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3 Things You Can Do When Mental Illness Makes You Sensitive to Touch

I finally became aware that I was entering into a depressive episode a few weeks ago. Thing’s change so slowly that it’s extremely difficult for me to pick up on unless I know exactly what I’m looking for. It started with my energy levels getting lower and lower; small tasks began to appear like herculean events. I stopped doing the little things; like washing the pots right after dinner and leaving them to the next day, or not putting my clothes away after they had been washed and letting the clean washing pile up in the corner of my bedroom. And the physical aspects of depression hit me hard before the mental side kicks in.

But what is glaringly obvious to me when an episode is beginning, is that my tolerance for human contact has all but disappeared. I call it “tolerance” because I’m not a naturally tactile person, but with a partner or close family I do like the occasional hug or cuddle. OK, I admit it, I like hugs. However, in the last few weeks and especially in the last few days, I’ve become not only distant with my mood due to low energy, but the idea of being touched by another human makes me literally cringe. My peripersonal space (or DPPS) has doubled, and anyone even walking near me sets off alarms in my head that my body reacts to. When a co-worker touches my shoulder to get my attention, my whole body tightens in what I can only describe as a kind of disgust. I get a wave of this uncomfortable, weird feeling crashing over me that’s so hard to describe — picture the most gross thing you can imagine and then picture someone dumping a bucket filled with that over your head. It makes me recoil so much that my body physically reacts — my muscles tighten as if ready for sudden devastating impact.

For me, this isn’t pleasant, but then to imagine what this is like for my partner would be horrible. It must seem like all of the sudden I don’t want to be anywhere near them, like they disgust me and the mere idea of them touching me makes me want to run away as fast as I can. While this is partially true on the physical side, I can tell you that mentally, I don’t love them any less than I did before, and I certainly don’t lust any less. I still look at them and fully appreciate the aesthetic beauty that I’m in the presence of. I still feel love and want to be around them, but perhaps just not be in physical contact all the time. For a lot of people, this should be pretty straightforward. But if you’re with somebody who qualifies their love with touch, this can be the biggest barrier to surviving the episode together. My sudden hatred of human contact, while having nothing to do with others personally, can seem like I have suddenly been turned off by them, no longer finding them attractive and no longer loving them. How do you tell someone who is experiencing a person they love recoiling at their touch that everything is OK? It’s just the bipolar.

I’ve thought about this long and hard because it’s a current problem for me and will only get worse as this episode takes hold. I’ve read as much as I can online, but there doesn’t seem to be much content out there with advice on this matter, so that is why I’m writing 3 things you can do if you find yourself in this situation. So far, they are working for me.

1. Create a code word.

Come up with a word that means “leave me alone please.” Something that you don’t say in everyday life, but you can use as an indicator that you need some space. Sometimes I just need an hour or two by myself, wrapped in a blanket watching “Gotham;” it helps me remember to breathe. By making a specific code word with your partner, they can then associate the word with your episode and not have to wonder if you’re just getting sick of them being around. Don’t abuse it though, it’s an “in case of emergency” word for when you really need that alone time.

2. Be the one to initiate contact.

If you feel like me, sometimes you get to a point where you just don’t want to be touched and you can’t control your physical recoil or feeling of deep discomfort when people invade your space. What I have found is when the contact is on my terms, then it’s not so bad. Communicate with your partner and tell them you need to take the lead when it comes to touching, even the simple things like resting your hand on their leg or shoulder. Try the small stuff first, but do it on your terms in your time. The fact that you are trying can help to ease your partners fears that you just don’t like them anymore.

3. Spend quality time together.

So you’re hating contact right now and you’ve communicated that to your partner — if they respect you and you love them, then it doesn’t mean you can’t still spend quality time together. Play a board game or a video game, read to each other, go on a bike ride if you have the energy, but do something together that focuses your attention on each other. Without touch in the equation, they may be feeling rejected and low. Combined with the fact you already feel low and fatigued, maybe just spending some time doing something very simple, fun and low energy will keep you connected. Perhaps you can make it part of your daily routine because, for me, routine becomes crucial to functioning when I’m heading into an episode.

People display love in different ways. Some people like to hear “I love you” all the time, others prefer thoughtful gifts. Some people feel the most secure and loved by physical contact. When you take that away there can be a void. The bigger the void grows, the further apart you can become. So I would suggest speaking to your partner and telling them exactly how you feel, and refer them to this article if it helps. Communication is always key, especially when mental health is involved. It’s very hard for those around us to understand what it’s like to be in an episode, and it’s even harder for those who love us to watch us supposedly “reject” them, push them away and withdraw further and further into a dark world; but that doesn’t mean we don’t love them any less and we can’t get through this together. 

Follow this journey here.

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Thinkstock photo via 04linz