Just heard the call for people, folks who live alone.
I am living alone.
And I’ve been alone in my apartment for about six weeks now.
So it's been a while since I've had regular physical contact.
Yeah. It's hard.
I read recently about this phrase called skin hunger. Humans’ innate need to be touched, and that rang so true and kind of put a label on what it is that I’ve been feeling.
You know, as an introverted person, when someone else touches you, it sort of reminds you that you exist in the world.
It's not just like touching someone's hand, but also like watching them touch their own hand or like hearing their voice, or like seeing like the light bounce off their skin.
It's not sexual or romantic touch that I miss. It really is hugs from friends.
I guess what's getting me through is thinking about the next time I can hug someone. Anyone naked would be great.
ANNA: So it was a few months ago now I was laying in bed late at night, and I looked at Twitter. And I saw this tweet from Nick van der Kolk the host of Love and Radio, the podcast. And he said, "If I were Anna Sale…"
NICK: "...Anna Sale, I would be asking my listeners about how they're coping with a lack of touch in their lives." But I'm not Anna Sale. So I won't ask that question.
ANNA: [Laughs] And then I said, let's ask it together. That is Nick van der Kolk, the host and creator of Love and Radio. And tell me, like for you, what was, what was the, the little, germ of an idea of like, huh, I bet people are missing this. Like where did that come from for you?
NICK: I had spoken with a couple of different friends who, you know, had mentioned like off-handedly that they had not had like any physical interaction with another human being in at that point weeks. So I just sort of wanted to know what it was like for people to, um, to reckon with that because I'm, I have two small kids.
ANNA: As do I, yes.
NICK: Um, yeah, I'm, I'm in lockdown with this family. I'm having the like completely the opposite experience.
ANNA: And it's also been interesting, I feel like to listen to these stories coming in, and track the passage of time in isolation. You know, we, we first asked this question back in April and a lot of things are different now. Official restrictions are lifting in a lot of places. Uh, you know, it's shifting to being individual decision making and ad hoc choices about what kind of touch you personally feel comfortable with. Um, but that hasn't gotten rid of the anxiety and the overthinking.
BILLY: Good god. The other day at CVS, the cashier there, finger brushed my hand and I thought I was going to pass out.
NICK: This is Billy Flood, one of the listeners that I spoke with. One thing that I was struck by is how, how when we’re deprived of touch, any little, tiny little interaction, the volume is pumped up to 11.
BILLY: Yeah, the, the neural pathway of I missed this, uh, opened up. Every point of contact with another human is a little electric charge. You know, a little human exchange from person to person that really does fuel you. And then when it's all taken away so suddenly you realize that, oh my gosh, that is, that was necessary. That was needed. That let me know that I wasn't alone, um, on this earth.
BILLY: Whenever someone asks me how am I doing, it’s um, managing? Uh - it's just that every morning I wake up and there’s another name of a black man who's been murdered or a video that's resurfaced from a year ago that we didn't see before. And it's just a, a constant retriggering and retraumatization of, um, of my black life. And then I have this guilt complex about seeing all the protests, um, because I am an activist and normally I would be on the front lines, but I'm actually, I'm driving today to Louisville, to visit my parents who are senior citizens. And I couldn't put them at risk, um, by going out and protesting and marching and being huddled together with thousands of other people. And it - it's really bothering me. I just feel like if my body is not. Out there that I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do. And that sucks.
NICK: Yeah, that you're not, you're not doing as much as you can.
NICK: When do you think you might feel normal about touch again?
BILLY: [Laughs] When we have a vaccine and can touch people. So I don't know, January, February, and March? Um, it’s gonna be a long time.
NICK: What kind of coping mechanisms have you sort of developed?
BILLY: Mm. I shaved yesterday, looking in the mirror at myself, and I was just touching my face - I would shave one a cheek and hold my face with my palm on the other side, just as a soothing mechanism, just having that experience of, uh, flesh on flesh. And I don't think I've ever shaved as slowly and as meticulously and as gazing-longingly in the mirror at my own face before in my life. It was like an out of body experience shaving. Um, just seeing this human being, um, gazing back at me and touching me, um, was, was powerful.
NICK: Do you find yourself, you know, when thinking about your friends who have kids and are self isolating with children, do you feel envious of them that they get to have that touch? Or to do you pity them.
BILLY: [Laughs] I love children in that I am able to always hand them back over to their parents when time is done, when they start screaming and crying. Uh, it's funny, you mention that, a lot of my friends from undergrad have children. I'm a great, uh, godparent, great uncle. And I, what I'm hearing from my friends who are parents is they miss touch from other people. Yeah, I'm, I'm not, I'm not envious of, uh, people with children right now.
NICK: I have a vested interest in that question. So.
BILLY: Yeah, I figured. God bless you and keep you, I don't know how you do it.
ANNA: We also heard about this from a listener named Lillian, in Chicago, who’s gotten plenty of touch from her 8-month-old son.
