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February 09, 2015

We tried it: A session with a Main Line 'snuggler'

Lifestyle Therapy
Holding Hands File Art /for PhillyVoice

The power of touch.

"How do you like it?"

I freeze, not sure how to respond. I'm still uncomfortable -- at this moment we're centimeters from each other on her sofa, but the distance between us feels oceanic.

She senses my discomfort and rephrases her question.

"What would make you most comfortable: Being here on the sofa, or in the bedroom?"

Her green eyes, cool and confident, search me for a response -- but I'm still hesitating. The casual sofa vibe's not working out so well for me, so I suggest the bedroom. She leads the way.

"Don't judge me -- it's a bit messy!" she inserts as I beeline to the bedroom. 

I navigate over some dirty clothes spilled across the floor and plop onto the queen-size bed's edge. She turns on a portable heater and lights a red candle for ambience and visibility -- it's not desert-dark in the room, but it's not exactly a church blasted by morning rays, either. 

Blowing out her match, she collapses onto the bed and lies down, implicitly suggesting I do the same. So, I do -- falling on my back and scooting closer to her, feeling her body's warmth on mine and her long blond hair tickling the edge of my face. We embrace. 

I'm not talking about a lover. I'm talking about my snuggle buddy.

Science of Touch

To be clear, this isn't snuggling for snuggling's sake. 

The Snuggle Buddies, an "alternative and holistic" snuggle service launched in Marlton, Burlington County, loosely bases its operation on the suggestion that cuddling kills stress. Its intent is to be more salubrious than sexual and to alleviate stress levels and potentially mitigate the effects of depression.

And, certainly, touch as a means of comfort isn't exactly a groundbreaking or altogether difficult-to-believe notion. From the moment we leave the womb, we're bombarded with affection -- the societal consensus being that children require a degree of emotional and physical affection to, behaviorally, develop normally. A 2005 study commissioned by the National Institute for Mental Health reflects this in writing: Children in a control group (those reared in a typical family environment) were compared with those raised in an orphanage; the children played a computer game for 30 minutes and had regularly timed physical interactions with an adult while engaging in the social activity. They were tested through urine samples about 15-20 minutes afterward. The findings suggested that arginine vasopressin levels -- a hormone that (among other functions) moderates aggression and improves social engagement -- were higher in those reared in the typical family environment. The practical effect on those without physical affection (read: those raised in the orphanage), then, can be trouble forming social bonds.

The most comprehensive work on how touch impacts human adults, however, comes from a 2008 University of North Carolina study. The researchers spun their hypothesis off long-existing data suggesting that non-human mammals who engage in massaging and cuddle-like activities see plasma-measured spikes in oxytocin -- a hormone secreted from the hypothalamus that's a known reducer of blood pressure and heart rate, raiser of self-esteem and reliever of stress through a lower cortisol response. The study looked at married couples (average age: 25.2) who held hands and engaged in massage activities, ultimately determining that the interactions released enough oxytocin to be indicative of modest short-term spikes that, over a lifetime, could add up to improved quality of life and lowered risks of mortality.

But here's the mystery, and the legitimate skepticism that could -- and should -- come along with a "snuggling service": Just how necessary are familiarity and "love"? The most obvious test is touch therapy in the form of massage, but according to a 2010 American Journal of Psychiatry review of 17 massage therapy studies, its own impacts on, say, depression, are encouraging but inconclusive. The overall message is this: "It might help, but we need more research."

And so it goes with "cuddle therapy."

Science has no clear-cut answer to how life-changing a simple snuggle might be, but the promise is there -- not to mention a heaping amount of intrigue. 

A Snuggle to Remember

Scientific or not, the seeming absurdity of the snuggle-service situation is not lost on me. The very idea of it sounds like an Onion headline.

