Personal Space

June 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

I have personal space issues. I have reasons for them, but I don’t feel much like dragging those reasons out again, and it really doesn’t matter what those reasons are. The issues persist, and I have to deal with them on a day by day basis. One of those issues is that I don’t like to be touched. Actually, let me rephrase that – if a stranger touches my without me awareness or consent, even if forced to do so by circumstances (we’re on an elevator or subway car and the crush of the crowd pushes us together) I immediately have to restrain myself from flipping out. I’m talking clenched teeth, trembling limbs, hands curled up into fists, sweating with the effort of not going apeshit. I even have this reaction when I am sitting in cramped quarters and someone’s shoulder is touching mine, like in a movie theatre. If I have no way to be introduced and establish who you are, I do not want you within ten feet of me.

I often tell a story from college of my first Improvisational Theatre class, when the teacher (a lovely fellow named Peter, who loved theatre and playwrights and the written word’s expression) had us do some improv exercises. We all spread out around the walls of the space (a converted dance studio) and Peter would pick two of us, and tell one to walk towards the other until they reached the boundary of the other person’s personal space. He picked myself and Stuart, a person I barely remember now, and told Stuart to walk towards me. Stuart took one step, stopped, and looked around uneasily.

“Stuart, I said to move forward until you reached his personal space.”

“I think I did.” Peter turned to look at me, and I nodded. Stuart was easily twenty feet away from me.

“You’re all in my personal space. All of you. All the time.”

People laugh when I tell this story – I understand why, because it’s an absurd statement to have made and I tell the story with a mildly wry delivery – but it isn’t a joke. When I go out, any human being closer than thirty feet from me makes me uncomfortable. Especially a woman – I will cross the street or put my head down to avoid making any sort of eye contact with a woman at all, I move away from them on the bus if possible, I will not speak to a woman I don’t know if I’m not forced to or expected to by the situation. With men, I feel forced to meet gazes, assert myself and my command of the space around me, perhaps because in the past if I’ve shown weakness I’ve gotten a pretty savage beating, but for some reason I’m not afraid of that. I know it could happen, has happened in the past, I deal with it.

For whatever reason, I’m very uncomfortable with being touched. Significantly so. I’m not a terribly touchy-feely person, especially in public – I can know you for years and never do more contact than putting my hand out for a handshake – so I find the idea of someone initiating unasked-for physical contact to be horrifying. I may dislike people being in proximity to me, but I’ve learned to adjust to that, but I still shudder with the memory of a drunk woman and her male acquaintance deciding to touch my hair on a train from London to Edinburgh. I may have actually shrieked when I felt her fingers brush my scalp. Unexpected physical contact actively horrifies me. I don’t have a reason for this, or perhaps I have too many reasons jostling for primacy – a memory flash of a whispered voice and an unshaven face pushed up against a child too young to understand it, waking up one afternoon with a friend of my father’s holding a knife in her hand – these moments like cracks in the glass I scry my own past with.

There was a time I used alcohol to self medicate this pervasive sense of nausea and disquiet at the presence of other human beings, because even as I feel it, I desire company, companionship, someone to talk to. All humans are social animals, even ones who find socializing terrible and confusing and feel ashamed every second we participate in it. My wife likes to note that I sleep more easily when she’s in the room than when I’m alone, and its true – knowing that she’s present, knowing that her presence is there has the opposite effect that the vast majority of other humans has on me. If the presence of most other humans is a jangling series of terrifying discordant notes, her presence is musical, sensual in its most basic meaning, something I can enjoy sensing and experiencing. I’m not trying to pretend we never fight or are always happy with one another, just that I am comforted by her existence because she is a human that I can enjoy being around. I do have other friends, have spent time in their company and enjoyed myself, even without alcohol – it doesn’t come easily, but with time I can learn to accept people and even like being around them. It’s very hard, but it is possible.

But because of this tendency of mine, I sympathize strongly with people who do not wish to be touched or around others. It can be physically painful for some humans to be around others, and what makes it worse is that steady knowledge that we’re not supposed to feel like this. That we’re supposed to stand around and chat about things and be social, that we’re evolved to be social. To be uncomfortable or worse, to be afraid of other people (whatever your reasons are) is seen as a flaw, a deficit.

Now, this doesn’t excuse bad behavior, and I’m not saying it does. Flinching, white knuckling, teeth grinding, these are all acceptable, but yelling, lashing out or striking someone for touching you inoffensively (please note the word inoffensively – if someone were to touch you deliberately and maliciously, say, to grope you, things just got real and you at the least have the right to scream at that person, if not call the police on them) is not acceptable, and I know this. What has happened to me in the past doesn’t justify my being irrational in the present. It’s still a struggle.

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