Trigger Warning: Mentions of Sexual Abuse
I was thirteen. I found it hard to say “no.”
I would try to reject him. He would keep asking. He would pout and sulk and act upset.
My guilt ate away at me until there was nothing left.
I am twenty now. Touching people feels wrong.
a rare specific phobia that involves the fear of touching or of being touched
When we are young, we learn to hug our parents for comfort. We learn that holding hands is a gesture of not only love, but safety. We learn that touch is warm and inviting, an intimate embrace of affection.
But touch for me is unbearable.
I cannot touch people without feeling wrong. I cannot touch people without feeling dirty and gross. I cannot touch people without feeling like I want to crawl out of my skin. I cannot touch people without feeling his touch all over me again.
For the longest time, I would tell people that I was germaphobic. I didn’t understand that I had developed an aversion to touch, a manifestation of the trauma that scarred me. I held the heartache close to my chest and let it fester like an open wound. That same wound was pried apart more and more with the panic and revulsion that pulsed through me whenever I washed my hands and body and found that I never felt clean.
It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I finally confided in someone. I still remember what she said.
“Charlize,” she told me. “That’s sexual abuse.”
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Two years passed in anger and resentment. I hated myself for allowing it to happen. I blamed myself for being too nice and too caring and for placing the importance of his feelings above my own. I decided that I would rid myself of kindness. I pushed people away and said mean things. Some part of me believed that keeping everyone at a distance would deny them the chance to come close and hurt me again. I only ended up hurting myself more.
I could not connect with others, reach out to them and tell them I was hurting. Not without the risk of exposing the vulnerable parts of me and having them violated again. I wanted comfort, but I could not stand the thought of someone hugging me, even when it was all I needed.
The wound in my chest was rotting.
My only solace was through my music. I played the cello in my high school orchestra. Sweet melodies filled the empty cavity in my chest and made me feel whole again— but only for a moment. It wasn’t enough to keep me afloat. Once I put the cello down, I began to sink again. Dropping to the bottom of the ocean. Decaying.
I wondered if I would ever see the sky again.
It wasn’t until I was seventeen that I could finally breathe again. I picked up Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and found connection in Kaz Brekker, the seventeen-year-old criminal prodigy who haunted the dreams of grown men, gobbled up their empires and their legacies, and spat them back out. He was called Dirtyhands, for the gloves he wore to conceal what others thought were a demon’s claws. In reality, he was just a boy who couldn’t touch people. Just like me.
Kaz had closed himself off in an effort to protect himself. The gloves were a testament to his weakness, to the scars that ran down his heart and left a gaping hole where love should’ve been. His touch aversion was so strong that he could not bear the feeling of skin against skin without feeling like he was drowning. Just like me.
He found an anchor, but she would not drown with him just to help him swim. And so I read as Kaz clawed his way out of the darkness to see the sky again, to feel the warmth of the sun chase away the cold inside his chest and replace it with something new, something better. He worked to overcome his haphephobia, and by the end of the second book, he was holding her hand and breathing easy. I hoped for the day where I could say, “Just like me.”
Regret kept me in chains. I was ruined so young. I could’ve been “normal” if it hadn’t happened. I could’ve been happy. Instead, the years of my youth were wasted trying to pick up the pieces.
But what good was there in coddling those regrets? My life up to that point had already been so miserable. The chains that weighed me down would continue weighing me down, and I was tired of feeling so heavy all the time. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling like I couldn’t breathe. The fact is, there was nothing I could do to change what had already happened. I was damaged, and I couldn’t undo that. All I could do was take the experience that made me weak, and turn it into something that made me strong. Just like Kaz.
I started with letting go. If only I had done this, if only I had done that. I let go of those thoughts that haunted me. I had nothing to regret; it was not my fault. I had nothing to feel guilty about; it was not my fault. I had nothing to blame myself for; it was not my fault.
Over time, it got easier. I surrounded myself with the things that made me happy, made me feel alive. I started small, indulging in my art. Emotions spilled out as ink for my writing, bits and pieces of vented prose, raw and unfiltered. Those same emotions fell on monochromatic keys, the sounds of my piano transformed into iridescence. When I saw the world as nothing but ugly, I captured the most lovely and ethereal parts of it with my camera. My skies had been gray, muted and bleak, and I was learning how to color them in. I reconnected with the friends that I had isolated myself from. They picked up the paints and colored with me.
Eventually, I was able to reciprocate when a classmate reached out for a high-five. He smiled and said, “Hey, you can touch people now.” My cheeks hurt when I smiled back.
Finally, the same friend I had confided in was able to give me a hug. She told me something then, too. I still remember what she said.
“I’m proud of who you’ve become.”
My heart was healing.
After all the hurt, I knew what I deserved. I knew that my worth was not below that of anyone else. I wouldn’t settle for anything less than what I deserved.
He was named after sunlight, and he made me feel warm even without touch. He listened to me when I was rambling about something I was passionate about. He listened to me when I was spoken over. He listened to me when I said “no.” He was patient with me. And when the day came when touching people no longer felt wrong, I held his hand and breathed easy.
I was thirteen.
Sometimes it frustrates me to think about how young I was. It still affects me even as an adult. There are some days where I still flinch when my partner touches me.
But I was a child. I didn’t know any better.
You have to forgive yourself for not knowing any better. You have to forgive yourself for being a child.
Healing is not instant. But progress is progress, no matter how small. I was not able to give my friends a simple high-five, but now I can hug them and feel warm and safe and loved, just as it is meant to be. Do not be so hard on yourself. I know it can be frustrating, but give yourself credit where it’s due. You would not blame others for what happened to them, so what makes it okay to blame yourself? Treat yourself with the same kindness that you would your loved ones. It might take a while, but you will get through it.
I hope you are proud of yourself and of how far you have come, and if not, I will be proud for you.
Please reach out if you or someone you know has been or is being abused, assaulted, or harassed, whether physically or emotionally. You are not alone.
National Sexual Assault Hotline
National Domestic Violence Hotline
About the Author
Charlize Colle Fernandez is an intern with the Love Yourself Foundation as a content editor. A student at UNLV, she is currently studying English with a concentration in creative writing. She hopes to become a book editor after graduation. Charlize has always enjoyed the arts, and she continues to find solace in stories, music, and photography.