My parents. My sister. My ex. My best friend. Four other friends. Six relatives. Two teachers.
That's a list of everyone I've hugged in the past 18 years of my life, at least as far as I can remember. I've probably blocked out several traumatic hugging moments, but my point remains: I am sorely lacking in hugging experience, and it's because I'm scared of touching people.
Funnily enough, my fear applies more to my friends than it does to strangers. I was a daily subway rider for my six years of high school, so I'm used to the press of strangers around me during rush hour. And while a quick handshake with someone I've just met makes me grimace, I know that my acquaintance probably wants the handshake to be over as much as I do. I also take comfort in the fact that I probably won't encounter the same stranger I touched. Even if I do, my initial touch — whether it's a handshake or hug — probably won't make a lasting impression.
Where my heart really starts to race is when I'm faced with the prospect of touching someone I know well. When I say "touch," I mean every type of touch imaginable: handshakes, hugs, a comforting hand on a shoulder, the slight brush of fingers, the accidental touch of two knees… I could go on forever. I've had countless humiliating experiences as a product of my discomfort, ranging from when I was in middle school to just last semester.
I remember doing a pregnant rat dissection in junior year AP Biology; I was so startled when my teacher stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me that I plunged the scalpel straight into the rat's unborn fetuses. As a less extreme example, I remember refusing a hug from one of my closest friends after a particularly grueling U.S. History exam. He hasn't tried to hug me since.
I know that lots of people don't enjoy physical contact and are perfectly happy maintaining their personal space. I know that some people don't overthink casual touches and show their affection through constant contact. I know that it's perfectly okay to be on either end of the gradient, and I know that no one judges me for stiffening up when they lean their head on my shoulder.
What's not okay is that I do enjoy physical contact and that, for whatever reason, I put up barriers that prevent me from developing more meaningful relationships. I hate that all I do is hover awkwardly around my friends when they're in need of comfort and support. I hate that I tense up when a friend slings an arm around me as we're walking down the street. I hate that I refused a hug from my friend all those years ago, and I hate that I'll never know how much closer we would've been if I'd said yes.
I'm not sure when or why this phobia started — better yet, I'm not sure whether this fear was always inside of me or whether something triggered it. I don't think its origins matter as much as the effect it's had on my relationships. The sight of other people touching their friends so casually makes me feel equal parts jealous and ashamed; I find myself wondering why I'm so hypersensitive to physical contact and why I can't be close to my friends in a "normal" way.
This summer, I'm committed to overcoming my hugging phobia. I hope that pushing myself to hug my friends when I greet them (if they're open to it, of course) will show me that it's okay to initiate physical contact of all kinds. I also hope that my hugs will be the universal sign that my friends need to realize that I value their friendship deeply. This journey definitely won't be easy, but the ones that are worth it almost never are, right?