On the memory of touch in the time of social distancing - part one.

Leonora Oppenheim
7 min readMar 28, 2020


Being told off and then being comforted by my mother.

‘We can’t run over and give big hugs.’

I am watching the screen and copying the teacher’s movements. Using my fingertips, I lightly brush the skin of my arm in one direction, towards the heart. I see similar movements happening across all the other thumbnail windows, which give me a view into people’s homes around the world. While I continue to sweep my fingers from my knuckles to my collar bone, I look down at the counter. It tells me there are 61 people online in this session, 61 people brushing their arms together, in this moment, on this morning.

This is an experience of physical touch in the time of social distancing. It is Thursday morning and I am taking part in a Body-Mind Centering class via, the online meeting platform of the moment, Zoom. A piece of software, once primarily used by the corporate sector for remote business meetings, that has been adopted with gusto by anyone and everyone who wants to create communal space in our current state of global lockdown. The highly contagious Covid-19 Coronavirus keeping us humans physically separated right now means, while I sit in self-isolation worrying about the health of friends, family and frankly the whole human race, I keep thinking about the memory of touch.

My mind is on a loop, taking me back to childhood, no doubt searching for soothing memories during this anxious time. I see the same image over and over. I’m lying in bed refusing to sleep, my mother sits patiently on the edge of my bed stroking my back and speaking softly to me, trying to calm me down to the point where I can let go and drift off into dreams. I can feel her warm fingers repeatedly brushing downwards from my neck to small of my back. I hated going to sleep as a child, possibly because I was afraid of missing out on anything happening in the adult world without me.

My mother suffered often with terrible migraines that would lay her out for days at a time. This situation made me a very watchful child. I deluded myself into thinking I was my mother’s sole carer. This was patently untrue. Over the years of my childhood my father was present, we had a steady rotation of au pairs looking after us children, and my mother had a steady rotation of doctors, looking after her.

Being the eldest child, I felt I had to look after everyone during her bouts of illness. I took it upon myself to reverse the mother-daughter roles. I would be the one sushing my siblings and keeping them out of my mother’s darkened room. I ran, busily but quietly, up and down the stairs with cold flannels and ice packs to cool my mother’s head. I can feel the cool plastic of the ice mask in my hands now and the sharp ice crystals of the freezer walls scratching against my fingers when I pull it out. I can feel the texture of the waffled tea towel I am wrapping it up in. I can feel her hot skin as I place it gently on her forehead. And I can feel her large hand in mine as I sit with her in the shadows. She twitching with tension; me praying, to some hazy unknown entity, that she won’t die from the pain.

This routine was a regular occurrence, every few months or so, throughout my childhood. Even when my mother was well, and our roles reverted back to the natural order of things, where she was the one sitting on my bed soothing me, I still didn’t want to go to sleep in case anything happened to her. I found it hard to let go. The only thing that worked was her stroking my back. I was thankful she was with me, knowing that she might be gone again at any moment. I was reassured by her calm voice, but it was the feeling of her fingertips brushing my skin that allowed me to relax enough to go to sleep.

I have been learning about the nervous system and touch. Did you know that babies who are not held skin to skin in their earliest days outside the womb struggle with developmental issues. Skin to skin contact is fundamental to the healthy functioning of the systems in the human body. The neuroscientist David J. Linden writes about this in his book Touch — the science of the sense that makes us human. ‘Severely touch-deprived infants and preemies have a broad range of developmental problems, ranging from impaired growth, increased vomiting, and compromised immune system function to slowed cognitive and motor development and the emergence of attachment disorders.’

As a single woman, currently living on my own, I am acutely aware of the lack of skin to skin contact in my life. Or even just body to body contact. A hug to me is a lifeline. A moment of physical connection that can illuminate my entire day. Linden writes in his introduction about the challenges kids face growing up in a “touch-phobic environment”, due to fears of inappropriate and predatory touch. The following paragraph, in my view, seems vital to the repercussions of our current physical isolation.

