DURHAM Meighan Skrzypczak arrived just a few minutes before her 1 p.m. appointment with a professional cuddler.
It was her second session in as many weeks at Cuddle Time For You. Skrzypczak, a married 53-year-old mother who suffers from migraines, sought out the treatment, she said, in an effort to find a way to restore her energy and buoyancy after taking care of her mother and watching as her health diminished into dementia.
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“The stress of life has taken a lot of my natural resilience away in the last year and a half or so,” said Skrzypczak of Elon. “I am just looking for healthy ways to get it back.”
Before her session, Skrzypczak sat in a dining room, which was recently transformed into a lobby, in the house of Cuddle Time For You owner Jeff Everson. She and the cuddler, a 30-year-old woman with long black hair and glasses, then walked upstairs to the spare bedroom turned cuddling room.
Everson opened the cuddling company in Durham about two weeks ago, building on a snuggling trend that touts the benefits of platonic touch through a variety of business models.
There’s Cuddlr, an app that connects people looking for a cuddle. There’s a cuddling convention, Cuddle Con. And there are businesses, such as Cuddle Time For You in Durham and Hugs or Cuddles in Greensboro, which present platonic cuddling services as a form of tactile therapy that generally cost about $1 a minute.
Industry needs standards
Everson started the business after reading an article about Samantha Hess, who opened in June 2013 a Portland, Ore.-based Cuddle Up to Me.
At the time, about six companies were offering legitimate platonic cuddling services in the U.S., said Hess, 31. She has gone on to write a book, “Touch: The Power of Human Connection,” and hosted Cuddle Con with workshops and events that explore platonic touch in safe and comfortable ways.
Hess also developed a 40-hour training course that she just started offering.
Meanwhile, hundreds of professional cuddling businesses have popped up across the country, she said, creating a mixed bag where people are offering a cuddling service without any training or experience or cuddling that goes beyond platonic touch.
“Until we actually standardize the industry and create some general guidelines for every single person to follow, it is going to be a lot of this mixed bag,” said Hess, whose hundreds of clients have ranged from people in their early 20s to 70s. “I am really working so hard to make people understand, standardization is required for this service to grow.”
Zolee Davis-Robinson opened Hugs or Cuddles to the public on the first floor of her Greensboro home in November, but had been offering a discreet cuddle service for about two years.
While the unregulated profession doesn’t require credentials, Davis-Robinson has a degree in psychology and recently completed a home-study certification course through Cuddle Professionals International, based in England, which Hess said was the first area to offer the service.
The website indicates the company certifies cuddlers so they can receive insurance payments in that country. Davis-Robinson and her three contract cuddlers have about 35 appointments each week, she said. Clients are typically older than 40 and are in some form of transition.
“A spouse may have passed. Divorced. Relocated. Been a primary caregiver. Stressed out. It could be a sexless marriage,” or someone who can’t move his arms and legs, she said.
Setting cuddling limits
Cuddle Time For You’s Everson, who owns 17-year-old Everson Insurance and Investment Group in Durham, started moving forward with the cuddling business idea at the end of November.
In December he built a simple website explaining the service, the costs and the benefits of touch. He built a page and advertised on Facebook and in Craigslist’s therapeutic section.
About 25 people signed a waiting list and gave desired appointment times. Everson doesn’t provide cuddles, but instead employs seven part-timers who are paid $20 an hour. His cuddling training includes going over articles about the power and benefits of touch (which many of them are familiar with), a practice session and a discussion about security measures.
Everson spent about $5,000 in start-up costs as he planned to open Feb. 23 in a commercial building. The landlord, he said, initially signed off on the business but later changed his mind. Determined to open on schedule, Everson moved the operation to his home but is planning to open in a new space on N.C. 54 March 16.
Everson takes various steps to ensure customers, who range from their 20s to 60s, understand and respect the boundaries of platonic cuddling.
A client’s first appointment includes Everson going over an agreement and waiver and making a copy of their driver’s license. Clients have to wear, at a minimum, shorts and a shirt. (Boxers don’t count as shorts, Everson said he had to explain to one potential client.) All cuddling is performed above the covers and away from areas that a bathing suit typically covers.
Through a video camera in the cuddling room, Everson monitors the sessions from the lobby on his laptop. If a client is inappropriate, Everson will push a button to save the session that could be used as evidence for criminal prosecution, he said. If nothing happens, then the session is recorded over.
Everson limits cuddling to one of five approved positions.
An occasional luxury
When Skrzypczak first heard about Cuddle Time For You, she felt like the idea of healing through touch made a lot of sense, she said.
About two years ago, she lost her job as manager of a medical practice in Burlington. Skrzypczak transitioned to being the primary caregiver for her mother, who could no longer live alone because of her dementia. She moved her mom into her home, then to an assisted living facility and then into an intensive care unit, where she died at the end of October.
When Skrzypczak made her first 30-minute appointment at Cuddle Time For You, she was prepared to back out if it felt “weird.” Instead she felt very comfortable, she said, after meeting Everson, who went over the policy and procedures, and her cuddler, who gave Skrzypczak a tour of the cuddling room.
At her second session a week ago, Skrzypczak sat on the bed and slipped off her brown booties. Cuddle Time For You’s policy prevents cuddlers from sharing their last names with customers to protect their privacy and in case a client gets too attached.
The cuddler, who was already sitting on the bed, wore a long sleeve cotton shirt, black leggings and white socks.
Skrzypczak wore a black shirt and gray jeans. The two talked a few seconds about Skrzypczak’s monogrammed leather purse before they decided to start with the cuddler spooning Skrzypczak.
Over the next hour, they transitioned to the half spoon, in which they faced each other and the cuddler held Skrzypczak on her chest.
There were stretches of still moments marked only by tic tocs coming from a clock on a dresser. Then there were moments in which Skrzypczak and her cuddler giggled and talked about reading at night; how they secretly love “Twilight” books; the perils of loud snoring; the evolving acceptance of tattoos; and mothers and grandmothers who have dementia.
When Skrzypczak cuddles with her husband, she said, it’s different. There are sexual undertones. There’s history. But a professional cuddler is an occasional luxury that she can treat herself to, she said, like a massage or a facial.
“It is an opportunity to just let go and be nurtured, be calm, be whatever,” she said.
Go to http://bit.ly/18636e3 to see video of Meighan Skrzypczak during a session with a professional cuddler.