Coping with “Skin Hunger” in the Coronavirus Age: Entry from an Unwritten Journal

I’ve never written in a journal, despite offering the idea to many patients. Today I write because writing permits expression in the absence of nearness. At this moment, we mustn’t be close to others no matter what we want.

Yet we are the same creatures evolved to be social, to touch and more than touch: to shake hands, hug, embrace, caress, kiss, fondle, and lose ourselves in love and friendship.

We suffer from a pandemic side-effect called Skin Hunger by some, a too familiar, but unspoken condition among us, soon to be known by almost everyone. We have become experimental subjects in an unplanned scientific inquiry.

Still, today offered some small compensation. Here is a morning snapshot without mourning.

I wanted fresh orange juice. I’m lucky in many ways, including a meer 10-minute drive to a store that almost gives it away and a car to get there.

To minimize risk, I arrived early. Really early for those of you who aren’t seniors: at the high-risk age of our world’s coronavirus stage.

I entered at nine-minutes before dawn, a trip on night’s black edge: 6:20 AM.

Few people beat me in. The magic of automatic doors saved me from contact. Then a young woman employee walked by.

“Excuse me. Where are hamburger buns?

If we have them, they’re in aisle four.

I guess “if we have them” has turned into a reflexive response. Shortages because of the terror. I went to get the juice, whose location I knew, then to aisle four. Tons of buns.

One of the automated checkouts was in use, three empty. I completed the errand while maintaining social distance. Mission accomplished! We take our triumphs where we can find them within the constraints of our present moment.

Breakfast. I had a drink of water, then prepared my typical fiber-filled repast: shredded wheat manufactured without sugar, salt, and taste. With bananas today, though I often add blueberries if the price is reasonable.

Then coffee to feel alive. Most seniors require gallons, plus medications. I don’t take many of the latter, but the standard is relative. Friends report back problems and hernias from lifting all the pharmaceuticals they use!

Now for the major event of the day. Ta-da! Walking outside. Almost three miles.

People are friendlier but maintain distance. Almost everyone now waves or says hello, even from across the street.

An outlier on a bike, a woman, widened the footage between us from 15 to 25 feet.

Some folks walked dogs. Physical contact with a loving mammal. Think about it.

I passed modest homes and a few places an old friend compared to the Palace of Versailles. He was exaggerating, of course.

I got to thinking about how COVID-19 might alter our values. We take much for granted: life, health, work, restaurants, etc.

Perhaps, for a while, the condition of our being will be differently admired, differently evaluated, differently appreciated.

The status of simple things is getting a boost, decency among them.

The birds were out and a concert in progress. A legendary symphony conductor, Carlo Maria Giulini, told me he thought this the most beautiful music of all. No disagreement from me. Even the woodpecker with his built-in jackhammer joined the sing-along.

Some folks I know are stunned at the avalanche of bad news. The ones in feathered flight don’t care. Birds chirp, chatter, and sing in their first show of the day. We hear mostly males at that time, hoping to win a female heart and trying to mark their territory.

The scale of their satisfaction is smaller than ours.

Perhaps they offer something worth learning.

34 thoughts on “Coping with “Skin Hunger” in the Coronavirus Age: Entry from an Unwritten Journal

  1. Yes, it’s incredible how our invisible enemy might well alter our values. It has been several years now since I began living a simple, contemplative lifestyle. In our small shared space, there’s no shortage of beautiful plant life and lots of birdsong.

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  2. Still waiting for the helpful advice on coping with skin hunger. I live alone, miss my family but am too afraid to visit them in case I infect them.

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    • It is present in the essay and the previous one, but far from a replacement. If I could provide a fully satisfactory substitute, we would likely need to alter our genetic nature. I only wish I could, Emily. Like you, we can cope and look forward to a time when things are different. Stay safe.

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    • Hi Emily, there is absolutely no substitute for a huge engulfing human hug and it’s soul shredding not to be able to get them on a regular basis – until you can reconnect with your family, try using a weighted blanket, it’s the closest thing to a real hug and it will help you with that emotional longing for touch, try scheduling daily (at a specific time) skype of facetime (or whatever is new at the moment) calls with your family, you can’t touch them but at least you can call them and talk to them, arrange with your family and set aside a specific day for each of you (a roster works well) then on your specific day send your designated family member a small gift via online shopping/delivery, doesn’t have to be expensive and a lot of online places are not charging delivery fees (well where I live they don’t), it just keeps the emotional connect intact while you can’t see them, phone up your local animal rescue center and set up a cuddle session with some lonely dogs or cats, if all else fails phone up a mental health help line and just chat, a warm bubble bath is sensory and helps, so too does hot chocolate with marshmallows or just some gentle exercise or yoga or stretching, like reaching all the way around yourself and wrapping your arms tight around your body – hang in there, this won’t last forever and just think about all those amazing hugs that are just waiting for you, huge big extra special ones

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      • Your response to Emily is wonderful, Rosie. Thank you. Your excellent examples have made explicit some of what I was trying to get at in a more implicit way. We need to engage our senses: touch, sight, smell, taste, and hearing. Listen to the birds sing and other music, look at the natural world, exercise outside if at all possible, talk to people you cannot touch on the phone or using such things as FaceTime, look at photos and great art, garden to get the feel and smell of the earth and the satisfaction of making it grow, smell the burgeoning flowers, cook and eat (savoring each bite, the texture, the taste, and the aroma), feel the texture of your furniture and clothing, etc. We now need our imagination, intellect, capacity for diversion, and all our senses to compensate for the absence of nearness to other people dear to us.

