I remember many of my pre-pandemic hugs. A goodbye to my uncle after a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disneyland in August 1994. My first full body contact hug with the professor whom I subsequently fell in love with, and who broke my heart two months later, in April 2012. The last one I had with a close relative, in January 2011, before I got on an airport train to live abroad.
They’re imprinted on my brain not because I’ve missed hugging, but because I remember them with an involuntary shudder. Hugging people usually makes my insides shrivel up as if trying to get away from the contact happening at skin level. It’s full body contact I hate most, but I also dislike the single crooked-arm demi-hug and the leaned-in cheek kiss.
I received each of the hugs described above with my body stiff, wanting it to be over. Yes, I know it’s odd. No, I don’t need therapy. I’ve just always been this way, since I was a very young child asking my mother if we could dispense with kisses at the school gate.
Once I’ve mentally recategorized someone I’m attracted to ― like that professor ― I’m warm and affectionate and even a little limpet-like. I am enthusiastically all over people I like touching, which is a category populated only by my children and any current romantic interest(s).
The COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden implosion of social norms has saved me from unwanted hugs for over a year and I’m nervous about what comes next as restrictions ease in the coming weeks and months.
It’s not just actual hugs that are coming back into my life. It’s also the anxiety and elaborate planning before social activities where personal space is dictated by how much people allow you and not by how much you’d like to have.
I would always think strategically about where and how to stand. A physical barrier of some kind was effective: a table I could be on the other side of, a bulky rucksack I could swing off my shoulders as if opening it, a pile of folders I “couldn’t” put down.
The best was a baby or small child in my arms. They were not only a physical buffer but who’d want to touch me when there was a much cuter alternative?
I’d make sure to arrive for meals out late enough that everyone was seated and then wave away anyone from getting up. If the waitstaff was taking their order, even better. Or I’d arrive early and be the first one sitting and just not get up. It was more rude but offered some protection and, at worst, a crooked-arm partial hug that avoided body contact.
My close friends have grown used to me, even viewing my quirk with some at-a-distance affection. Most have also barreled in occasionally with an “I know you don’t like hugging but I haven’t seen you for ages.”
Even with them, it’s not always easy to spurn the contact even though I’m sure no one who understood how their hug was received would want to inflict it. Rejecting strangers takes a huge transgression of social niceties, especially as I have to do it within seconds of meeting someone for the first time. People don’t tend to form a great first impression when they’re rejected and left awkwardly leaning toward me.
Even managing to head them off before they make their move isn’t necessarily tidy. Most people don’t know how to act if you say you’d rather just wave from a meter away, like when you arrive at a British person’s house and decline an offer of tea.
One of my friends always greets me with: “I would hug you but I know you don’t like it.” Maybe she does it to fill the awkward gap where the embrace would normally take place ― awkward for her, not me ― or in case bystanders think she’s snubbing me.
But I appreciate it because it shows that my comfort is important to her. Just like I appreciated it when my ex-mother-in-law would tell family visitors ahead of time that I didn’t like touching and removed the dread by letting me know she’d told them.
For me, it’s a constant balance between the social cost of being “rude” or accepting skin-crawling embraces and setting a precedent that’s harder to object to later.
But that was before COVID. While millions of people have lamented the lack of hugs and physical contact since March last year, for me and people like me, social distancing brought freedom from unwanted touch. As lockdowns have come and gone, flexing strictness over the kinds of places people can meet in, I’ve stuck to outdoor meetups only.
I live in Spain where a kiss on two cheeks is ― or was ― customary. I’ve enjoyed not worrying about that first minute where I have to run the hug-and-kiss gantlet. To my and, I assume, everyone’s relief, the elbow bump didn’t catch on and I’ve been able to meet new people and old friends alike without planning evasion tactics or bracing myself to be rude.
I’m glad for the natural huggers that they get to experience the level of affection they crave but I want that same freedom for myself. Other people’s freedom to do something shouldn’t eclipse mine not to have it done to me. And all that requires is a simple thing that will allow me to opt out.
It’s just as easy to greet people with “Are you a hugger?” as it is to ask someone if they take their tea with milk and sugar instead of just piling in there with the low-fat and two lumps.
No one expects you to remember their preferences, nor feels they have to drink milky, over-sugared tea just to save you asking what they like. But for those of us for whom the end of social distancing means a return to more social anxiety, that small piece of consideration is a “new normal” we’ll welcome.
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