I had a breakthrough with my sex therapist last week. It was such a breakthrough that I honestly didn’t see it coming — and usually I have at least some sort of warning.
She’s been having me do Sensate Touch Therapy. This is a method that returns the mind to the body. For someone like me, who runs from such sensitive and emotional problems, this is critical. I got into a rut of ignoring my body in order to ignore the problem, even avoiding masturbating for MONTHS. Sensate restores mindfulness of the body in a safe way.
During my first week of Sensate Touch, I noticed something important (though I didn’t realize it at the time). I haven’t been able to allow touch to my feet or sides for several years. Touch there creates muscular spasms so intense that it’s painful. Until this week, I thought that this reaction was simply because my nervous system is turned up too high, and that the muscles had tightened to protect the nerves so much that these spasms started as a result.
As I did my own Sensate Touch, I noticed that I can indeed touch my own sides and feet. Sometimes I spasm, but if I breathe and relax, they can be touched.
When I described this to my therapist, she had a theory that differed from my theory about my nervous system. In fact, I think it’s a tremendous breakthrough that is a part of the original root of the issue.
She asked me if I had considered if there was tickling trauma in my past.
I’d never heard of such a thing. She explained that tickling can create trauma in childhood because it is deeply uncomfortable and removes body autonomy.
Of course, this is the moment that memories came flooding back. My grandmother was a vigorous woman in all things. On a good day I was uncomfortable around her, on a bad day I didn’t feel safe with her. She started showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s by the time I was ten, so it’s likely that some of her behavior with myself and my cousins was influenced by the metal illness even earlier, though stories of her from before my birth reflect the firey behavior that I knew.
She used to hold me down and tickle me, despite my screams begging her to stop. I recall at least one time that I wet myself during the tickling. This was loss of body autonomy and embarrassment, all from an elder whom I was supposed to trust. My therapist was surprised I hadn’t connected these dots.
Tickling also appeared at my uncle’s home. Funnily enough, my cousins and I were discussing how weird it was last year at a family reunion. He would create something called the Tickle Tunnel. He would put couch cushions along the coffee table to create a tunnel, and we would crawl through while he reached his arms in between the pillows to tickle us. At the time it seemed normal, but looking back, it wasn’t fun. We just did it because there were six cousins all doing it, too, and someone we trusted had created the idea.
I didn’t trust my last partner intimately by the end, either. He didn’t listen, which is critical for someone with a pain disorder. I had told him repeatedly to not touch the bottom of my feet without asking permission. One of the last straw’s that ended the two-year relationship was when he grabbed the bottom of my foot, digging the pads of his fingers in, while sitting with me on my parent’s couch. It broke trust. He apologized profusely when we were alone again, but after two years of reminding him of the sensitivity, I couldn’t trust him anymore.
I noticed that my sides got more and more sensitive over the course of the relationship and decline in trust. This session with my therapist connected the dots. My muscles weren’t tightening as much as I thought. It was past trauma that was being dredged up regarding lack of trust and body autonomy with a partner. Considering I had to teach him how to use consent to check in at every stage of intimacy and the general lack of listening, it’s no wonder that my sides started saying ‘no’.
I’m paying more special attention to trust, now. I ask friends to not touch my feet or sides, don’t tickle me without asking for consent, and pay attention to how they react to my request over time. It may seem a small part of a friendship, but to someone who deals with such sensitivities, it’s a massive sign of respect when they remember.