Author: dan

Snuggling as Mutual Care

1. Two Opening Quotations

Lilla Waston, an Indigenous Elder from Australia, says this: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Similarly, Eduardo Galeano, a famous writer from Uruguay, writes: “I don’t believe in charity; I believe in solidarity. Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating.  It goes from top to bottom.  Solidarity is horizontal.  It respects the other and learns from the other.  I have a lot to learn from other people.”

I have often thought about these words and how they relate to our efforts to be in caring relationships with one another.  They point out some of what I think is wrong with standard professional models of care and also highlight part of why snuggle therapy is such a great alternative.  Let me explain why in a little more detail.

2. Hierarchical (Imbalanced) Models of Care

A hierarchical model of care.

A hierarchical model of care.

Over my years working with people experiencing homelessness, poverty, oppression and various forms of marginalization, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with institutional and therapeutic models of care that are premised upon hierarchical relationships with deeply embedded imbalances of power.  Yet almost all of the contexts in which therapy or care take place take this for granted.  Not only that – they require that the care providers have considerably more power than the people seeking care.  This is as true in institutional settings (like hospitals, homeless shelters, or drop-ins) as it is in more therapeutic environments (like rehabilitations centres or meeting with a counselor or therapist of some sort).  Let’s briefly look in a little more detail at how a few of these imbalanced hierarchal relationships operate.

In the hospital, the medical team, centred around the doctors, has intimate knowledge of the history of the patient, if the patient has healthy or unhealthy habits, what the patient’s family medical history is, if the patient struggles with using any particular substances (like alcohol or illicit drugs), what medications the patien is taking, and can also become as intimately familiar with the naked body (or the insides of the body) of the patient as is deemed necessary for treatment.  The team, especially the doctors, can also come and go as they please through various locked doors in the hospital and can pull up patient information on password protected computers.  The patient, on the other hand, has little to no knowledge of the doctor or the rest of the team, cannot come and go as desired, and cannot access information off of the computers.  And if the patient so much as tried to touch the doctor (with a finger or a scalpel) in ways that the doctor can touch the patient, then assault charges would probably follow very quickly.  Hence, the doctors have considerable knowledge, no only about illnesses and cures, but also about the patient and have considerable power over the body of the patient and within the environment in which care takes place.  The patient on the other hand, lacks knowledge not only of the doctor but also of him- or her- or nemself.  The patient also has no power over the environment in which care takes place.  What the patient should do – if the patient is to be designated a “good patient” – is follow the doctor’s order and express gratitude for the care received.  If a patient is labelled as non-compliant (i.e. a “bad patient”), care can be terminated and the patient can be ejected from the environment.

Similarly, in homeless shelters – another institutional environment – the social workers, case managers, and community support workers all have considerable access to knowledge regarding the lives of the clients (certain services require clients to complete very comprehensive surveys that ask questions about everything from experiences of abuse as a child to one’s current level of satisfaction with one’s sex life).  These questions are incredibly invasive, yet taken for granted.  This is the case, even though completing such surveys can take quite a toll upon the client (for example, it’s not uncommon for clients to relapse or binge-use on alcohol or their drug of choice after completing the standardized admissions survey for rehabilitation centres in Ontario; the questions are extremely intimate and usually bring up past traumas and incredibly painful memories – and drugs and alcohol were a large part of how the client had been coping with those traumas and memories, so being forced to relive these things is often a factor in a lapse or relapse).  On the other hand, workers are told not to share details of their personal lives with clients.  So workers gain very intimate knowledge of clients but clients gain only superficial knowledge of workers.  Similarly, on the level of power, workers wield great power over clients.  Not only can they access rooms and files and computer systems that clients cannot access – they also have the ability to ban or bar or suspend clients from the shelter program if they decide the client is too non-compliant or threatening.  Hence, given that folks stay in homeless shelters when they have nowhere else to go, the worker has the power to make the client homeless.  The client, of course, has no such power over the worker.

Lastly, even in more therapeutic settings, these power and knowledge imbalances are in play.  When speaking with one’s therapist it is not unusual to talk about one’s sex life or sexual fantasies (to pick just one example) but it is certainly considered improper to try and turn the conversation around to the sex life or fantasies of the therapist.  Furthermore, the therapist knows where the client lives (listing your address is part of the application for therapy) but, with the exception of those who operate private practices out of their homes, clients are forbidden from knowing where their therapist lives.  And, of course, the therapist can choose to end sessions at any time regardless of the wishes of the client (who can also end sessions, unless they are ordered by a court of law, but the client’s choice to end sessions does not have the same impact on the therapist as the therapist’s choice to end sessions can have on the client).

