The Handyman and Me
A tale of unrequited pleasures
There was a handyman in my office today, repairing the air conditioning. Actually, he was moving the temperature controls out of my office and into my boss’s. And, although he was only there for about a half an hour, and he won’t be back on Monday, I had an intensely pleasurable experience with him, of which he’s completely unaware.
When I was a little girl, I used to beg my mother to play with my hair. If I was able to entice her to do it, I’d sit frozen at her feet, enraptured but also terrified she’d stop, which she always eventually did. Having her play with my hair brought on the most intense and pleasurable tingling sensation I’ve ever experienced, short of orgasm. But this pleasurable feeling was NOT an orgasm…I only ever felt it on my scalp.
I soon discovered that I also experienced this tingling feeling when I lay on the floor underneath the ironing board while my mother ironed, so I deliberately placed myself under the ironing board every chance I got. The sound of my dog chewing a rawhide treat could trigger the feeling as well. Strangely, few things besides seemed to trigger these tingles for me. And stranger still, I pretty much forgot about them as soon as they stopped, but while they were happening, I’d do just about anything to keep the feeling going.
It wasn’t until many years later, when some construction work was being done in my office, that I realized the sensation could be triggered by the quieter noises associated with that activity, as well. Not the pounding and hammering, not the whine of tools, but the soft clicks and scrapes of physical work being done. When the internet came along, I decided to see if there was a terminology for what I was experiencing. I’d long since guessed that most people didn’t have the same experience, but I’d begun to wonder if I was alone in it.
Some research led me to articles on Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, and I learned I was far from alone in the perception of these tingles. In fact, the community was much larger than I expected. YouTube now has an entire section devoted to recordings designed to trigger what others call “brain tingles,” full of the sounds of whispering, crunching and eating, crackling paper, and rain noises. Apple just released a series of YouTube videos, in fact, designed specifically to trigger ASMR responses.
The experience of it is like nothing else. It begins with a strange sensation of well being, as I know the feeling is about to begin. Then I feel a tingling sensation on the back of my head and neck, similar to goosebumps but far more pleasurable. This sensation moves in waves down the back of my neck and into my shoulders. I am able to continue doing work or concentrating, so the person causing it has no idea. However, I do shift some of my attention to the sensations as they wax and wane, in order to more fully enjoy them. I can go on like this indefinitely, so long as the stimulus continues, but I notice there’s an element of anticipatory disappointment, as I am aware at all times that the feeling will end as soon as the stimulus does.
During the experience, I’m completely aware but relaxed in a way that I never am in any other circumstance. Try as I might, I have never been able to replicate the sensation without the appropriate external stimuli. When it’s over, there is an immediate feeling of sadness and longing that lasts about five seconds, and then it’s as if nothing had just happened.
None of the videos or recordings I’ve seen or listened to has ever triggered ASMR for me; it appears to be something that happens exclusively in “real time” for me. And I can’t force it to happen, either. I’m only a willing participant when the stars align. But it’s pretty much a given that if a repairman (or woman) shows up to fix or install something, I’m going to be triggered into a state of bliss.
Few studies have been conducted on ASMR, but it is known to have immediate effects on sufferers of depression, anxiety and panic attacks, as well as insomnia. Research is being done to determine if there are therapeutic uses for ASMR. I hope they’ll someday find a way to prolong the effects. This experience is one I wish I could share with people who don’t experience it. It’s quite literally the best thing I’ve ever felt.
I’ve long been fascinated by the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Sarah Winchester, wife of firearm magnate William Wirt Winchester, was said to have believed that her legion of construction workers — who added to her mansion day and night for over 38 years — kept the vengeance of the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle at bay. Knowing what I know about ASMR, though, and the feeling I often have during episodes — where I’d willingly PAY the person triggering my ASMR to continue the sensation indefinitely (just imagine how that conversation would go) — I have to wonder if Mrs. Winchester wasn’t a fellow “sufferer” of ASMR, only one with the means at her disposal to live in a state of perpetual relaxation and bliss, and willing to be seen as “eccentric”…just as long as those brain tingles never stopped.