In the first episode of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Matilda is asked for a hug by her half-brother and explains that she doesn’t like hugs. They’d made her dad happy so she learned to do them, but since he died she hoped she wouldn’t have to do them anymore. (Her substitution idea was to dance for the person who wanted a hug–here, just watch the scene.) This got me thinking about my own feelings on hugs. I got a lot of ’em.
I don’t remember being a super affectionate child. I know relatives asked for hugs and kisses. Sometimes there was money involved. That sounds weirder than it is…or no, that is genuinely messed up, but I was allowed to say no. At some point in junior high, hugging became cool. And since I was cool and an A+ masker, I hugged. These hugs were candyfloss hugs, where your arms just barely made contact with the other person’s body. Nobody got anything out of them other than the chance to perform. “We’re both cool enough to be friends with this other cool person. Do you see?” I hated it.
As I got older–and broke free of the need to be a cool kid–I hugged less and better. Some of it was still performance, not for the public but for the person I was hugging, like I knew they wanted the hug and it would make them feel better. I usually got very little out of it, and sometimes I still hated it. I was much more comfortable with a punch to the arm or a playful kick. It got to be a bit of a joke, and the people I regularly interacted with embraced the idea that I wasn’t into embracing. (See what I did there?)
So what is it about hugging that makes me uncomfortable? Because it’s not absolute. I do hug on occasion, and there are some people whose hugs I enjoy. I know that I don’t like obligatory hugs, the ones you do in business settings or with relatives. It’s a really intimate action between people, so to be forced to do that with someone feels gross. A handshake or, as we’ve learned in COVID times, a wave will do just fine. It might be coincidence that those hugs have a secondary feature I’m uncomfortable with: the light touch. I hate hate hate things like a soft hand brushing down my arm or back, and sometimes a hug will be a blanket of that soft hand. I can’t explain what I don’t like about it, and I wish I could. Maybe I haven’t put more thought into it because I don’t think it’s a problem that needs to be solved. I should be able to just not have to hug those people. And finally, it puts me in a vulnerable position. As someone who tries to be very aware of her surroundings, it’s hard to leave my back open while someone blocks your vision and is also binding you to some extent. And don’t get me started if you have to feel their breath on you or you get a makeup-y cheek kiss.
There’s another vulnerability that makes it hard for me to hug someone when I’m in crisis. If it’s someone I feel safe with and take strength from, I’m more able to fall apart. Example: After a traumatic doctor’s appointment–a first visit with a dismissive and very Catholic doctor who wouldn’t take my chronic endometriosis and ovarian cysts seriously, because women were made to have babies (true story)–I walked out to the hall with my partner and we hugged. And I started crying so hard that I know people heard me in other offices, which then made me very anxious. Had he not been there, I could have held strong until I got to a safe environment and then completely unraveled in a comfortable way.
My partner is a pretty legendary hugger–a “Tom hug” is a thing. He has a solid, strong, 2-second wraparound pulse, and he’s just over 6 feet tall, which is perfect for my 5.5 feet. It’s not just him but the style of his hug. I prefer a hug as an exchange of energy, not a box to check off under “greeting.” And the firm touch is really important. It does seem to be a common sensory trait for those on the spectrum. (I also tend to be a burrito sleeper, wrapped up in a sheet or blanket beneath a bedspread.) Again, I don’t know enough to explain any of this, but it’s my body, so it’s up to me to whether I want to press it against yours, explanation or no.
I will say that I’m glad that hugging is an encouraged expression, for most people. You can laugh at a bro hug for being all bro-y, but it counts. It’s healthy that boys see that physical interaction can come from a place that is neither sexual nor aggressive. It would be nice if the concept of consent became just as widespread, and separated from sexual contact. There are many reasons someone could be bothered by perfectly innocently intended physical contact, and it’s important that people accept that without questioning it or taking it personally.