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  3. gb fragmented gumdrops

    Dr. S, I pray that you and your family remain healthy and untouched by this pandemic. Thank you for a very thoughtful post during this very trying time.

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  4. I hope you stay well, too, glb, and thank you for your touching rashes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Dr G – my love language is touch, as a little kid my sticky little starfish fingers and chubby arms were always stretching out to touch and be touched and to hug and to be hugged – until the monsters entered my magical little kingdom and ripped everything apart – my love language is still touch, it is embedded, rooted in my soul compost but trauma and sensory disorders prevent me from filling that cavernous, ravenous hole where my need for touch and strong hugs resides – so no touching, no contact, no connect during this latest crisis, well it’s just same old same old for me, nothing much else to lose I thought but I miss those casual conversations with strangers in supermarket queues, the quick little chats with the gym staff as they scanned my card cause now they have self serve scanners – although being in my own personal hell hole of no touching, I miss that tiny outreach connect, that small daily dose of being reminded that although I feel so totally alone, actually I’m not – we as a society have over the years guiltily, covertly leaned towards social isolation, our lifestyles and social media addictions urging us to limit our connect with others, we deal with the shame of that need in our own ways, then this pandemic rocks up and hands to us on a plate the very public permission that says it’s okay to be isolated and not to interact, go ahead burrow away in your safe spaces, don’t touch, don’t connect, it’s all official and approved – I wonder, when this is all over will we rush out into the street and limpet hug the first person we see or will we hang onto that public permission and take that final evolutionary step into a new culture of no touch, no connect, embrace that era of isolation that has been waiting in the wings for us to give it life and usher it onto our life stages as the new normal we have been so craving in the darkest reaches of our need

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  6. I like what you say about the dawn chorus. Yesterday I walked my dog with a friend and her dog, keeping our social distance on the wide path, and the depth of our conversation caused us to stop momentarily, whereupon we were arrested by the presence right by our heads in the tree beside us, with full blown chest and raised yellow beak: a blackbird singing with all his might. I commented on how he has not a care in the world; he doesn’t have any idea about what Coronavirus is! It was a moment we both enjoyed and the sweet normalcy of it was powerfully good for the soul.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful, LovingSummer. Speaking of trees, the conductor I mentioned (Giulini) was in hiding from the Nazis who occupied a portion of Italy toward the end of World War II. He hid in for nine months, never being able to go outside. When the liberation came the first thing he did was to hug a tree.

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  8. 
    molly brodak
    In the Morning, Before Anything Bad Happens

    The sky is open
    all the way.

    Workers upright on the line
    like spokes.

    I know there is a river somewhere,
    lit, fragrant, golden mist, all that,

    whose irrepressible birds
    can’t believe their luck this morning
    and every morning.

    I let them riot
    in my mind a few minutes more
    before the news comes.

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    • I had no idea of her background until I read today of her suicide, Harvey. A tragedy.

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      • There is a depressive element in her poems that I find appealing in its honesty. Her ‘bank robber’ father lost both parents in the Holocaust.

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      • Yes, that was given some emphasis in the obituary. We must have some contact with the dark side of life to be able to offer anyone help in finding the light. Thanks, Harvey, for introducing me to this writer. Be well.

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  9. Wonderful! Thank you, Harvey. Be well.

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  10. Seems like I’ve been in training for this very moment in time for the past decade. Life right now is actually familiar and not much different from before the virus. Amazingly, while most of the world is feeling disconnected, for the first time in ages, I’m feeling much more connected, much more like I belong. Pathetic but true.

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  11. The hummingbirds and the bees work busily in my garden, occasionally (it feels to me) registering their suprise that there are humans in the garden more often than is usual. It’s amazingly comforting. Be well, Dr. Stein.

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    • Thank you, Nina. Happy to know of the bees in your garden. They are in short supply here. Your surroundings sound delightful.

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  12. If anyone is interested in filling some of all this mandatory “at home” time and perhaps also finding info on how to be happier, Yale is offering a free online class on The Science of Well-Being. The link to learn more about this or to register is below.

    https://www.businessinsider.com/coursera-yale-science-of-wellbeing-free-course-review-overview

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  13. This is so wonderful. Thanks for sharing those bird song video’s, I absolutely love it.

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  14. You are very welcome, Rayne.

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  15. I wore a mask to the grocery store because I am on a biologic for an autoimmune disease, and I found it amusing while hidden behind my mask, to watch the other customers look at me and hurry away as if I had the COVID-19. I am actually enjoying this quiet time at home. I am usually very busy seeing friends and family, plus engaging in community events. My husband and I go for long walks with our cameras and I am learning to shoot landscapes versus the street or band photography I love. My heart goes out to our healthcare workers and first responders, and for the people who are suffering from the effects of this horrible virus and their families.

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    • Yes, the autoimmune problem is extra concerning, but your steps sound appropriate. I assume you are using the N95 type mask. I share both your concern for the first responders, and your admiration for them. Stay safe.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I do have some N95 masks but haven’t used them yet because either testing is spotty in our area, or we do not yet have a huge break-out, so I am hanging onto what I have until the situation worsens. I was wearing a cheap CVS mask which I use when changing the cat’s litter. Hope you and yours stay safe, Dr. Stein. As a side note, the person I had seen twice had never heard of my situation, so I stopped, but was able to locate someone who is well aware of it, and agreed to see me, but this whole virus thing has thrown all plans out the window for now. Hopefully, in time….

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    • My understanding of the other masks is that they may prevent you from spreading disease to others, but don’t protect you from getting the disease from them. Thanks for your good wishes and the same back to you, Nancy.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Just an FYI…The last half of my comment above was in code…hope it wasn’t confusing. It was an update.

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