My back blew out nearly two weeks ago. I went horse-back riding the previous day, a two-hour long trail ride. I hadn't ridden horses for twenty years. My back let me know it was not pleased with the experience. I spent four days in bed on my back, trying not to move. My Pilates teacher, concerned about my injury, arranged for me to have an appointment with an osteopathic physician, whom she brought regularly to her studio to work with several of her clients who needed medically knowledgeable attention. I have not had any osteopathic or chiropractic therapy since I was a young child, so I did not know what to expect and took the appointment only because I trusted the advice of my Pilates instructor, who was a professional dancer and is a brilliant teacher. Though I did not realize I needed medical attention--my back has gone out regularly since a major blow-out eighteen years ago--, she could tell, from my posture and Pilates workout, that I did.
The hour-long osteopathic therapy was a revelation to me. The physician, another brilliant woman who had been a professional dancer herself (The Joffrey Ballet), diagnosed my problems, which involved a weakened left side due to an inguinal hernia surgery last Winter, misaligned pubic symphysis, sheared sacrum, and twisted lower vertebrae. For an hour, she manipulated bones and muscles, realigning my lower body. Bones audibly popped into correct position. Muscles recovered extension and range of motion they hadn't had for days. The relief I felt was instantaneous, as was my gratitude. I had had no notion of the destructive contortion of my body or of the benefits of medical manipulation. At the conclusion of the session, the physician gave me a hug. She was pleased that I had been so obviously improved. I don't think she intended the embrace as part of the therapy, only as a gesture, but for me, with a history about which she did not know, it was.
I have always enjoyed, and more, longed, to be embraced. I have envied women's sociability, which involves frequent hugging. Women have a range of embrace, from the casual hug which involves one woman putting her hands on another's shoulders, leaning forward, without body contact, though perhaps a brief kiss, to the intimately supportive embrace, in which one woman holds another who has collapsed against her and is being held up. Such demonstration of emotion is largely denied to men.
There is a history to my need. I was epileptic when a child, a brain malady that I outgrew only in the mid teen years. I had both petit mal and grand mal seizures. I have written about this condition previously, but here I can mention the need it generated in me for embracing. Grand mal seizures are exhausting. While I didn't directly experience the seizures, because I was of course unconscious, I knew upon regaining consciousness that I had undergone a seizure. I would feel weak, confused, maybe (but not usually) frightened, and vulnerable. Sometimes the seizures were quite extended. I would wake for a few minutes and then fall back into seizure. When a seizure took place at school (the seventh grade), my mother, upon being called by the school, called her brother, who had an ambulance service, to retrieve me, while she summoned the family physician. I remember waking briefly from the seizure to realize my uncle was picking me up, and later, waking again, he was carrying me slung across his shoulder like a sack of corn. On other occasions, it was my mother's other brother who held me. In each occasion, being held was greatly comforting to me. What was distressing was to be separated, to be, for instance, confined to bed rest, away from people, and not embraced. My mother, being out of my room while I recovered, created anxiety in me.
As a consequence of these profound experiences, I grew up longing for the physical comfort and security of being held. I loved my uncles and their protective embrace was a deep part of my psychology. I transferred this emotion to my childrearing. I loved to embrace my daughter and son, hold them in my arms, rock them to sleep as infants or comfort them when they hurt from scrapes and illnesses as young children. As I grew up, I transferred my love for my mother and my need for my mother's comforting hug at these moments of personal crisis to the women I loved.
It was disconcerting and confusing to me, as an adult, knowing as I did my own needs for physical affection through embracing, that I married women who did not easily or often give such affection. A woman friend who knew my first wife described her as "one up-tight chick". My wife now is similarly unable to express her love for me through casual affection. Some grotesque episodes in her childhood injured her in such a way that prevents her from easily giving or receiving casual touching and embracing. Her capacity and enthusiasm for the emotions and mechanics of physical love were, happily for us both, undamped by her past; our love life has been gratifying and exciting.
I don't have psychoanalytical insight as to why or how I chose, or allowed myself to be chosen by, women who did not share my need or capacity for sharing physical comfort through hugging. Not simply my wife, but also women I dated had this quality. One girl friend, whom I dated between my marriages, said in despairing confidence, that her brain wanted to express this affection, but her body wouldn't let her.
The needs unsatisfied in me, because of the asymmetry of my emotional relationships with the major women in my life, have been reinforced by the prohibition in our society again casual embrace of men and women. Even men who are close friends should not hug one another. This rule is so notable, that exceptions, as when a Marine in Iraq loses a buddy in combat and is, in his grief, consoled in an embrace by another Marine, make the national television news.
The social rule is surely harmful. An illustrative episode was provided when we took in my nephew, who was an addict and delinquent at fifteen. The boy's behavior alienated his father against him, which greatly added to his problems. In our home, I tried to treat him as I would my own son. We genuinely cared for him. I tried to express affection to him, to embrace him, to let him know that his difficulties did not set him aside from us. This affection frightened him. I took him to psychological counseling weekly, sharing some of the session, with a gifted counselor, with him. In one session, he expressed his great discomfort with being hugged by me, because he thought I was making homosexual advances toward him. It took a lot of talk and reassurance from the counselor and me to get him to understand that I was not and that physical expression of affection between a father and son through embracing was a healthy part of a loving relationship, which this boy desperately needed. Part of the discussion involved my medical history of epilepsy and its consequences.
The rule against men and women embracing who are not married to each other is so inviolate, so rigid, as to make our society look like Orthodox Judaism or Islam, which prohibit contact between unmarried men and women. As a result of these taboos, I seldom get hugs of any kind. Sometimes in my life, I have felt isolated like a leper, shunned and outcast as undesirable.
The feeling of isolation can be so powerful as to induce paranoia. Is there something wrong with me? This sense probably originated with my childhood epilepsy. There actually was something wrong with me. In my home village, everybody knew my condition. Its expression was completely public. It's acknowledgment undoubtedly recognized in the privacy of kitchen and dining rooms. Many of my childhood acquaintances did shun me. In sports, no one wanted me on a team; it probably was not even safe for me to engage in most sports. When I was a teenager and tried to date, few girls would have anything to do with me. Epilepsy set up a psychological-social dynamic that reinforced itself and was not easily discarded as I entered adulthood and outgrew the epilepsy. No doubt, men who have suffered other diseases, such as severe psoriasis or congenital disfigurement, have experienced similar social estrangement and physical isolation.
Whatever the cause or reason, isolation as severe as leprosy in ancient times intensifies the need for contact. The longing for physical social contact, for comfort, for acceptance, never extinguishes. The prohibition against casual affection between men and women who are only acquaintances never seems less than rude and abrasive. When an embrace comes, spontaneously, as following my session with the osteopathic physician, it's value rises to grace.