LILLIAN: It was like just not the right kind of touch. (laughs) Touch with a baby is. It's not reciprocal, right. It's not mutual, exactly. Right. He's needing my touch as opposed to giving me touch.
ANNA: Lillian’s 37, and she decided to have a kid on her own. When her baby was born last fall, she had lots of support from family and friends. But two or three weeks into the stay at home order where she lived… Lillian started to feel desperately alone.
LILLIAN: It was like, I just can't do this. You know, I'm like all by myself, I can't be with my baby 24/7, right? I have to cook and eat and, um, and I don't have anybody here. Not just to help me with him, but also to like give back to me. Um, to engage in adult conversation and, and touch was part of it too.
ANNA: What do you think it was at that moment in time that made it feel so hard?
LILLIAN: Um, there's a certain amount of time that you can go, and everybody has different thresholds for what they need and it's true for everything, like for food, right? You can go a certain amount of time without eating and then you need to eat again. You can go a certain amount of time without sleeping and then you need to sleep again. And you can go a certain amount of time without touch and at some point you need it again. And everybody has different, you know, amounts that they need. Um, and for me, that, that just sort of hit a limit. And, you know, I've been single for two years. I don't get a lot of, um, like intimate sexual touch. Um, I know that touch is important to me, right, talk about like, love languages. It's definitely my top love language. Um, but I don't think I realized how much I, I needed the sort of every day, you know, the hugs from family and friends. I don't know that I thought of that as touch in the same way, um, that I thought of with my romantic partners.
ANNA: Did you find yourself at any point, just like wrapping your arms around your own body and trying to just give yourself a sense of, I don't know, presence.
LILLIAN: Yeah. Sometimes at night, you know, I go to bed and, um, uh, and do that. Sort of imagine somebody holding me.
ANNA: Does it work?
LILLIAN: Not really. [Laughs] I did do one social distance visit with my cousins, you know, outside. I couldn't hug them. Um, that was, that was the hardest part for me. And I just came home and felt pretty awful. And I thought about it for, I don't know a day or two. And then I texted my cousin and said, um, you know, I, I've decided that I need to break quarantine for my own mental health and I would like it to be with you guys. And if not, I will find somebody else to break quarantine with.
ANNA: And what did they say?
LILLIAN: Um, they said they understood and, um, then I had a visit. She came over to my house and like she brought a mask, but then didn't wear it. And actually we sat on separate couches. Um, and I held the baby for that whole first visit. Um, so we were still sort of social distancing and then at the end of the visit, you know, I said, you know, I need a hug.
ANNA: And what was that like to get that hug?
LILLIAN: I was really good. Um, it was really needed. And I've worked really hard to ask for things that I need and I, and I felt like I shouldn't ask for it. Um, but, but I knew I needed it.
ANNA: It is really impressive that you had the courage to say, I need to break quarantine and I'm asking you to do this for me.
LILLIAN: Yeah. Um, but also in preparing to become a mom, I realized I'm going to need to be able to ask for help. And as soon as I decided to become a mom on my own, I started practicing asking for things.
ANNA: Like what, can you remember?
LILLIAN: I remember I was sick and, you know, with like a cold or the flu or something. And I called my, my dad and I said, can you make me some chicken soup? Um, so that was a very low stakes ask. Like, but even that, you know asking my parent, was something that I had to think about. So it is something I've worked on, and I would say that, um, you know, there are still very few people that I feel comfortable asking for things. And, um, and my cousin is one of those very few people, so - and it was hard, you know, I still feel a little bad about it,
ANNA: Like guilty?
LILLIAN: Yeah, I feel a little guilty because I think she's still uncomfortable in certain ways around the choice that we've made to break quarantine? They don't want people to know. They come to my house. I don't go to theirs. Um, I said to someone, I feel a little bit like a side chick, um -
ANNA: A side chick! [Laughs]
LILLIAN: Yes. There's a lot of mixed feelings involved.
LILLIAN: And you'd think, like, it seems so simple, right? Like we're very close. It seems like such a simple thing to, to be with them and get a hug. Right? And then somehow it's so complicated.
ANGIE: I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just ask people to give me a hug.
NICK: Coming up, a listener who is grieving without any shoulders to cry on.
ANGIE: I didn't want somebody to feel, make somebody feel uncomfortable by asking them for a hug. If that's not what they were comfortable doing.
ANNA: This is Death, Sex & Money, in a special collaboration with the podcast Love and Radio. I’m Anna Sale…
NICK: ...and I’m Nick van der Kolk. And today… we’re sharing what our listeners told us… when we asked them how they were dealing with a lack of physical touch right now, during the pandemic.
ANNA: For a listener named Angie… being in a long distance relationship meant that she didn’t have a ton of physical touch in her day to day life before the pandemic, either. But when she and her partner, Danny, were in the same place…
ANGIE: ...we'd hold hands everywhere. We went. We were, you know, he'd have his arm around me a lot. Um, yeah, we were just really close physically. And it just, it felt comfortable and it felt, um, right.
