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Why I Rub My Stomach Almost 24/7

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We all have habits. Whether it’s leg shaking, finger tapping or flicking our hair… they exist. We do them for a reason but we’re not always aware of the reason.

I… rub my stomach. There, it’s out in public.

That’s my habit. I do it pretty much 24 hours a day. It has a scale ranging from simply touching my stomach to rubbing as if I’m playing an electric guitar alongside a
heavy rock band. My reason is because I’m in pain and anxious. Now, if you have a particular vision of this occurring in your head, it either looks hilarious or silly, right? Don’t worry, that’s fine. I think it looks silly and hilarious too.

I get the whole “Are you hungry?” “Have you got an itch?” and “Are you pregnant?” I get that it looks strange. I’ve also been asked in the past if it has any sexual connotations… I won’t write my response here…

There have been times I’ve been videoed without knowing, and there I am, going for it without evening knowing what I’m doing. I’ve been on national television and guess what I was doing? Yep, you’ve got it. Talking and rubbing my stomach. I guess I’m all right at multi-tasking then?

I met Robbie Williams for the very first time in 2001 when I was 7 after winning a Pride of Britain Award. It was a complete surprise, but everyone around me knew I was obsessed with him so this was a dream come true. We spent a lot of time together in London. I remember him asking me why I did it as he noticed me doing it throughout the day. After explaining, he simply picked me up to save my energy (I was still walking a bit to this point and in a cast) and accepted it. Publicity and photoshoot time. There are numerous photos of us so take a wild guess how many of them show me rubbing my stomach? Yep, pretty much all of them. Still makes me laugh to this day.

Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, my parents noticed I would rub my stomach. Funnily enough, one of the tumors grew within my stomach in that exact location I touch. Coincidence?

I rubbed it as a baby and as a toddler. Doctors said it was a way of self-soothing when I was in pain.

My amazing friend, who became my best friend, told me not she thought I was just constantly hungry. This made me giggle. I’d be in the dinner line, just there, doing it and she noticed. Maybe that is what some people thought… and that’s absolutely fine by me.

It continued throughout reception year. I was diagnosed at age 5 with neuropathy secondary to the cancer, meaning I was and still am in constant pain. The habit became more and more frequent to the point I’d do it for most of the time I was awake.

Going into a wheelchair as a child due to the pain becoming intolerable and muscles slowly disappearing, I’d sit there thinking, “Is this really how things are going to be for the rest of my life? Sitting here, in pain, with a silly habit, lonely and spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair?”

Throughout my education, I was bullied for this habit simply because I act differently. I’d always make sure I would sit at the back of the classroom in an attempt to reduce my anxiety and to prevent people from noticing, but that didn’t stop the bullying. Even some of the teachers thought it was weird. No one knew why I’d sit there rubbing my stomach but I knew why… I was in pain. I already felt “different” being a wheelchair user within a mainstream school and yet this habit just added to my constant anxiety
of feeling “abnormal.” I felt isolated, ashamed and embarrassed.

Even now as a 23 year old, I still do it! A friend of mine notices this habit and every other silly thing I do. For example, we could be in a shop and he’ll ask if I’m all right… because guess what I’m doing without thinking? Yeah, you guessed it.

No one really makes a big deal of it now. Why? Because it’s not a big deal. If anyone ever did say anything, I’ve learned to stick up for myself and say what needs to be said, but people do notice and mention it with some asking, “Are you always hungry or something?” Of course, they notice, it’s something away from the stereotypical “norm” of how people act. But why should this be a problem for them?
I remember a few weeks ago, someone brought up my habit in front of around 30 different people. Five years ago, I’d of been so ashamed and embarrassed that I’d have gone bright red, started sweating and left the room. But something different happened that day. At that moment in time, I no longer felt embarrassed. I openly explained all of this to them. Why was I not embarrassed? Because as I’ve already said, it’s not a big deal. I have this habit that many psychologists have tried to work out and stop me from doing, but why should they? This is personal to me.

Others don’t understand how much anxiety I’m experiencing and how much pain I’m in 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but that’s OK because they don’t need to understand why I do what I do. I know why I do this. I can’t physically stop myself from doing this. I do it when I’m anxious, panicked, happy or sad. It’s a part of me. It doesn’t solve my anxiety, but it’s not hurting anyone, it’s not illegal and actually, it stops me having a massive meltdown in front of people. It’s all to do with the psychological benefits it brings. On the surface, I could be smiling, but deep down, I’m struggling.

My chair gives me the independence my legs have failed to provide me with. The cancer doesn’t define me, the chair doesn’t define me and this silly habit doesn’t define me. It doesn’t make me abnormal either… it’s just another one of Rachel’s “quirky traits.”

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Thinkstock photo by Christophe Bourloton

Originally published: January 7, 2017
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