[Portland author (and Mercury columnist) Courtenay Hameister’s new book, Okay Fine Whatever, documents a year in which she attempted to squash her crippling anxiety by putting herself in the most anxiety-inducing situations imaginable. In this excerpt, Courtenay—who has issues with being touched—schedules a session with a professional cuddler.—Eds.]
On the day of my session, I started feeling some creeping anticipatory dread early in the afternoon. Nothing that rose to the level of a panic attack, but the under-the-surface kind of anxiety that puts you on edge and makes you check your purse for Ativan before you leave the house.
Samantha’s storefront was on Lower Burnside in Southeast Portland. A window display featured copies of her books and T-shirts with the store’s logo: a simple illustration of a red heart with a circle at the top and two crisscrossed lines across the middle, turning the heart into a person being hugged.
Based on first impressions, I didn’t think this was my style.
I arrived at the same time as my editor, who had joined me to take pictures, which only served to increase my level of discomfort, especially since he had clearly made up his mind about Samantha ahead of time (he was firmly in the snark camp).
The interior looked like it might’ve been a gym in a past life. No-pile carpet, white walls. A curtain ran along one side of the main room near the back, and the furniture was sparse and mismatched, which I forgave since she’d just opened up.
As soon as I met Samantha, I understood the draw. A five-foot-three impish brunette, she had a reassuring smile and a sweet, kind energy that would’ve put me at ease if I hadn’t come in, as my friend Stacey’s dad used to say, “wound up tighter than a clam’s ass.”
“You don’t look excited about this,” she said, grinning.
“I wouldn’t say that I am,” I said. “This isn’t really a thing that I’d... y’know, normally...”
“Do?” she said.
“Nope,” I said.
“I get that a lot,” she said. “We won’t do anything you’re not comfortable with, and we can stop at any time.”
She sounded like my dentist.
The buzzing in my chest had been at threat level 6, and that took me to about a 7. I tried not to imagine what we were going to do because that made it worse.
Like all new clients, I was given a clipboard with a questionnaire to fill out, a map of my body so I could indicate where it wasn’t okay to touch me, and a waiver that lay down the ground rules. Among them were these: I was not to interpret the session as sexual; there would be no kissing; and touching would be limited to areas that were not normally covered by a swimsuit. (What if I usually wear one of those old-timey swimsuits? Then I could just leave, right? Because you could only touch my ankles, and that’s not cuddly.) Clients were expected to have showered, brushed their teeth, and put on only a minimal amount of perfume, if any.
I don’t think the client before me had gotten the memo on that one, because the patchouli smell coming out of the Beach Room rivaled the back of a Vanagon at a Phish concert.
Once I filled out the questionnaire, Samantha and one of her cuddlers-in-training came back to the consultation area behind the curtain for the pre-interview.
Samantha interviewed all her clients prior to cuddling with them, and, amazingly, this has kept her from having to end a single cuddling session early due to sexual inappropriateness.
“How is that possible?” I asked.
“I’ve trained my intuition,” she said. “After some interviews, I have had to let potential clients know that my service isn’t for them.”
She said this generally happens with people who ask a lot of detailed questions about what’s appropriate and what’s not, and eventually it becomes clear that what they’re looking for is sexual touch.
CLIENT: What about the butt?
CLIENT: Right under the butt?
CLIENT: The front butt?
SAMANTHA: We’re done here.
I was about to ask another question, but she answered it before I could.
“Everyone always asks if men get erections,” she said. “And of course they do, but that doesn’t end the session.”
“So how do you deal with it?” I asked.
“I’ve gotten really good at redirection and positions where it’s not an issue,” she replied.
I asked her why she thought she was so good at telling who might give her trouble. She told me that she’d watched her mother being physically abused when she was growing up.
“I’ve learned to really pay attention to the world around me,” she said. “Those minute little cues people give you, like whether someone can look you in the eye or if they do that slow cat blink or look away a lot.”
She said she used this same intuition in other ways, like sensing people’s level of comfort when they touched her, how they responded or didn’t respond, where they tensed up.
“Every new interaction I have, I’m putting in my calculator and figuring out what makes the most sense for them.”
I imagined being in a relationship with a person like Samantha. It would be like dating a need ATM, someone who always gave you exactly what you asked for, even when you didn’t know you were asking for it. It would be a little eerie.
Her biggest question for me in the pre-interview was “What brings you here?”
I told her about my discomfort with talking to strangers, my exposure-therapy theory, and my curiosity about physical affection in general—why I thought I needed it more than others and what that said about me. Was I overly needy physically? Was I cloyingly affectionate to my partners?
I also wanted to ask her if there was a way to solve the issue of what to do with the bottom arm when you’re the big spoon—it’s always a problem for me. But I decided that could wait for later.
