Thursday, 18 Aug 2022

Could You Hug Me Longer, Please? Reclaiming Touch & Intimacy as a Black Woman With Long COVID

I texted, “So if I show up to the theater five minutes early, would you greet me with a long hug?”

He replied, “…absolutely I would.”

Standing at the entrance of the movie theater, I thought of the question I posed to Bryan on a popular dating site after we decided we would meet. 

Did I seem too desperate? What would hugging him feel like? Would he smell nice? Would it feel awkward? Would I ever let go?

I hadn’t seen Bryan since 2013, when we shared an awkward dinner at Applebee’s. And before that in 2006 when we met via MySpace. We had tried to date but never quite made it past the initial stages of just hanging out. The timing never seemed quite right. There were no sparks or butterflies. No romantic gestures or promises of forever. Yet, I had always been fond of him. He was handsome, funny, clever, and hard-working. 

I invited him to the movies since we shared a love for all things Marvel. And a friendly day date would be a fun reason to leave my house for a few hours. Hugging him seemed like an appropriate gesture after not seeing him for so long. 

But asking him for a five minute hug was completely out of my comfort zone.  

Like the rest of the world, I’ve lived through a pandemic, struggling against the current of initially feeling relieved not to have as much contact with the outside world. As an introvert, for the first few weeks of the pandemic, it felt like my birthday every day. Those feelings quickly turned into sadness at not having as much physical intimacy with those I loved. Many of us struggled to physically and emotionally connect because we’ve been disconnected from our family, friends, and coworkers for over two years. 

But I wasn’t like other women Bryan had dated. 

Unlike many single women I knew, I hadn’t spent the last two years working from home, reconnecting with family or friends through social media, or cautiously dating virtually. I had spent 15 long, cruel months in my bedroom in the basement, locked away like a prisoner. 

I am living with Long COVID, the long-term effects of COVID affecting up to 30 percent of Americans. Becoming sick with the virus in March 2020, my body has never fully recovered from the trauma of being so ill. For nearly a year and a half, I saw only doctors, nurses, and occasionally my godmother, who also doubled as my saintly caretaker.

For over a year, I ate very little and moved even less. Without a fall or punch, my body and brain were broken. I was forced to leave my teaching career and am now disabled. COVID left me with occipital neuralgia  —  painful nerve inflammation that affects the brain, back, neck, and spine  —  and a dense cataract that required surgery at the age of 38. I also still suffer with severe depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation.

“I especially craved a romantic partner to take me into their arms to assure me that the worst of my illness was over, even if neither of us could know for sure.”

While hearing voices alone in my room and experiencing fainting spells, I could not fathom dating again. As a first waver who had gotten sick during the first few months of the pandemic, saving my life from the then unknown terrors of Long COVID consumed much of my time.

I wanted to be embraced by everyone. I even longed for family members I didn’t see or hug often. As I started to slowly improve, my cousin and aunt visited me. But we had all made pacts not to touch each other. They sat across from me, sharing encouragement and stories of survival, yet could not offer any pats on the back of understanding.

It wasn’t until I was able to watch full-length television shows or movies  —  nearly a year later  —  with characters who often kissed or caressed, that I recalled the feeling of someone wanting to touch me in that way. I missed being embraced, cuddled, and smothered in kisses just because.

I especially craved a romantic partner to take me into their arms to assure me that the worst of my illness was over, even if neither of us could know for sure. 

Articulating what I needed and wanted was easier said than done. My body and nervous system has been in fight or flight for so long, making it extremely difficult to know what I needed, from whom, and how. 

One day, while sharing my confusing thoughts and feelings with my therapist, she made a simple statement: “What you need is physical intimacy. To be touched, loved, and held. You’ve essentially gone nearly two years without any of this. Any future romantic partner will have to offer you this as you recover.” 

I knew there was some truth to what she said. Our relationship, spanning over four years, had evolved past saccharine sweet epithets: she had my permission to share even the most painful truths with me. Even at my most ill, I paid for therapy sessions, keeping almost every appointment with her since my early days battling COVID. Processing the racism, sexism, and guilt, and shame I experienced as a Black woman living with a newly-recognized chronic illness became a greater priority than being cured.

That didn’t stop me from giving her a familiar look shared only among Black girls and women— my raised right brow, eye roll, supported by an even more pronounced neck roll, and that proverbial teeth sucking.

“You know I don’t ask for that kind of stuff. I’ve never had to. What do I look like — asking for someone to touch me?”

I was from the school of Black women who didn’t waste time asking for what we needed. The world either gave it to us or didn’t. Being a fairly attractive woman meant potential partners usually wanted to drown me with hugs, kisses and sex. I didn’t ever have to ask for any of these.