But by the time my feet graze my snuggler's Main Line doorstep, I'm sufficiently freezing and more than ready for a body-wrapping warmup. Sorting through a list of female snugglers in the region, I'd picked the one who most suited what I would genuinely look for: She's intelligent, clearly sells herself as a healer, appears to be my age in her photo, uses the term "touch therapy" as if its effectiveness is obvious and is open to both in-calls and out-calls. I book her about a week in advance and engage in a brief phone pre-screening intended to -- being realistic about it -- weed out clients of the John Hinckley variety. 

She opens the door.

Her pale skin is lightly caked over with concealer, her lips are a faintly-colored-in pink and the handlebars of her eyes have fleshy fissures extending from either side -- crow's feet. (She's 40, she later confides.)

With a welcoming candor -- like she's inviting a neighbor in for tea -- she ushers me into her living room -- a candlelit, dark-wooded room with a moss-green couch-and-love-seat combo, three Buddha statues and an Xbox. Three steps in, her greyhound rushes in from the kitchen and eyes me, and suddenly it becomes clear to me how she feels comfortable accepting in-calls. (The greyhound's just a tad more intimidating than, say, a poodle.) 

I set up camp on the love seat; she sets up camp on the sofa. I'm nervous. Ten minutes of "So, where are you from?" chit-chat and one Billy Idol music video later (it ultimately breaks the ice), I inch my way to the sofa and, eventually, into her arms.

For the next hour, bodies braided on her bed, we talk about everything you'd imagine lovers talking about at 3 a.m. -- only we bypass the sex. On the conversational menu: Nintendo, burn parties, bad cellphones, television, interior decorating (she has a honkin' stained-glass church door positioned in front of the bed), martial arts, "energies," her oldest and youngest clients (65 and 23, respectively) and what life's like in our 20s (and, in her case, 30s and 40s). She offers to change cuddling positions depending on my taste but, feeling comfortable in the classic big-and-little-spoon position, I focus on being in the moment. Our bodies graze one another's, but not tightly so -- it's more a form-fitting cup of the body than a cradle.

Nearing the end of our session, eyelids anchored and my mind entranced from the hum of the heater, I realize that -- even with her thumb gently caressing the top of my hand all the while -- I'd forgotten I was even being snuggled; I'd forgotten that my newfound feeling of comfort -- dare I say, stress-relief -- was, in fact, transactional.

Companion for ... the Hour

The power of the snuggle buddy, whether science-backed or not, is this: Despite the utter uncanniness of the meeting (and it is uncanny -- a bit like getting spooned by your mother, in this case), I settle into a feeling of relaxation, calm, tranquility, distraction from reality -- every synonym that collectively adds up to the product of therapy. Maybe the selling line of "touch therapy" isn't half as bogus as you'd think -- or at least not from my experience. For that brief moment in time, I realize I have not just someone to "snuggle" me and provide all the pleasures that come along with that (without the pressures of sex), but a "buddy" -- the other half of the service's title that may titularly come second, but arguably comes first in therapeutic impact. I'd speculate that the buddy-effect is what makes the service at least partially justifiable; it's because I didn't merely connect on a superficial level that I felt half as comfortable as I did -- those four minutes of bonding over the "Mony Mony" music video were (as farfetched as it may seem) enough for me to emotionally invest in her. Had we hopped right into bed and commenced a snuggle-up with zero emotional connection, I imagine I'd have felt more creeped out than soothed. 

Alas, my snuggler and companion-in-life for the hour eventually kicks me out: "When does your train come?" she subtly plants in our pillow talk.

Content, I launch myself from the bed; she offers to drive me to the train station, and I head through the back door to her car. Zipping down the street and pulling into the parking lot, she gets down to business and asks about payment (I'd prepaid with a credit card, in case you're wondering), before releasing me from her summery presence and back into the cold bite of winter. 

But before I step out, I shoot her a knowing look with a raised eyebrow.

"Was it as good for you as it was for me?" I ask. 

Not missing a beat (and surely hoping to book a second appointment), she responds in kind.

"It was fabulous."