Now, of course, there are many reasons why these imbalanced power hierarchies are structured into environments where care occurs.  Many of these reasons are good reasons that exist to protect not only care-providers but also to protect those seeking care.  I understand this… even though I often feel like this is playing to the lowest common denominator (i.e. allowing the least capable or least appropriate care-providers to define how the context of care can be structured, rather than structuring the environment in such a way as to ensure all workers are capable of providing excellent care).

3. Problems with Hierarchical Models of Care

However, there are several negative consequences to this way of structuring care provision.  I will name only a few.  First of all, there is the problem that hierarchies of power create spaces where some people are more than other people.  This happens even if the most egalitarian rhetoric is used.  Even if workers are always saying, “we’re all equal,” “everyone matters just as much as everyone else,” or “we don’t bring labels in here, we’re all just people” the actual practices of the environment show that this is not the case.  Equality is questionable in an environment where people don’t have equal access to knowledge of one another and where some people have the ability to terminate the care being provided to other people.

Secondly, in a situation of care where some people are more and some people are less, the provision of care inevitably ends up being tainted with something like condescension or paternalism.  Those with more stoop down to help up those with less.  Those with more are above.  Those with less are below.  This is not mutual aid – it is care provided by superiors to inferiors.  Of course, many care providers would object to this and claim that they do not ever intend to treat people in that way – but the intentions of the care providers in this case are overwhelmed by the context in which care takes place.  The context transforms their efforts to care into condescending paternalism regardless of their intentions.

Thirdly, this is reinforced by the one-sidedness of the care that is provided.  Care always flows one way in all of these situations – from the doctor or social worker or therapist to the patient or client or consumer.  This is so deeply structured into these environments of care that it is often improper (and against the rules in some settings) for care providers to except gifts as tokens of gratitude from the people who received care that was meaningful to them.  A worker in a homeless shelter is generally forbidden from accepting a thank you gift from a person who found a job or place to live with the assistance of that worker.  Now, again, I understand why this is the case, but one of the outworkings of this is that the people receiving care have feelings of insignificance and dehumanization reinforced.  They are so far less than human (or less than “normal people”) that they are not even permitted to give gifts to others.

4. An Alternative: Snuggling as Mutual Care

Cuddling-Kittens

Where is the hierarchy here?

Now, I mention all of this because I think it highlights something that is particularly unique and important about snuggle therapy.  Snuggle therapy, more than any of these other contexts, resists hierarchical models of care and institutes a therapy that is based upon mutuality, mutual giving and mutual receiving.  Part of what is wonderful about snuggling and its therapeutic benefits is that it really does require two (or more) people coming together to make it happen.  The goodness of snuggling isn’t rooted in one person (say me, the “professional snuggler”) and then transferred to the other person.  Not at all!  Rather, the goodness of snuggling is something that is created when both parties come together and touch each other in a safe, platonic, affectionate manner.  When this kind of touch takes place, neither party can take credit for all the benefits that flow from it.  Both parties are being equally vulnerable, both parties are being equally intimate, and both parties are giving and receiving.  This is not a hierarchical, condescending, or paternalistic model of care – it is a much more properly egalitarian model of mutual care. It’s hard to feel superior or inferior to another person when cuddled up together in bed or on a coach or in a pillow fort.  And when it’s hard to feel that way what is it easier to feel?  It’s easier to feel lovely.  It’s easier to feel beloved.  It feels easier to feel like a good and wonderful human being in the presence of another good and wonderful human being – both of whom take joy in giving and receiving love.  Snuggling, in other words, has a lot more to do with solidarity than it has to do with charity.  Instead of being a one-sided form of helping, it recognizes that our liberation from the things that weigh upon us as individuals is found in us collectively working together.  Snuggling genuinely recognizes the agency, humanity, and dignity, of all the parties involved .  And it recognizes that when people come together and relate to one another in that way, wonderful things can happen.

Where Words Fail, Hugs Work

There is a story told by Henri Nouwen that I want to share here because I think it communicates a lot of what I believe happens in Snuggle Therapy as I practice it.  But first a bit about Henri Nouwen.