‘You may ask, “Okay, I understand that kids are sensitive, but once we’ve become adults why does it matter if we’re touch-deprived? This touchy-feely stuff is for hippies and time wasters. Just squirt another glob of hand sanitizer (with that deeply satisfying blorp sound) and get back to work.” The answer is that interpersonal touch is a crucial form of social glue. It can bind sexual partners into lasting couples. It reinforces bonds between parents and their children and between siblings. It connects people in the community and in the workplace, fostering emotions of gratitude, sympathy and trust. People who are gently touched by a server in a restaurant tend to leave larger tips. Doctors who touch their patients are rated as more caring, and their patients have reduced stress-hormone levels and better medical outcomes.’

In the recent days and weeks leading up to the lockdown, when I saw someone I would ordinarily hug in greeting, I spread my arms outwards in a dramatic curve in front of my body as though I was moving in for a big ol’ bear hug, but I did not step forward, I remained frozen on the spot telegraphing my friend or family member with my eyes to stay back. There we stood, awkwardly grinning at each other with arms outstretched ready to make contact but knowing we would not. The first few times I did this people laughed at me and my overly cautious actions. Most people a few weeks ago thought I was being dramatic. But that watchful child with a chronically ill mother has, unsurprisingly, turned into a hypervigilant adult with a healthy dose of hypochondria.

I had been paying close attention to what was happening in China and I was watching the virus spread quickly across the world to our shores. We need to get ahead of this, I kept thinking. We NEED to get ahead of this. We can see what’s happening, right? We can all see what’s happening! No, it turns out not everybody can. Perhaps not everyone was willing to see. I am aware that I read a lot of news, think pieces and twitter. My hypervigilance drives me to constantly input information into my brain as a coping mechanism. It is, frankly, an illusion of control, just like my childhood notion that I was in charge of my family. If I know what’s going on, I think I can manage it all. Oh that poor frightened child, she’s very much still alive in me now.

In the last few weeks it has gradually dawned on me that, actually, the majority of people don’t pay attention to the news, let alone the rest of the online content I’ve been mainlining. To be fair, most have much busier and more high-pressure lives than mine. They could not see what was coming and that terrified me. So I began inputting even more information, as if I could make up some shortfall in others’ awareness. Futile. All futile.

As the days whizz by, they always go faster the more I put in my head, I am becoming uncomfortable with how little I am doing. How unproductive I am. Today I saw the writer Johann Hari tweet about the state of hypervigilance. He says. “We are living in the middle of a bear attack. If you’re feeling hypervigilant, don’t reproach yourself. It’s natural that we all have frayed attention spans right now.”

I have a short attention span right now, and I’m sure you have a short attention span right now. So, whoever has read down this far deserves some applause! To retain an inkling of sanity during this time I’ve decided to write as regularly as possible about memories of touch in the age of social distancing. This might be every day, it might be once a week. It might be long, it might be short. But, if I start synthesising some of my spiralling thoughts into sentences and structured paragraphs, I know it will make me feel better.

For me, there are two keys to surviving social distancing. First, I must balance informational input with creative output to maintain my mental health. Second, now more than ever, I must keep coming back to being fully present in my body through an embodied practice. There are so many ways to numb out and abandon ourselves during this time of crisis, but equally there are so many ways to stay in touch with ourselves and perhaps be ambitious enough to go even deeper within than usual.

I will also be asking friends and anyone following me on social media platforms to contribute their experiences to this little project. It would be wonderful if we could create a conversation together about our collective memories of touch and connection. If you would like to share a story, a memory, a sensation, a longing with me, please tweet me @Leonora_O.

Until the next time, here are my arms outstretched, frozen in the moment before I lean all the way in for a big ol’ bear hug.

Stay in touch,


Note from a friend on 28.03.20 :

I really miss…

‘Cuddling up with my nieces! It’s hard when we see them out in the village and we can’t run over and give big hugs.’



Leonora Oppenheim

Visual artist & narrative designer. Body as a research tool — movement & mark-making.