ANNA: Angie first started dating Danny nine years ago, when she met him through some mutual colleagues in the healthcare system where they both worked. He lived in California… she lives in Iowa…and their long term plan was to eventually live near each other. After the pandemic upended their plans to meet up earlier this year, Angie was really looking forward to the next time they could see each other in person.
ANGIE: That first hug and kiss were just phenomenal when we first saw each other. And we just, you know, it drove home. Why I did this. It just made the distance kind of melt away.
ANNA: How did you learn that something had happened to him?
ANGIE: A friend of mine who works in the same healthcare system um, let me know. Uh, it ended up being a couple of days after he passed away.
ANNA: What do you understand about why he, he died? How he died?
ANGIE: Um, natural causes, um, totally unexpected. Um, and there - there was no autopsy, but just from the initial, the preliminary evaluation, um, was not COVID related.
ANNA: Mm. Um, when you got this phone call from, from a colleague telling you that this - your partner had died, um, what did you do next?
ANGIE: Um, I took it in and then it wasn't until I hung up the phone - I just kind of, I remember just sitting on my couch and going, wait, is this real? And then, um, I immediately called my mom, my two best friends, and then, um, went outside and talked to my neighbors across the fence. 'Cause they're actually also very close friends. And was, I was stunned. Just stunned.
ANNA: That must have felt so strange telling your neighbors - this moment of just, just shock and raw sadness and to not be able to be physically comforted.
ANGIE: Yes. Yeah. And I could easily see it on their faces as well. Um, they're like, we don't exactly know what to say. We can't give you a hug. Um, this is all just strange [laughs] and, and that's exactly the way I was feeling too,
ANNA: How did you feel the grief physically in your body? And would you try to comfort yourself with touch?
ANGIE: Um, I curled up in a blanket a lot, so I've wrapped the blanket around me, um, and would curl up on the couch. A lot. Um, also having dogs has been fabulous cause I would pet my dogs a lot. Um, but I felt a lot of anxiety, which I've never experienced to that degree. Some panicky feelings. I felt physically exhausted and I couldn't eat. Um, a lot of the first - if I did sleep, waking up in the morning, every morning felt like somebody had just punched me in the stomach with that reality. So it was a lot of figuring out how to on my own, make those feelings, at least ameliorate those feelings in some way. Um, which is usually taking a lot of deep breaths.
ANNA: Were you able to participate in any kind of memorial for him?
I did, I saw - there were two services. And because of the situation, they were all by Zoom. Um, so I saw. Which I think I needed. I got to hear a lot of his family's memories of him. And then, at the funeral home, you know, the - just, seeing him laying in a casket - not pleasant, but probably what I needed. And that moment when they close the lid [crying] - just, lid, I don't know if it's a lid, the top, whatever it's called - I'm glad I got to see it. It was not that different from being in person.
ANNA: When you think about what it will feel like to finally be hugged by someone and to be held. When you just let yourself fall apart and cry -
ANNA: like what, what do you think about what will that - what will that give you that you haven't had yet?
ANGIE: Um, I think it will give me that connection that I know mentally that I have with people already over the situation, but it'll give me that sort of piece that's missing. Um, when you're grieving, just not to have people to hold you. I think that's the piece that will, um, definitely come together. I have thought about that because I have a feeling the first person who I do hug, they're going to have a mess on their hands 'cause I'm just completely fall apart. And, um, and I'm a little, also a little worried, 'cause I've kind of gotten to a point where I can definitely tell that, um, there's a lot of healing to do, but I've kind of gotten to a place, like I can mostly talk without crying now, except for now. Um, but I'm wondering if I'm going to go through that all again, once I actually am able to physically touch people, am I going to relive that whole experience because I didn't have that experience um, at the time that it happened.
ANNA: Hm. Yeah.
ANGIE: And I guess if that happens, it happens. Um, if I fall apart, I fall apart because that's probably what I need to do.
ANNA: That’s a listener named Angie, in Iowa.
ANNA: Has there been a moment when one of your dogs has sort of like done that thing where they give you a lick?
ANGIE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
ANNA: It’s always so sweet. I'm like, "Thanks for trying!"
ANGIE: Is it because you really trying to comfort me or my tears are salty, and then you're just liking that piece of it? [Laughs]
ANNA: That's very practical. I hadn't thought of that.
NICK: Look out for more of your stories about how you’re coping without touch right now… later this week.
ANNA: Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
NICK: And my team at Love + Radio is Phil Dmechokfi and Steven Jackson.
ANNA: You can email Death, Sex & Money any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we hope you’ll sign up for our newsletter! Do that at deathsexmoney.org/newsletter. Nick, do you have a newsletter?
NICK: I do, my newsletter is kinda sucky. But you can listen to my show at loveandradio.org.
ANNA: I’m Anna Sale…
NICK: and I’m Nick van der Kolk.
ANNA: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.