Henri was a well respected scholar and author who taught at top American Universities — Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  However, he became increasingly discontent with the academic environment and felt he needed to make some serious life changes.  After going to spend some time in Peru living with people experiencing poverty there,  he ended up moving into the L’Arche Daybreak community just north of Toronto and that is where he ended up living out his life.  The L’Arche communities, by the way, were communities founded by Jean Vanier where more able-bodied or able-minded people lived in community with people who were differently-abled or disabled.  It was in this community of people — where all of his academic credentials counted as nothing and where no one had read (or cared about) any of his books — that Henri began to truly understand the truth of his own belovedness.  He has written about this quite a lot in books that were very formative in my own development.  His writings helped me to give language to my own experiences as I transitioned from being a child who was overwhelmed by fear, self doubt, shame, and self-loathing, to being a young man who felt assured of his own belovedness.  The story I want to tell now is from his book, Life of the Beloved.

While living at L’Arche, Henri served as a priest within the community.  One day, a woman named Janet from the community asked him for a blessing.  Without thinking much, Henri made the sign of the cross over her and said a few spiritual words.  But Janet protested quite vocally:

No, that doesn’t work.  I want a real blessing!

So Henri apologized and promised her a real blessing after the service.

When the service ended, Henri announced that Janet wanted a special blessing.  As he made this announcement, Janet rose, walked towards him, and embraced him.   What did Henri do?  He hugged her back and as he hugged her, her told her she was special, and loved, and beautiful, and a gift to the others around her.  It was a wonderful moment.  And the others present realized something special was, in fact, happening.  After Janet was done with her blessing, another person in the group put up her hand and said:

I want a blessing, too.

Before long, most everyone — including a 24 year old student who was assisting Henri with the service — had come forward to share a hug and some tender words with Henri.  Many responding with words of thanks and tears in their eyes.

I think this story helps us to see the power of platonic, affectionate touch.  All too often, words are weak and do not accomplish what we want them to do.  People can tell us that we are lovely, people can tell us that we are special, they can speak words of blessing over us, but unless they show us, unless we experience our belovedness with our bodies, we have trouble connecting with those words or experiencing them in a meaningful way.  What Henri said to Janet connected with her as a special blessing because he held her while he said it.  This fits with the message I have heard over and over again in my career working with folks from marginalized populations — don’t just say you care about us; show us, in tangible ways that matter to us, that you care about us (after all, love is an action not just a word or a feeling!).  Over the years, I learned many ways to show people their loveliness, but I remain convinced that few things communicate this so powerfully, especially to those struggling with loneliness, as a hug or a snuggle.

It is precisely this experience of being held (while we are affirmed as lovely and so forth) that so many of us are missing.  Perhaps we have people in our lives we tell us we matter or that we are special or loved or gifted — perhaps a parent, or boss, or mentor, or counselor says these things to us — or perhaps we have no one, but these words come to us from a distance and so they don’t manage to put down roots in us.  However, when we experience this message in the way our bodies are held and cuddled and hugged and comforted, then the words do begin to make sense and impact the ways in which we understand ourselves.  In other words, what we want aren’t just platitudes and ritualistic comforting words, what we all want is a real blessing.  We can be that real blessing for one another.

Why Nonsexual Touch is So Important to Snuggle Therapy

Since launching London Snuggle Therapy, some of the people who have contacted me have made it clear that they are looking for a form of sexualized physical contact.  Although I have consistently emphasized that snuggle therapy is a form of therapeutic, platonic, non-sexual, affectionate touch, it seems that some people do not believe that this kind of touch is possible.  This provides a clear illustration of the research I have mentioned elsewhere: we live in a touch deprived culture where the primary ways in which we experience touch are through sex or violence or some combination of the two.  Many folks are so deeply immersed in this culture that something like nonsexual affectionate touch appears to be unimaginable.  They simply don’t believe me when I tell them that Snuggle Therapy is nonsexual and several have been baffled by me turning them away.

This makes me sad.  A large part of the reason why I created London Snuggle Therapy was to try and contribute to a world where we spend more time caring about one another simply because we are all people who are worthy of being cared for.  It is sad to be reminded that sometimes people are more interested in objectifying, using, and disposing of others for their own gratification.  But I don’t mean to complain – after all, I reckon nearly all women (and an increasingly large number of men) are reminded of this on a daily basis as they negotiate the sexual violence that is inherent to our culture.  Instead, what I would like to do is reiterate why it is so important to snuggle therapy that the kind of touch shared between the two parties remain nonsexual.

