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Well Tickle Me Injured

August 24, 2009

The fellow who gives me Marma Therapy – we will call him Marma Man – recently offered a fascinating definition of what it means to feel tickled: the experience of an extremely minute degree of pain. The theory is that the body feels a sensation in a particularly sensitive area of the body, and fears the touch will increase to the pain threshold, so it causes us to clench in response, as if we are about to feel something more advanced. It makes sense when you think of what areas tend to be most ticklish: those around the soft tissue of organs, or surrounding major lymphatic intersections – the abdomen, the armpits, the inner thighs and hip joint. Also of note are areas where many major nerve sensors end: though we generally desensitize in our hands over time, you can certainly tickle a baby in their palm, and I know few people who aren’t ticklish in their feet.

I’m interested in this because I’m pretty ticklish, but only in certain areas. I’ve started wondering if these areas, not just physiologically, but emotionally, are where I am most fearful of experiencing pain, or where the memory of painful experiences have centered themselves in my body.

Take my stomach, for instance. (As a yoga teacher I know I should say “belly” because the “stomach” is a small organ to the left of center in my abdominal cavity… but something about the word belly makes me uncomfortable, so stomach it is).  I’ve always had distaste for my stomach. No, I hated my stomach. Now I’ve upgraded to distaste. With more meditation and therapy maybe in like 20 years I’ll upgrade to love.  Anyway. It was a serious source of emotional pain for me growing up. I remember in my most self hating times – probably around early puberty – going to bed and praying when I woke up the rolls of fat around my mid-section would be gone. I remember sobbing as I somewhat violently gripped at the flesh, willing it away through tears. (Meanwhile, was I exercising or changing my eating habits? Yeah not so much…self hate is pretty stellar at setting up the conditions to allow it to thrive).

Unless the touch is from someone with whom I am already intimately involved, I tend to shirk away quickly from any hands headed there.  I’ve certainly gotten better over the years – abdominal palpation used to be practically out of the question at my annual physical – but it’s still a weak spot.

Similarly, I can’t stand to be touched on my knees.  My legs were also a source of struggle through my childhood.  Though I was less disgusted with them visually as I was my core, because I have bone structure problems from my pelvis down to my ankles, I was unable to participate in sports with any impact, had to wear specially made hard orthopedic insoles, and suffered from chronic shin splints and joint pain.  In addition to memories of plain old physical pain, I think ticklish contact with my legs brings up old, stored memories of inadequacy: the feeling of being the fat kid sitting at the side of the gym doing her homework while everyone else played kick ball.

I do wonder if there will ever come a person in my life whose touch doesn’t “hurt” no matter where it is.  Or maybe it’s not a person, it’s just a matter of time and healing.

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