Samantha said she could tell, based on my story and the fact that I was wearing my shoulders as earrings, that I was comfortable with affection but very uncomfortable with the idea of getting it from a stranger. She assured me that I was in good hands.
I still felt something very similar to dental dread, and I am terrified of the dentist.
She showed me the four rooms I had to choose from, each with a bed and a bedside table, as my editor snapped away. The Beach Room was covered in seashells with blue waves painted on the walls; the Cascadia Room had trees, mountains, and wildflowers painted by a local artist; the deep burgundy Zen Room had the studio logo and an infinity symbol on the wall; and the Space Room had dark walls, a lamp with a spinning shade that threw a rotating aurora borealis all over the place, and glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. I chose that one because it seemed best suited for imagining myself anywhere but there if the experience turned out to be utterly miserable. (I always plan for this eventuality. If I went on an African safari with Ryan Gosling, I’d bring my iPad just in case the tigers were busy licking their balls, and Gosling was a snore-fest, both of which were quite possible. When you’re that pretty, you don’t need to be interesting.)
I took my shoes off and got on the bed. My physical and emotional discomfort levels were both at a solid 11. My forearms were tingling, which generally happens at the outset of an anxiety attack. Samantha was saying something, but whatever it was couldn’t break through the buzzing in my head. She sounded like a teacher on a Peanuts special.
“Wah-wah, wah-wah-wah-wah,” she said. “Wah-wah?”
I was sweating profusely and I couldn’t look at her. I also couldn’t look at my editor, and I definitely couldn’t look at the camera. It’s difficult to tell where my discomfort level would’ve been if he hadn’t been in the room taking pictures. If I was already at an eight, the camera might have raised me to, say, a billion.
Cuddling is already a vulnerable act. Receiving affection can make you feel vulnerable because people are often seen as weak for needing it. Offering affection makes you feel even more vulnerable due to the possibility of being rebuffed. Now imagine yourself in either of those positions but with a stranger. Being photographed. For the internet.
Discomfort level had now decreased to a 10 but only because I was lying down.
I love lying down.
Samantha asked me to sit up so we could attempt the first position, the Motorcycle. In this position, she sat behind me with her legs and arms wrapped around me, her head on my left shoulder. If she had been someone I knew, it probably would’ve felt lovely, but she was unfamiliar to me, so it felt...incongruous. Like your bank teller suddenly stroking your cheek. Also, because someone was photographing us, my brain was busy saying, Camera! There’s a camera right there. Where is it in relation to my chin(s)? Do my thighs look huge in this position? Is there any position in which my thighs don’t look huge? Maybe if the camera were mounted in Skylab. The internet is going to eat me alive.
I imagined the posts.
Of course she went to a professional cuddler. Who would ever touch her?
Eat a fucking salad. Jesus.
That may sound hyperbolic to you, but the internet is a cesspool.
I’ve gotten my share of abusive comments in the past, but the one I remember most was from seven years ago. My friend Shelley McLendon and I had mounted a ridiculous staged parody of the Patrick Swayze film Road House. We’d gotten a series of great reviews from our local weeklies, none of which I remember. But I do remember this comment on one of the reviews: Wow. It’ll be great to actually see Courtenay Hameister being funny in something. Is she playing the road or the house?
I thought it must’ve been someone I knew, because who would be so cruel to a stranger who hadn’t bitch-slapped one of his family members? And why did I remember nothing from the good comments but every single word of the bad one?
I’ve heard this phenomenon was once useful, that back when humans were hairier and less neurotic, their brains were trained to take special note of bad things, like Gork getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, so that they themselves could avoid becoming lunch. Saber-toothed tiger = bad. I’ll just replay that bloody scene a few times so you’ll remember that, said the prehistoric brain. (Dear Evolution: Please stop working against us. It’s getting old.)
I know most people don’t experience fear when being photographed, but when you’ve struggled with body issues your whole life, a camera might as well be a saber-toothed tiger. One that waits to bite you until you’re tagged on Facebook or someone asks if you’re currently portraying a building.
I tried to ignore the tiger and just be present/live in the moment/feel my feelings as Samantha tried another position, this one called the Eiffel Tower, wherein we lay face to face, legs intertwined, each with one arm beneath a pillow, clasping each other’s hands.
I had to agree with my editor on this one. It was ridiculous.
I could feel my face flush as the mortification of direct extended eye contact set in. People look at technology more than they look at one another these days, so direct eye contact feels almost... aggressive. Also, people don’t just lie in bed staring at each other unless they’re in a Nicholas Sparks movie or a mouthwash commercial.
I tried to concentrate on other things, like the fact that she had incredibly soft hands and a kind face.
I realized that I was looking in her left eye. I switched to her right eye. Then I tried to look in both eyes and my eyes started to cross.
I realized I wasn’t technically breathing.
