For many, touch has become the rarest quarantine provision, harder to come by than ground beef, eggs or toilet paper, and just as essential. We’re lucky to be alive, say those craving physical contact, but we don’t feel so human without it. Not knowing when they’ll be able to get back to hugging, cuddling or sharing a bed with someone makes the craving more acute. Some describe the lack of touch as its own sensory experience: A dull ache. Skin that hurts. A hole in the pit of the stomach. An illusion that you’re wearing an eggshell, nerves encased in a thin layer of calcium.
“We’re mammals — we’re built to touch,” says Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. “It’s absolutely essential, and we will get back to it.”
Just as shoppers wander the empty supermarket aisles in search of substitutes for long-gone staples, the touch-starved are trying to sate themselves by burrowing under weighted blankets, working out harder and sexting for the first time.
Here are the stories of what eight people are missing and how they’re coping.
She knew it would be her last hug for a while.
Just before the Bay Area began sheltering in place in mid-March, Melissa Forde visited a friend who would be closing her shop in San Francisco’s Mission District. “Whatever happens, I got you,” Forde told her, handing her friend a small gift and enveloping her in a hug. As Forde drove home, she started crying. “I knew it was going to be the last time I touched someone for a long time,” said the 37-year-old yoga teacher and former nurse.
Without physical touch, Forde describes her nervous system as “on edge.” To try to regulate it, she’s walking a lot with her dog, Pepper; taking slow, deep breaths; bathing in Epsom salt; and lying in her backyard to feel sun on her skin and the earth beneath her. She’s relieving muscle tension with a foam roller and tracing her shins with her fingertips every time she emerges from a forward-fold yoga pose. “It’s not the same to touch yourself, but I do think that that’s helpful,” Forde says.
She’s been through long periods without physical touch before, but there was always the effervescent potential for a dance-floor make-out. “The playfulness and spontaneity of connecting with new people is just completely missing,” she says.
She finally tried sexting.
“I am so touch-starved I would pay $50 for a 2-minute hug right now,” says Karina Montgomery, 50, in San Diego. She’s happily fresh off a divorce, but isolation with her cat, Tobias, gets lonely. “A hug is grounding. … It’s physically and emotionally warm. And it’s a level of care that you can’t get over Zoom or from a piece of mail or from a delivery guy with a mask on. My pet can curl up next me and suck warmth from my body, but he’s not coming to me and putting his paw on my body and saying: ‘Are you okay?’”
Montgomery remembers the last time she was this hungry for human touch: It was 2010 and she was reeling from a breakup. A friend dropped everything to come over and let her cry into his shoulder for five minutes. “I’ll remember it forever,” Montgomery says of that powerful hug. “I felt less alone in the world. … It was a huge gift.”
Though Montgomery is new to online dating and sexting, she’s had some practice that now comes in handy: She once wrote a three-part romance novel inspired by her secret celebrity crush. So when she and an OkCupid match started texting about what they might do if they were together, she guided him toward creating a sultry scenario. “I’m in a sweatshirt and yoga pants, freezing my butt off, but we’re describing a scene where we’re out in the park,” hooking up in public while another couple looks on. At the end, Montgomery texted her match that those two voyeurs … well they broke up, because they never had it so good.
He’s used to having sex a few times a week.
Last month, a junior at American University was seeing a senior who was about to graduate and move back to the West Coast. He wasn’t quite sure how to end things. Then social distancing went into effect, classes were canceled, and this 21-year-old student (who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to affect his future dating life) had a convenient excuse for a breakup: It’s not you. It’s quarantine.
“I kind of liked having the out,” he says. He’d been hooking up with a friend as well, estimating that, before social distancing, he was having sex two to three times a week. Now he’s staying with his mom in Frederick, Md., and his sex life is on hold. “I would love human contact right now,” he says. He sometimes sneaks away to release tension by self-pleasuring, but it’s hard to find privacy to do so.
She doesn’t want to touch him — yet.
