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We Are Never Too Old to Hold on to our Teddy Bears

Even as adults we continue to benefit from the presence of transitional objects.

Up until February of 2010 I had a second cat named Olivia whom I also adopted from a shelter two years after I adopted Zoe. She and Zoe didn’t really get along too well; they either kept their distance from one another, or once in a while they’d go at it with Zoe pinning Olivia to the ground (Olivia was a tiny thing), and there was a lot of yowling and I’d find tufts of fur on the carpet later. But neither cat seemed to be seriously injured.

Zoe declined to sleep on my queen-sized bed (there was enough room for all three of us), but the moment I got under the covers, Olivia jumped up and burrowed underneath snuggling into the hollow of my stomach made when I bent my knees and my neck. She contorted her slight body to match the nooks and crannies of my larger frame. Her warmth felt comforting against me and although I was concerned I would shift positions and crush her, it never happened and I learned to fall into a contented sleep with her fur tickling me.

In late winter 2010 Olivia went deep into my closet and refused to come out even to eat, drink or use the litter box. I took her to the vet and after some tests he told me she had pancreatic cancer. She was only eight. She was suffering terribly so I made the decision to put her to sleep. The last image that remains in my mind as she took her final breath is her little pink tongue sticking out of the side of her mouth.

That summer I had a relapse of anorexia. Losing Olivia might have been part of it — there were certainly other factors as well. During the most difficult time, I started sleeping with an old teddy bear that I had held on to since I was in college in the late seventies and early eighties. I had named the teddy bear Elliot and by now he was a mess. One eye missing, pieces of fur torn off, seams torn open in places, but he was still sleep-worthy. I took him to bed and squeezed him tight, tighter than I ever could have squeezed Zoe or Olivia.

Elliot stayed out of my closet for a long time. When I was alone I slept with him because I liked the feeling of holding tightly onto something when I was drifting off to sleep. Wrapping my arms around something provided me with a feeling of security and eased whatever anxieties arose during the day, and soothed my racing mind.

When I was in Cleveland at the IMATCH program these past weeks, I left Elliot at home and soon I realized what was missing as I tried futilely to sleep in a strange hotel room. This problem became more complicated when I asked to be taken off a medication that I had been on for a number of years and then my appetite raged out of control. No one could make the connection at first. With my anorexic background, I felt terrified that I would fall back into my restricting behavior.

I told the psychologist, Dr. Krueller(name has been changed), at the IMATCH program in a session that when the anxiety became intolerable at home, I would pace the corridor of my apartment building right outside my door squeezing Elliot hard at two or three in the morning. I did that because I could walk the long length of the hall which calmed me. “Can you get a teddy bear tonight?’ he asked. Surprised, I nodded. It was something I hadn’t thought of. On the way back to the hotel, I asked my friends if we could stop at K-Mart (it was Cleveland, after all) and I grabbed the softest teddy bear they had on the shelf. Getting back in the car my friends admired my choice. “What are you going to call him?” they asked. Without a thought I answered, “Krueller.”

Maybe teddy bears are not typically high on the list when it comes to identifying strategies that adults use in coping with life’s stressors. By the time we have reached adulthood, most of us (except perhaps me) have traded in our stuffed animals for more age-appropriate items that we have chosen to comfort us. But whatever we have chosen — and almost all of us have them — these devices serve to offer us solace in times of distress.

When I work with patients, after we have established a therapeutic bond, if I feel that it is going to be beneficial I suggest keeping a journal. I explain the benefits of journal writing and also emphasize that what he or she writes is totally private and I don't expect them to share their thoughts and feelings with me unless they choose to. Then I will be glad and honored to listen.

Typically I keep a stash of different notebooks in my file cabinet and I will pull them out and let the patient choose one. The notebook can act as an age appropriate transitional object and as the patient writes in the journal, they may feel connected to the therapist although he or she is not physically in session. The writing, although it may not be read verbatim in the session, plants seeds for discussion.

When it was time to leave Cleveland, I stuffed Krueller in my suitcase for the plane ride home. But now he and Elliot play a backseat to Zoe who has started sleeping on my bed — within arm’s reach — which is fine because I can reach out and touch her soft fur. Just knowing that she is close to me is comforting.

My pain has diminished and my physical and psychic stress has been reduced so I’m content to gaze at Elliot and Krueller from afar. They seem pretty happy tucked away in a corner of my closet and I’m pretty happy to have them relegated back there. They have each other for company.