The shutter clicked, ratcheting up my dread.
I took a breath so I wouldn’t die.
My palms were sweating.
She had to feel that.
I wanted to apologize for my sweaty palms, but what if, by some miracle of nature, she had no ability to sense wetness or dryness in her extremities, in which case I would just be calling attention to it without needing to?
I’m not sure exactly how long the eye contact lasted, but it felt like approximately one to two months.
Thankfully, Samantha started shifting to a new position, the Honeymoon. In this cuddle, I was on my back and Samantha lay in the crook of my left arm, her head resting on my chest and her arm around my waist. This felt unnatural. As a woman, I’m normally the one in the crook with a protective arm around my shoulder.
Even so, it was such a relief to be out of the eye-contact situation that I think the shift actually calmed me down a little. But I still had no idea how any of it would’ve felt without the fucking camera there.
Finally, I heard the comforting beep of a camera being shut off, and my editor said his good-byes. Now I could really see what this experience was like.
When the door closed, Samantha asked if I wanted to move into a different position. I’d thought I would want to, but I didn’t.
I just wanted some time to breathe and see if it was at all possible to relax into this. I took a series of deep breaths and expanded my diaphragm to tell my parasympathetic nervous system that everything was copacetic.
Samantha’s body felt like all the tension had flowed out of it. Her torso relaxed into me. She felt like a human weighted blanket.
She seemed utterly devoid of self-consciousness. I envied the shit out of that.
In the moments I managed to push my own self-consciousness aside, it actually felt nice to give comfort instead of receive it.
Prior to the appointment, I had expected that if I ever actually calmed down, all I’d want was to be taken care of—held, touched—and I’d specifically mentioned that I liked having someone run fingers through my hair because what kind of asshole doesn’t like that?
But it was interesting to discover that sometimes being taken care of means being allowed to offer affection to someone.
Samantha leads people through each session based on what she thinks they need; sometimes she tries multiple positions, sometimes the client knows exactly what they want and it’s just one or two positions for the whole hour.
Some clients want to give affection and comfort; some want to receive it. She says about 30 percent of her clients are women, and she finds they’re pretty equally distributed into the giving and receiving categories. Once I finally relaxed, I liked both.
At one point I started to feel uncomfortable with the silence, so I asked her a question.
“So, do you sometimes find yourself training people to be better at intimacy?”
“Sure,” she said, lifting her head to face me.
I couldn’t shake how postcoital this conversation felt.
“I had one client who could only accept touch when he started, not give it,” she said, turning her head and laying it on my chest again. “It took him about seven or eight months before he was giving touch, which was a great sign. When people want to give touch, it means they’re in a good place in the world.”
We lay there in silence for a little while.
“Why were you so uncomfortable with the camera in the room?” she asked.
“How did you know I was uncomfortable?”
“Your whole body was rigid,” she said. “When he left, all your limbs went soft, like spaghetti.”
I told her about my long history of hating my body. Of avoiding cameras or hiding behind furniture like Carnie Wilson in every Wilson Phillips video. Of saying terrible things to myself before other people could.
I told her about how I hadn’t thought I was worthy of romantic love for over a decade as an adult because I was heavy. That I knew now how fat-phobic and downright tragic that was but that remnants of those feelings remained, like hateful little dust mites that I’d forgotten to sweep out of the attic of my brain.
She told me she’d struggled with body issues before she became a personal trainer but had found a way to accept herself when she learned about physiology and body mechanics. She realized that when she ate poorly, she gained weight, not because she deserved it but because of the math of calorie expenditure and metabolism. Apparently, when you don’t see your body as a vessel that holds every mistake you’ve ever made, every shitty comment you’ve ever heard, and every Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup you’ve shame-eaten in the bathroom, you can finally gain some perspective.
“Jesus,” I said. “I can’t even imagine what that would feel like.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because no matter what I weigh,” I said, “I never stop feeling like a fat girl.”
“What’s wrong with being a fat girl?” she asked.
“Oh God... everything,” I said. “It means I’m lazy, unhealthy, and have no self-control.”
“Do you believe all that?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “But yes. Those messages are everywhere when you’re fat. Some people can escape them, but they seem like magicians to me.”
I told her about losing all the weight after my gallbladder surgery and that I’d gained some of it back and was struggling again. I told her how much of my self-esteem came from whether I was eating healthily or unhealthily, and how my level of food intake defined whether I was a good or bad person. That I could save a toddler from a burning building, but if I was eating a cruller at the same time, the two acts would cancel each other out.
“Okay,” she said, moving her head off my chest. “We’re gonna do something. Sit up for me.”
My stomach turned.
I didn’t want to move.
But she was so nice.
She had me turn slightly to the right and adopt the standard little-spoon position to her big spoon.
I’d never been spooned by a woman before. I’d recommend it. Women are soft and pillowlike.
