a sweater for him with dinosaurs feeding on vegetation, one I scissored up when I found out he was cheating on me. I hadn’t knit since. I was writing all the time, so why would I want to relax by using my fingers again? Didn’t they deserve a rest? But now, everything is bigger and seems more fraught with danger. I tell myself I will just straight knit, just to have something to do, that this is not about actually making anything, but just soothing my nerves.

I make my first sweaters, just two rectangles and two tubes, and when it is done, it has so many mistakes, it makes me wince. But I put it on, like a talisman, like a lucky sweater, and it’s warm, cozy and well, perfect. I did something concrete, I tell myself. That’s something.

I cannot stop knitting. I buy more yarn, more needles. Every night, when my husband Jeff and I sit to watch films, there is the click of knitting. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I tell Jeff and he takes my hand. “I bet you do,” he says. I think about Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities. She was like one of the Fates in Greek myth. She never stopped knitting, stitching in the names of the people she wanted killed, creating her own kind of revolution with yarn.

My second sweater, soft, glossy gray, is absurdly perfect and I am going to wear it to a reading, but the reading gets cancelled. All that day, I write my novel, thinking about the evening when I wouldn’t have to think, when I can just knit and turn off the churning in my mind. I think about how knitting, like a novel, has a structure, a spine that has to hold things together, how every stitch can tell a kind of story—that one there that is twisted is when I heard Trump say on the news not to worry. That one where I dropped a stitch is when I was stress eating. When my niece Hillary, who is supposed to come stay with us, along with her husband and two kids, cancels because of the virus, I go online and order more yarn, a deep dark blue, to knit a pullover for her the one way I can be with her.

The day I start that sweater, and WHO announces we have a pandemic. Italy is in lockdown. The first big event for my novel, The Texas Library Association in Houston, is cancelled. The Virginia Festival of the Book is cancelled. The Poets & Writers 50th Anniversary is cancelled. Colleges are holding virtual classes.

I sit with Jeff watching Sorry Wrong Number with a particularly hysterical Barbara Stanwyck, who begins to have an inkling she’s about to be murdered. I am knitting and knitting and knitting through the night, my eyes on the screen. It isn’t until I am done for the evening, that I look down at my work. To my shock, the garment has lost its structure. It isn’t totally blue the way it is supposed to be. I must have picked up the wrong yarn, because the second half of the back of the sweater is now deep green.

At first, I’m pissed. I wanted to control this. Rip it out like errant pages that aren’t working. The way this is supposed to go is not thinking, just knitting. Plus, the thought of ripping out all that work makes me ill. I’m terrible at taking out stitches and picking them back up and I know if I even try, there will be a stunning number of holes.

So I leave it. And the next day, I keep knitting, picking up other colors, making something that I don’t even think about having control over, that I can’t possibly know how it might resolve. As I knit,  I look down every once in a while, surprised, and sometimes pleased. The steady rhythm is so soothing, so hypnotic. I think about my novel, the characters so real I know what color sweaters I could knit for them, and that makes me think a bit about plot. I think about my mom, who died, two years ago, who I wish I could call to make sure she’s all right. I think about the sweater I’d make for her, deep purple, her favorite color, a sweater she’ll never get to wear. I think about my sister, who is estranged from our family and how I’d like to make her a purple sweater, too. I think about our son Max, who is in Brooklyn, who I get to see and hug. I move closer on the couch to Jeff, the click of my needles like a kind of Morse code. I love you. It’s going to be all right.

And so I keep knitting for other people. Pullovers that will hug them because I can’t anymore, at least not without a mask. Despite myself, I am getting better and better. Knit. Knit. Knit. I’ve come to realize that this is how I give up my desperation to control the narrative and the fear I’m feeling. Knitting a sweater isn’t writing a novel, not in any sense. We can’t know how the world is going to go with the virus, we cannot know what is going to happen with Trump and his cronies or with our planet that is falling apart. We breathe in and we breathe out. We wash our hands and cover our coughs and I keep knitting.

I buy more yarn. It doesn’t matter what color, just that I have enough for four more sweaters. Just so I can see the pile of yarn, provisions against terrible times and anxious thoughts. Despite the fierce intensity of my knitting, I’m no Madame Defarge, purling my way to revenge. This is not A Tale of Two Cities as much as it is a tale of one world in crisis. Instead, every night, this is how I knit connections, this is how I knit away the terror, one stitch at a time.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her new book, With or Without You set for release in August and can be ordered here.  Her essays and stories have appeared in Real Simple, The Millions, and The New York Times. Visit her at @leavittnovelist on Twitter, on Facebook, and at Carolineleavitt.com

 

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