What’s a Hugger To Do When a Hugger Can’t Hug?

I am an overwhelmingly tactile person. Touch is my primary love language. I grew up in a huggy-kissy-touchy-feely family. No one left or entered our home without a hug. My parents modeled affection in their marriage, with my sister and me and with extended family and friends.  As I grew up, I had that same kind of experience among my friends. In my teens, I was in a youth group. On weekend retreats, we would hang out in puppy piles. Every romantic relationship I was in, had abundant touch as a highlight.

In 2005, I discovered a workshop called Cuddle Party which is about communication, boundary setting, and safe, nurturing, platonic touch by consent. By early 2006, I was a certified facilitator. It became one of my greatest joys as I estimate that by now, I have facilitated over 400 of them and have cuddled thousands of people. It meets important skin hunger needs that we humans have.

Nine years later on Valentine’s Day weekend 2014, I gathered a group of friends for a free hugs flash mob at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. In an hour, we estimated that we hugged 200 people from all over the world as they arrived and departed. Laughter and delight ensued and I would like to think that they carried the energy with them into their daily lives and told the story about these bold folks who offered hugs to strangers. Thus was born Hugmobsters Armed With Love. It evolved into a regular activity for me, following a heart attack on June 12, 2014. As part of my cardiac rehab, I walked around Doylestown, PA and it occurred to me to combine hugging with walking. A friend had a sign created with the image of a heart with arms at its center. In the interceding six years, I have taken it on the road, sometimes solo and sometimes with friends. People in PA, NJ, DE, NY, OR, VA, DC, Canada, and Ireland accepted hugs from the Mutha Hugger, as a friend refers to me.

What was exciting was that at the end of last year, cascading media coverage occurred. Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Intelligencer, Courier-Times, KYW News Radio, and NPR were among the outlets. Some of the articles were syndicated and went all over the world. My head was spinning (in a good way) at all the publicity. I had pitched Ellen and The Today Show with the idea that hugs save lives.

Then came COVID-19 and it all came to a screeching halt, leaving skid marks in its wake.  I canceled two Cuddle Party workshops and a few hug events. Now in week eight, I have not hugged another human being. Yes, I hug myself often throughout the day and have embraced a few trees. I offer virtual hugs to family and friends when I see them from an appropriate distance. I offer them still to strangers on the street. An encounter yesterday made my day. While I was out on my driveway, a neighbor came by walking his two little dogs. He asked, “Are you the hugger?” He had seen my car with an Arms Are For Hugging bumper sticker. I told him I was and he said he had wanted a hug from me before when he had walked past over the years. We did a virtual hug in the street. We were talking about how hugs are heart-healthy. An admission is that my hugging activities are not purely altruistic. Hugs are shared, not just given, and received. The truth is, I miss them. I miss the heart to heart contact with other living, breathing beings. Last weekend I had the joy of snuggling with my cousin’s dog when I sat in her back yard for a catch-up. It felt good but it isn’t the same. I have no clue when I will again hug a person. Those who know me well, send empathetic messages, knowing how hard this is for me.

What I do to take care of myself includes the aforementioned self hugs, wrapping up in fuzzy blankets, self-massage, heating pad, and sleeping with teddy bears. I know that last one might sound silly for a 61-year-old woman, but ya gotta make do with what ya got. I encourage those who are quarantined with family or friends to hug them for those of us who are on our own.

I envision a time when we will once again be able to open our arms even as we are now just opening our hearts to each other.

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Image courtesy of the author.