The pandemic has a profound effect on all five senses. Some who have the virus lose the ability to smell or taste. We all see images of crowded hospitals, body bags, lonely funerals without mourners. We hear a new urban soundtrack where traffic is muted and sirens scream through the stillness.
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 people are missing and how they're coping.
A hug is grounding...
"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 his 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.
I'm spending way too much time cocooned up
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."
My love life is not bustling during normal times
"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."
It feels "too robotic"
"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, California; 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.