While sheltering in place might push some to break up, it gives others, like Lara Kadillak, a 32-year-old woman in Denver, an excuse to take things slow. “I still struggle with that idea of a woman pleasing everybody,” Kadillak says, noting that dating pre-self-quarantine often came with expectations of getting physical early on.
She’s been video chatting with a guy from OkCupid, getting more intimate and revealing quicker than in past relationships, examining their deepest fears (Hers: being alone. His: not achieving his full potential). They have given each other sneak peeks of their bodies (and masturbated together) over video chat, but they’re holding back from meeting in person, even at a distance. Kadillak would rather wait to meet when they can safely embrace: “It feels like we deserve more intimacy,” she says.
While she’s enjoying the conversations, Kadillak is worried they might lose interest before social distancing is up. “I’m still protecting my heart a little bit,” she says. She wonders if she actually has feelings for her video beau. Or is her excitement “just because I’m extraordinarily lonely?”
She made a “cuddle nest.”
Adriana Yugovich, a 42-year-old woman in Los Angeles, has a specific cuddling position that she misses: She calls it the “spoon twist,” where her on-again, off-again partner is spooning her and Yugovich fits her toes into a tiny spot between his ankle and the side of his foot. “I’ve never seen it, but I feel it,” she says of that foot nook. Yugovich and this partner started off sheltering in place together but after a few days decided to split. They’re not on the same relationship timeline, he has roommates, and self-quarantine has a swift way of clarifying if two people are going to make it.
So now she’s constructed a “cuddle nest” on her couch: three to four blankets, six pillows and a stuffed Eeyore she hugs while watching movies. “I’m spending way too much time cocooned up,” Yugovich says of her nest. She considers lack of touch to be a mental health issue. “When you go without it for too long, I think it warps you in some way.”
She needs touch to heal her PTSD.
In 2007, Aubree Nichols was in an explosion in New York, leaving her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Firm touch, usually administered through weekly massage, is a crucial part of her recovery. “It helps me feel safe and grounded,” says Nichols, who’s now 42 and living in Venice, Calif. Without it, she says her skin hurts and she feels as if she’s not in her body.
Though it hasn’t been classified as such, Nichols thinks massage therapy should be an essential service. A friend has agreed to be her stand-in masseuse: Nichols, who hasn’t experienced any covid-19 symptoms after a month of isolating, will drive to her friend’s place and shower, and they’ll both put on masks. Then her friend will get to work.
He’s trading photos with a cam girl.
“It’s not the same as the real thing,” a 26-year-old man says of his sexting sessions with a cam girl he met through a video streaming site she uses. He’s living with his parents in Michigan, with his job at a local bookstore on hold, so he has little privacy and limited funds (and asked to remain anonymous for personal privacy reasons). “But I definitely think it’s helped,” he says.
He pays $60 to $100 an hour to trade texts and explicit photos. “My love life is not bustling during normal times,” he says, so it’s especially nice to “feel wanted and still intimate during all of this.”
His wisdom for those who are new to virtual intimacy? “Give yourself the allowance to be awkward and goofy at first. If you’re doing this with someone you’re attracted to … let that feeling take over.”
Her lover is quarantined with someone else.
“It’s comforting to fall asleep with someone and they’re there when you wake up,” says Nia Brown, a 24-year-old in Oakland, Calif.; she considers it more intimate than sex. Brown, who’s immunocompromised, is in a polyamorous relationship with a man who’s self-quarantining with another one of his partners. So these days, she’s sleeping alone, feeling like the little kid who can’t play at recess because they’re hurt.
She’s not jealous. “I could do two days max at someone’s house and then I’m dying to go home,” she says, adding that she prefers a blend of “space and closeness.”
Now, that balance is heavy on the space. Brown and her lover have tried FaceTime sex. (It feels “too robotic,” she says.) He picks up Brown’s groceries and prescriptions, and they’ll stand on her rooftop, conversing six feet apart. Recently she broke down and hugged him.
Brown has filled her bedroom walls and cellphone background with images of outer space: the Milky Way, comets and a galaxy shaped like the human heart. She finds solace in these celestial bodies that look close together in photos, but actually are so far apart — a visual reminder that, even in isolation, we’re still connected.