She lay against my body, one arm wrapped around my waist, her left leg resting on my right leg, her limbs devoid of tension, like a marionette with no one holding the strings.
“We’re going to do a few affirmations,” she said.
This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, and I drank a fly through a straw in sweet tea once.
“Okay,” I said.
Silence. Maybe I’d gotten a reprieve. Maybe she’d fallen asleep.
“I am amazing,” she said.
I was hoping that wasn’t the affirmation and that she was just telling me something she was super-proud of.
“I am amazing,” she repeated.
“I’m...amazing,” I said.
That wasn’t so hard. I am sort of amazing. I’m here, aren’t I? What nonamazing person would do this against her will? None.
“I’m enough,” she said.
Ugh. Am I enough? I haven’t filed my taxes for 2012 yet. I may be going to prison, so it feels like maybe...
“I’m...” she prompted.
“I’m enough,” I said, then took a deep breath.
“I’m beautiful,” she said.
I stopped breathing. I couldn’t say it.
“I’m beautiful,” she said again.
And I was crying. A fucking affirmation is not making me cry.
More than either of the others, this one caught in my throat. As much as I’ve always believed affirmations were full of shit, here was something they obviously could do: show me as clear as day what I believed and didn’t believe about myself.
The tears from my left eye were now flowing into my right eye and then onto the pillow. Undeniable tears.
I could remember maybe three or four times in my life when I’d felt pretty, and this wasn’t one of them. But even if I had felt pretty that day, I would never describe myself as being beautiful, as if it were a persistent state for me.
“I’m beautiful,” she said.
She sounded like she believed it. But she was beautiful.
“I’m beautiful,” I said, my voice breaking.
Stop crying during your cuddle session. Stop it.
I had a trick to get myself to stop crying in public situations: I would imagine the first chest-burster scene from Alien. It’d worked for me when I had to read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 at a friend’s wedding.
She had me repeat the whole series of affirmations until I could say them without crying.
Finally, thanks to Alien, I could.
I can’t say she made me believe them, but she made me believe that she believed them about me, which was almost as good.
When the moment was over, I wanted to say something to the effect of We shall never speak of this again, but that seemed inappropriate. I hoped that cuddler-client privilege was a thing.
As the session wound down, we lay there quietly and she ran her fingers through my hair. It wasn’t exactly the same as having a lover or friend do it, but I have to say, it wasn’t that different.
I have female friends who sometimes get massages because they need to be touched and know that if they don’t, they might do something dumb, like sleep with a douchebag. Cuddling seems like a better choice for that purpose because it’s far closer to the affection they’re seeking than a massage.
I once read a study claiming that there’s no discernible difference between the happiness you feel when you get exactly what you want, and the happiness you feel when you don’t get what you want but convince yourself that what you did get was enough.
Cuddling felt like that to me.
You’re getting affection, and whether or not you accept it is your choice.
I think part of the reason the affection felt so real had to do with Samantha. She was an anomaly in this age of irony and snark: a true optimist and an empath who believed that everyone deserves to be loved. I’m jaded as hell, and she convinced me. In the same way some people are more generous with money than others, I think there are people, like Samantha, who are perfectly willing to offer true affection—not guarded, not devoid of emotion—before someone has proven that he or she deserves it.
People who have access to physical affection all the time have no idea the emotional toll it takes on people who don’t. Having spent so much of my adult life alone, I was hardly ever touched. Studies have shown that people who aren’t touched are often lonelier, more anxious, and more likely to get sick than those who are. When you’re never touched, it’s only natural that you start believing that you don’t deserve to be. The most tragic effect, though, is that those who haven’t received affection often develop an anxious or avoidant attachment style, making it even less likely that they’ll ever form relationships.
It doesn’t take a genius, then, to determine why I might be more partial to physical affection than your average person. I’m like one of those kids whose parents were vegan so they got ice cream only once a year, on their birthdays, and then when they turned 18 and left the house, they ate goddamned ice cream cake for dinner every night for two years.
These are my ice cream cake years. And by that, I mean the rest of my life.
I understand why people are uncomfortable with what Samantha does, but in retrospect, I think the source of my own anxiety about seeing her was simple: I related to the people who needed her. I watched the world judging them and I felt judged too.
In the end, after all the initial strangeness wore off, I liked the session with Samantha because I like physical affection. I need it, even. And that doesn’t make me needy or weak; it just makes me honest.
The question is, if I found myself alone for years at a time again, would I be willing to pay for touch? Maybe. At least with Samantha, I wouldn’t have to get used to a whole new stranger.
Read more of Courtenay’s adventures in Okay Fine Whatever, now available from Little Brown. She’ll also be reading selections at Powell’s Books (1005 W Burnside) on Wednesday, August 22 at 7:30 pm.