I had also never nearly died from a virus either.

“Well, let’s explore this. Consider allowing your functional adult to get what she wants. Asking directly, with compassion and grace, may get your physical and emotional needs met. Or you could try it the way you’ve been doing things. How’s that been working out for you?”

I chuckled, knowing that she had enough experience with the latter to boldly make such a statement. While many of my most precious love relationships began so passionately, they all ended the same way — with each partner blaming my temperament and insecurity as reasons they walked away. I had even lost a boyfriend at the height of my illness. My anger, possessiveness and inability to ask for what I needed in a responsible way ruined our relationship far more than COVID ever could.

“I was from the school of Black women who didn’t waste time asking for what we needed. The world either gave it to us or didn’t.”

She went on to share that she believed that my feelings of worthlessness and fear had kept me from speaking those words aloud. We also both noted that my health battles had been at the forefront of my mind for so long that honoring my need for romantic affection seemed like a small thing that didn’t require my attention — or anyone else’s.

As a child, I never believed anyone wanted to just give me anything. So I often behaved like a child, well into my late 30s. Protesting was usually how I got whatever I wanted from people I dated — pouting, offering silent treatments for days and weeks, and passive-aggressive behavior were my keys to relational success. Until two years of being sick and alone made me see everything — including myself — so clearly that avoiding me and how I treated people I claimed to love were no longer options I could afford to choose.

Taking my therapist’s advice came with a price. One I didn’t know if I wanted to pay.

I tried dating as my body and mind slowly recovered. I found that even while honestly expressing my needs, many potential partners could not handle the depth of my transparency. I learned quickly that actually asking them to touch me more or to talk with me about my feelings felt too much like work to them. They either wanted to immediately have sex without communication or could not offer me the affection I desired. And that often left me discouraged.

Bryan seemed harmless. Our long history did make me a little more comfortable. Although I was still afraid of his response after asking him to hug me longer, I knew that the best way to begin anything with him was to stay curious about what he felt comfortable offering while still honoring what was important to me. 

I didn’t know if he even wanted to hug anyone during the pandemic and in the age of consent, I wanted to be sure to respect any of his physical boundaries. 

I decided to forgo my expectations of what he should have said as he responded to my request. I simply asked for what I wanted and needed. I explained how my illness had shut me off from the rest of the world for so long that all I wanted was a nice, long hug to welcome me back. And he obliged. He responded so quickly that I thought he sped by the question. His agreement affirmed that I made the right decision in asking. 

We did not hug for those five minutes before the movie started. Bryan and I struggled to locate each other so we had to rush to secure snacks and our seats — something we laugh about today.

But he did something far greater as we settled in our seats, chatting about what we each had been up to since 2013. He took his hand, placing it on my left knee so gently, and began caressing it. 

My throat tightened and my heart beat wildly under my sweater. I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, or run away. I spent so long wishing someone would reach for me this way that I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. All of it felt surreal and dizzying as I also considered that it was Bryan doing the touching. 

I sank into comfort and excitement at his soft touch. It all felt so natural yet terrifying. This was new for me after two years without any affection. It was also a new undertaking for us because we had never explored this level of intimacy before. 

It’s been nearly 16 years since we first met. And Bryan is now my boyfriend.

When he comes over to my apartment, there is no question how we’ll greet each other: We hug for as long as we want, kiss, and race to sit on my couch so that we can hold and touch each other more.

He touches my knee. I hold his face in my hands. He puts his arms around me while we binge anything on Netflix. I bring him closer to my neck while he’s telling one of his terrible Dad jokes.

On a recent trip to the grocery store, I made it clear to him I was independent and capable enough to purchase my own food for an upcoming Maryland snow storm. His reply was playfully pulling me into him in the bread aisle, smothering me with masked kisses. I pretended to protest but I secretly loved how he never seemed to get enough of me.

He shows me with every hug and touch that he chooses me and understands how much I need this type of affection. He’s never questioned or rejected it. It’s what he enjoys and wants, too.

It’s still somewhat difficult to actually ask him for more kisses and cuddles. Or for anything. Sometimes, I want to revert to old habits and behaviors. But at almost 40, I figure it’s time to shed what hasn’t been effective, in favor of what’s working for me. And my new relationship.

After nearly dying from COVID, it feels good to finally ask for what I want — and actually get it. I can’t imagine not having Bryan in my life as I continue to make sense of everything — post-COVID. 

I am also leaning into the idea that expressing our need for safe, physical affection from those we love is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s what we all need. 

It’s what I deserve.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org, or text “START” to 741-741 to immediately speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line

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