That little girl, who was (and is) myself, she needs a lot of cuddling and snuggling. She needs attention and hugs. She needs acceptance and a sense that she matters. She needs this specifically from a female, maternal figure.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not important why she needs this. It’s not important who may have hurt her or when (that is, the details aren’t important, though of course it matters that she was hurt). The fact is, whatever the reason, she needs all of this. I need all of it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s human to need love and touch and connection.
Good, so I got that far after [insert large number here] years of therapy. Now the question is, what to do about this cluster of needs?
We’ve already established that my therapist is not going to meet these needs for me. She’s great, but she has a boundary. A big, clear, frustrating, sad boundary. I don’t like the boundary, and she’s not going to change it just because I don’t like it. I suppose I can stay hurt and disappointed and mad for months about this, and perhaps at a certain level, I will. But for whatever reason, I have also reached a point where I no longer want to be unhappy about all the ways I am not getting my needs met (my therapist won’t provide loving touch, my mother loves me only in her remote and deliberately unseeing way, my once-best friend has withdrawn since getting married a few years ago…).
So now what?
Now, I’ve decided, is the time when I explore what is out there that might help. This is going to mean venturing outside my daily routines, because nothing in my daily routines meets those needs.
(Note: Many things in my daily routine DO serve me well: my home, my consulting work, my garden, my dogs… Most importantly, I somehow stumbled into a loving, affectionate marriage. Living with my husband is easy and peaceful and pleasant. It is also therapeutic because when I look to him, he reflects back to me a picture of myself that is better than the one I hold in my head.)
For all the blessings I have in my daily life, there is no snuggling up against a motherly figure who will hold me like a three-year-old in need of consolation. Enter Selena. Selena, it turns out, also has a high need for loving touch. She suffered through a marriage devoid of such touch for many years, before also coming to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong with wanting what she wanted. She left her marriage and (in time) started a business. Yes, really. She runs a business that now has five or six employees who, like Selena, provide loving, comforting touch to clients. That’s the business.
I first heard about this business from E, in one of our conversations about her no-touch rule. She told me, “there’s a woman in town, I don’t know her but have heard about her, and she holds and snuggles people who want what you want.” My initial reaction was, “What? No! I don’t want that from a stranger!”
Unfortunately, E’s reaction at the time was to say something like, “Right, it’s a little bit like prostitution…” She may have said more, but that’s what registered in my head and stayed there. So later, when my thoughts wandered back to this idea, I got tripped up by the fear that it might be like going to a prostitute. Was it wrong? Exploitative? Degrading?
I found Selena’s website and read more about her background and her business. She’d had it for more than four years, had many clients, had multiple employees and was advertising for more. She had very clear and explicit boundaries described, including no touching breasts, butts, or genital areas, along with any other area that was off limits for either client or staff. No kissing or touching mouths. But you could hold hands or embrace or lean up against one another. You could snuggle up close and even spoon.
This didn’t seem to me like prostitution when I read about it. What was the difference, really, between paying E to listen to and validate what’s in my head and heart, and paying Selena to put her arm around me? In both cases, I’m asking a person with expertise and experience to help me soothe something that hurts.
But what E thinks matters a lot to me. I couldn’t entirely shake off her words. At one point, a few weeks ago, I sent her a text about it.
So how serious were you when you said the hugging / snuggling business was like prostitution? Do you think it’s ethically problematic?
It clearly is unconventional but I don’t see it as unethical. What do you think about it?
I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s wrong, but I have made a ton of mistakes about touch before. So I’m not sure if my judgment is reliable.
I think you actually have some good judgment about what feels right for you these days. You also have evidenced skill at speaking your truth about what is okay and what isn’t for yourself. Exploring it another step seems quite safe.
I don’t want to end up feeling I did something wrong. Or creepy.
That was the extent of that exchange. I didn’t see E for about a week after that, and when we next met up in session, she asked if I was still thinking about this.
“Yes, actually,” I told her. “As a matter of fact, I have an appointment with Selena tomorrow.”
I do weird things like this to E sometimes. I’ll be stuck on something for a while, like how unfair it is that she won’t provide comforting touch in therapy, and then I’ll just come in not only having found an alternative I want to try, but already well down the path of trying it. I could see I’d surprised her, but not in a bad way. I described to her everything I’d learned from Selena’s website, the clear boundaries, the set-up, the options.