At the core of snuggle therapy as I understand and practice it, is the desire to communicate to other people that they possess an inherent dignity, beauty, worth, and loveliness.  It is a way of not only telling people but of showing people that they are beloved.  From our childhoods onwards we tend to find things more convincing when we are shown them rather than when we are simply told them – this is part of what makes snuggle therapy so powerful.  I am not simply saying to other people, “you are lovely,” I am showing this to other people by holding them in a way that communicates this much more deeply than words usually do.  In my own experience, this is where true personal transformation takes place – once I go from viewing myself as conditionally valuable (“I have worth because I’m good at my job,” “I have value because I’m good looking,” “people like me because I’m funny,” that sort of thing) or from viewing myself as having no value (“I’m worthless,” “I’m ugly,” “if people really knew me they would not like me” and so on), to viewing myself as someone who is, at my core, beloved, then   everything begins to change.  Life itself changes and I begin to experience it in new and exciting ways – ways that I didn’t think possible or thought were too good to be true.  I know this because this has been my own experience with love and with knowing myself as beloved, and I have seen the impact it can have on others.

However, and this is part of what makes it difficult for people to believe in Snuggle Therapy, the majority of women in Canada and a very high number of men, have experienced sexual violence.  In the majority of those situations, the sexual violence was enacted by an assailant who first gained the trust of the person who was assaulted.  In other words, we have a large number of men who are telling women and children that they love them and that they are special – only to then sexually exploit and violate them when these men think they can get away with doing so.  This often has a devastating traumatic impact leading to a shattering of trust and a loss of one’s sense of safety. It can also fracture a person’s identity leading to a crisis related to one’s own sense of self-worth (“Am I really lovely or am I just good for sexually gratifying men?”).

Consequently, I think we can now see why it is so critical that the form of touch that is shared in snuggle therapy remain nonsexual and platonic.  To experience therapeutic, affectionate touch in a safe way requires that the touch remain nonsexual (I’m not saying that this has to be the case for all touch that you experience in your life – sexual touch, when performed between legitimately consenting adults can also be wonderful and therapeutic – but I’m a Professional Snuggler, not a boyfriend or a sex therapist so that falls outside of the domain of London Snuggle Therapy!).  To sexualize the touch would be to completely undermine and counteract this message and to return to reinforcing messages that say things like, “we are only valuable to the extent to which we stimulate and gratify sexual desires in others.”  The nonsexual nature of the touch that is shared is critical to communicate to people that they matter, that they are special, and that they are lovely, simply because they are who they are.

Three Stories about Becoming a Professional Snuggler

First Story

A few years ago, I was speaking with a friend who is in her mid-fifties and she was reflecting on being single after thirty years of a not very good or safe marriage.  She said that many of her friends were unhappily married for a lot of years but are now enjoying their new lives free of the anxiety and violence that they experienced in their marriages.  Then she said something that really caught my ear: “None of us are really looking to be in a relationship again — we did that already for years and it didn’t go so well — and most of us aren’t even looking for sex at this point.  But you know what we do miss?  Just having somebody to snuggle with.  Somebody to curl up with on the couch with while watching a movie.  Someone to wrap us up in his arms for a little while and just hold us.  That’s what we miss.”

“I could be that person,” I thought to myself.

Second Story

A few years before that, my son is only three years old and he has fallen and banged his knee.  He comes to me, crying, and I take him up into my arms and hold him close to me.  It doesn’t take too long and, what do you know, my son’s knee doesn’t hurt anymore.  This works time after time with my children. With kids, even physical pain can be cured by an affectionate snuggle, a gentle hug, and some kind words.

“Maybe adults aren’t so different than children, ” I wondered. “Maybe instead of banged up knees, we’re all walking around with banged up hearts, and what we need to feel better is someone to hold us for a little while and be kind to us.”

Third Story

It’s late at night and I’m in the downtown eastside of Vancouver.  I used to live and work there and sometimes, at night, I would walk the alleyways looking for youth I worked with and trying to be a good friend to others I knew in the community.  I happen to run into some gang-affiliated young men I know from my work (I worked with street-involved youth in Vancouver for seven years).  While I’m talking with them, another fellow I know from their crew arrives.  He is visibly upset and is acting very aggressively, threatening to engage in all kinds of violent behaviour.  The other fellows kind of step back and put their guards up.  He gets up in my face and begins to talk about how he is the biggest, baddest, you-name-it, and he talks about how he doesn’t care anymore and how he’s going to kill somebody.  I pause then say his name and ask him, “do you need a hug?”  He stops and suddenly he looks like a young man who never really had anybody to love him or show him the way in life.  His shoulders slump down, his hands drop, and he replies with one barely audible word: “Yes.”  So we hugged.  Nobody laughed.  Afterwards, everyone was visibly relieved and much more upbeat and I called it a night and headed home.

~

There are many other stories, and much more to my decision than this, but these three events stand out in my mind as important factors in my decision to become a professional snuggler.