Touch in therapy is uncommon. Touch in psychoanalysis is rare, and rarer still is it discussed. But, it has had a profound impact on my analysis and I feel that it is important to talk about.
My analyst has been sitting with me for five weeks. We sit on the floor, backs up against the dead-cow couch, side by side, arms touching. Since it is summer, I sometimes have the privilege of directly feeling her skin, if she is wearing short sleeves. I always wear short sleeves.
We sit like that the entire session. I always ask before sitting on the floor – I do not want to violate her space. I can usually tell what kind of mood she’s in from our close proximity. When I get upset with her, I move away slightly. On a few occasions, I have become so exhausted from the material that I have laid my head on her shoulder. We have hugged twice. She has held me, and put her head against my own. I usually keep my hair down so I can hide behind it, eyes closed, so I can feel her. Feeling her allows me to not feel like a helium balloon, looking down on the world below and wondering how to get back. Touching her is so basic and primitive, and also provides so much depth and richness, that I have difficulty articulating the effect it is having. Or maybe that’s just the goddamn alexithymia.
I have a difficult time with the fact that we do it, though. While there is nothing sexual about it and it is not a secret – my husband knows, my analyst’s supervisor knows – it feels slightly taboo. Part of this may be because touch in psychoanalysis, especially in this manner, would probably have Freud rolling over in his grave. But I think the biggest reason for me is because we did not touch each other in my family.
It was always the message from my parents that bodies are dirty, in a sexual way, no matter what you do with them. Of course, you can engage in varying degrees of disgustingness – sex is dirtier than everything, probably except for masturbation, but breastfeeding, childbirth, puberty, hugging, and sharing food off of your plate are all dirty. Yet, as I’m discovering with my daughter, safe, non-sexual touch can be a wonderful way to connect and has all sorts of physical and psychological benefits. There is nothing like kissing the smooth skin of a baby’s belly, or smelling the back of their neck, or tracing their tiny shoulder blades.
So, even though I know, intellectually, that touch with my analyst is also safe and non-sexual and feels good and it is okay to feel good that way, it still feels… clandestine. As I explained to my analyst, it is like your parents not letting you eat dinner and then sneaking to the refrigerator when they’re sleeping. There’s nothing wrong with eating, but it feels like you’re doing something bad, anyway. My analyst didn’t miss a beat. “You’re starving,” she said.