Med thumb man with stuffed animal

[Hi, Van Winkle's readers! Woolly is a curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — published and emotionally supported by Casper. Check it out.]

 

His name is Sedrick. 

He's a tiger and is about a foot-and-a-half long with burnt orange fur, mangled whiskers, foggy plastic eyes and a cracked pink nose. The area around his neck is matted from years of tight hugs. He has survived his fair share of nightmares, bouts with loneliness and the general territory that comes with being a stuffed animal. He’s traveled from childhood bedrooms to freshman dorms to first homes; he’s seen tears and listened to screams; heard shouts of joy and even watched a few sexual experiences. Never once has he changed his smirk, or his non-judgmental gaze.

He’s my pal. And I sleep with him every night. So what if I'm an adult?

I don’t remember how old I was when I got Sedrick. I do know that  my parents gave him to me because I loved tigers; I loved that they were huge and ferocious, able to devour you whole, but still beautiful and calm in a way that a young kid could comprehend. Still do. 

I realized my habit is neither strange nor uncommon.

I do remember how he got his name. My mother, a respiratory therapist, often worked nights. I missed her terribly. I would watch her pull out of the driveway, wave, then settle in for a night of cartoons, wishing she would come back. Looney Tunes were in wide syndication back then, and I just happened to catch an episode in which (shocker) Sylvester the cat tried to ambush and eat Tweety Bird at a local zoo.

Tweet Zoo (1957) featured Sylvester getting dumped into a cage of Bengal tigers, one of which remarks to the other (in a stodgy, raspy Victorian accent), “What’s the mattah, Sedrick? Didn’t you like your dinnah?” No idea how I came upon the spelling of his name but, from that moment on, my tiger was called Sedrick.

My mother’s job meant that, in addition to being a mom, she was hyper-vigilant about my chronic asthma. To this day, two mainstays anchor my nightly bedtime ritual: the presence of Sedrick and my asthma inhaler. (Don’t all swoon at once, ladies.) 

They both are their own sort of protectors and both still are. Sedrick once reminded me that I was safe, that my mom would be coming home from work in the morning. Now, he ensures my sleep is restful. He also reminds me that I’m 33.

SedricktheTiger

Seeing as the latter is an issue I should confront, I decided to dig into the man-plushy connection.

Pushing past the horror of Googling “sleeping with stuffed animals,” I actually came across proper research about non-sexual sleeping, and realized my habit is neither strange nor uncommon. In fact, according to a 2011 survey, 35 percent of grown adults still sleep with a teddy bear or comparable stuffed toy; 50 percent still own one. And, while not the most scientific of assessments, a survey conducted by TraveLodge hotels revealed that one in four businessmen travel with a stuffed animal.

So it's not uncommon. But why is it a thing?

Bengal Friends with Benefits

Why the need to sleep with Sedrick? Why does he make my sleep better? According to psychotherapist Dr. Robert Ryan, it’s all about the benefits. He says that, while it's difficult to figure out what effect squeezing a stuffed animal will have on a child, many children will “continue on the path that has produced benefits.”

In other words, if a person used those objects as escape from a traumatic upbringing, then he’s more likely to retreat into himself. If a child used his plush companion “as theater to entertain the adults and thought of the animals as his or her troupe,” then he may become an extrovert.

It’s safe to say I don’t fall into the latter. Sedrick and I never formed a theater troupe, but we did play. We wrestled. I’d throw him high in the air, and catch him as he landed on my stomach. And whatever he said, whatever he roared, or growled, sounded out in that same droll cartoon tiger voice.

If someone were to replace a cherished item — a wedding ring, a trophy, — with an exact replica, would you be okay with that?

How does Ryan feel about the stigma attached to adults sleeping with a stuffed toy?

“The only difference in appropriateness would be societal,” he says. “In the face of Western values of manliness, a male sleeping with a stuffed animal would not be presumed to be normal.” He added, however, that he sees no harm coming from the practice unless it interferes with interpersonal relationships.

Attachment to objects can be emotional. The same British study mentioned above identifies the comfort that comes from interacting with stuffed toys as “the endowment effect.” This relates to feelings of calm and alleviated stress and is marked in many adults who maintain attachments to cherished childhood memories and souvenirs. It’s also linked to another phenomenon called “essentialism,” the notion that objects are more than just their physical properties.

Ask yourself: If someone were to replace a cherished item — a wedding ring, a trophy, — with an exact replica, would you be okay with that?

Seeking Stuffed Comfort

I don’t obsess over Sedrick, but I’ve never really imagined losing him. I suppose it could happen. Sedrick’s just always sort of been there, perched on a bed, or a dresser, or a chair. I don’t have a lot of strangers stopping by, and all my friends are just used to seeing him nestled among the mass of childhood and pop-culture artifacts that populate my bedroom. I doubt I'll ever give him up.

Even if I wanted to, could I?

“It’s very difficult for someone to change their behavior, even if they wish to do so, when they’re being judged,” says psychologist Dr. Jason Rodker. He added that it's important for partners to understand the genesis of an attachment, and for them to ask why one may think it's weird. “Questions such as these provide the opportunity to achieve the kind of understanding that would facilitate problem-solving and compromise.”

“We all hug our pillows from time to time.”

For the sake of being more open, then, it should be said that I didn’t have a traumatic childhood. And I don’t currently have a judgmental girlfriend — or any girlfriend at this moment. I have, however, suffered from clinical depression and anxiety for the past decade. According to Ryan, this might just be the biggest contributing factor to my fuzzy friendship.

As Ryan points out, both anxiety and depression can disturb sleep — be it sleeping too much and never feeling rested, or not being able to sleep soundly through the night. “In both cases, the individual experiences a sense of exhaustion and would naturally look for an aid to comfortable as they fight for a restful night,” he says.

Ryan told me about a recently divorced client who, after the children left home for college, “took to having one of the children’s stuffed animals in bed with him as a comfort.” The phenomenon of finding comfort in the certain childhood objects is far from unusual.

Or, as Ryan puts it, “We all hug our pillows from time to time.”

And for me, that’s just fine. My pillow just happens to be a ferocious tiger named Sedrick.