“So a first appointment always includes a free 30-minutes consultation,” I explained. “We talk over the guidelines and what I want out of it and how it works. Then I can decide if I feel comfortable to have a 30-minute session then, or I can leave and think about it and reschedule for another time, or never have a session at all, whatever feels right to me.”
“There are four or five rooms to choose from,” I went on. “They have cushions and beds and different set-ups. And evidently there are a lot of different snuggling positions you can choose from. Selena has built this up and done a lot of interviews about it and even trained people in other cities.”
E was curious and excited for me. So was I, actually.
My appointment was on Thursday. When I got there, Selena was just finishing up interviewing a potential new employee and invited me to look around myself. There were four rooms off a main hall, each decorated a bit differently, playfully. In the hall, there was a table of snacks that included the kinds of candy I hadn’t touched since childhood, like Pixy Stix.
Soon I was sitting down across from Selena, who was younger and smaller than I am (i.e. not immediately a mother figure). She went over the rules and the paperwork. She explained that she also needs a lot of loving touch, but that this appointment was about me and what I needed. She said she spends two hours in self care every day before she came to work, so I didn’t need to worry about what her needs. We could both focus on me while I was here. Then she asked me why I had come.
So hard to explain in a few words! “Well, as I was working in therapy and talking about some very tender emotions from early childhood,” I said, “I found myself consumed by a longing for soothing, loving touch. And this is something my therapist won’t provide.”
Selena nodded as though she’d heard this before.
“Anyway, after a while I came to feel that I didn’t want to repress this longing. So I’m here I guess to see if this is a way for me to meet it.”
We talked some more. Selena said we could play board games, if I wasn’t ready for touch right away, or she could read to me, or we could stand and embrace, or we could choose one or more of something like 72 cuddling positions. We could talk or not. She wouldn’t take notes on anything I said, and she wouldn’t share it with others who worked there. Did I know what I wanted? Did I want to hold or be held?
I didn’t feel like waiting five appointments before trying touch. I knew I wanted to be held, though I had no idea about positions. “Something comforting,” I told her.
“Well, maybe we can start with the Mama Bear position,” Selena suggested. “I’ll sit up against the wall, and then you sit between my legs and lean up your back up against me. Do you want me to touch your hair?”
Yes, yes, I absolutely wanted that.
We wandered down the hall, and I picked the space room. The walls were painted purple and black with some glow-in-the-dark stars and planets. We partly dimmed the lights so the stars glowed. Selena sat down on the bed against the wall, and I leaned back against her.
She stroked my forehead and my hair. We had music playing but didn’t talk for a while. Just once, she squeezed me closer and said, “you’re wonderful.” Just for a moment, I wasn’t a grown-up woman. I was a little girl, being held by an accepting, loving woman.
But soon I started thinking again, stepping outside myself, watching what was happening. I felt restless. After a bit, I asked her if I could rest my head in her lap. “Of course,” she said. We shifted around, and put a pillow on her lap. I rested my head on the pillow. She continued to stroke my hair, and I wrapped one hand around her knee.
“How are you doing?” she asked me after a bit.
“Very comfortable,” I said, “but I can’t stop thinking.”
“Ah,” she said. “Would you like a guided visualization maybe?”
“Yes, that would be great,” I told her, much like I might agree to my grandmother telling me a story.
So she guided me to a beach, instructing me to notice the warm sound between my toes, the light breeze, the sound of the waves. I stopped overthinking everything that was happening and instead began to feel it. I breathed more slowly. I closed my eyes. I could see that beach, smell it, taste the salt in the air.
Soon after that, my half hour was over. We sat up, and Selena gave me a hug. As odd as this interaction was with a stranger, I didn’t feel funny or embarrassed by it. I just felt grateful to her and for the ease with which she gave something she felt was so important for people.
As I walked back to my car, licking the Pixy Stix dust from the palm of my hand, I felt soothed at a very deep level, something deeper than I remember ever reaching with words. I also felt happy, and maybe a little bit proud, that I had figured out how to give my little girl self something she has longed for.