I’m a 46-year-old woman who sleeps with a teddy bear. The irony is that I didn’t sleep with stuffed animals when I was a child, and even if I had, I’m not sentimental enough to have saved a childhood treasure.
I could be accused of not being sentimental at all. I tried to throw out one of my son’s baby blankets when he had outgrown them, and my husband intercepted me.
He intercepts a lot of my trash attempts. He was the one who pulled out an envelope I had thought was junk mail but actually contained a notice informing me I was a part of a $215 million class-action settlement with the University of Southern California, my alma mater, related to Dr. George Tyndall — a former gynecologist at the school who has faced numerous accusations of sexual misconduct. [USC agreed to pay out an additional $852 million to ex-patients of Tyndall’s in 2021, bringing the total to over $1.1 billion. He is currently on trial and has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.]
I didn’t have immediate memories of my experience with Tyndall, but when they began to surface, they triggered a separate memory of sexual assault. When I was 5, a 16-year-old neighborhood boy fingered me in the woods across from my house. I never said a word about it.
Tyndall gave me an unnecessary pelvic exam and full-body skin check, touched me inappropriately and made sexually suggestive comments. [Though hundreds of women, including the author, came forward with allegations against Tyndall, the majority of them fell outside the 10-year statute of limitations, did not allow for criminal charges or did not have enough evidence for prosecution. The author’s allegations are not among the specific claims that Tyndall is currently defending himself against in court.]
At first, I truly didn’t think either event had impacted me significantly. USC had partnered with a company named Praesidium to help victims in the case find and fund mental health support. Did I need free therapy? I clung to my belief that my experience of assault was not traumatic, but I went anyway.
During my first session, I told my therapist about my childhood assault. “It was really no big deal,” I said.
She looked at me with seeing, compassionate eyes. “That is actually a very traumatic experience to have happened to you as a child.”
I was grateful when the hour was over. Despite my willingness to show up to my session each week and talk about my complicated relationship with my mom and my history of assault, my participation was perfunctory. I wasn’t ready to dig deep.
After we’d worked together for almost a year, my therapist suggested that I start sleeping with a teddy bear. Hugging a stuffed animal, she said, would help me be more present in my body. Then I might be able to face my past trauma instead of suppressing and diminishing it.
I looked at her like she was crazy. To me, a rom-com screenwriter, her suggestion seemed like pure writing fodder. Imagine the scene: A first date goes remarkably well. The two end up at her place and make their way to the bedroom. All signs point to “go” until he’s face to face with Paddington.
A grown woman sleeping with a stuffed animal is a hackneyed punchline. I politely replied to my therapist’s suggestion: “No, thank you. I’m not doing that.”
When she brought up the idea again a few weeks later, I knew she really meant it. This time, I heard her say words like “self-love” and “healing,” but I couldn’t take them in; those concepts were foreign to me. I had a plan, though. To humor her, I’d sleep with a stuffed animal for a night or two, and after, when I was certain I was no closer to loving myself or being present than before, we could move on.
My two sons own myriad stuffed animals. But having inherited sentimental genes from their father, they were not willing to part with any of their furry friends. I guess my youngest saw the desperation on my face and decided, after careful consideration, to give me the ugliest of his collection: a little pug with a missing eye and only half a red tongue. He handed over the dog and said, “You can have him for one night only.”
I took Pug to bed with me. He was too small, and I spent most of the night uncomfortable, with him stuffed in my armpit. I was surprised by how disappointed I felt. Instead of proving my therapist wrong, I made a bigger effort. I returned Pug as promised and ordered a teddy bear online — actually, three teddy bears. Teddy, “hand-made with love,” was soft gray and looked super-duper fuzzy. I’m not fooled by my boys’ sweet, innocent smiles; I knew if I didn’t get them each their own, Teddy would be ruthlessly kidnapped from my bedroom in broad daylight. Two days later, three teddies arrived in a box. I quickly and gently unwrapped mine.
My husband was incredibly supportive of my work in therapy and kept quiet about his wife sleeping with a stuffed bear. If he had commented on it, he couldn’t have teased me more than I was already teasing myself. That first night, wrapping my arms tight around Teddy and shutting my eyes, I said out loud, “I’ve hit an all-time low.”
But something amazing started to happen over those first few weeks of sleeping with a stuffed animal: I felt comforted. I felt less alone. I felt love for the little girl I once was. I held on to the bear for her ― for me.
I started to delve deeper in therapy. I talked about what it was like to grow up with a famous therapist mother who excelled at helping her clients process trauma but had missed the signs that her own daughter had been sexually assaulted. Using an approach known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, my therapist helped me process the shame and grief I had carried from an early age. Yet I still struggled to believe my experience of assault had been impactful.
In one session, I repeated the words from our first meeting. They had become my mantra: It was really no big deal. My therapist asked me to imagine if it had been one of my children who was assaulted. Would I think it had been no big deal then? Her question split me open. I would have run lightning-fast into the woods to rescue my child. I would have done everything in my power to stop Tyndall. But no one had been there to save me. In that moment, I realized the horror and impact of my assaults.
That night, I didn’t make jokes. I didn’t hesitate. I clutched Teddy as tight to my chest as I could.
My therapist and I continued to do the work. I continued to sleep with Teddy. Then, a settlement check from USC arrived in the mail. The money was surreal, but it didn’t make me whole.
“Why don’t you write a memoir?” my therapist asked.
I looked at her as incredulously as I had when she recommended I sleep with a stuffed bear.
“Because I’m a screenwriter. I don’t write books,” I replied.
But it didn’t take me long to realize her suggestion had merit. I had often used stories and fictional characters as means of escape. Writing my own story was an opportunity for me to be more authentic and present. I began to send her chapters in between sessions. It was easier to put on the page what had been hard for me to say out loud. I often wrote at night in bed, with Teddy propped up beside me. In just under three months, I finished a draft.
It’s been over two years since I started sleeping with Teddy, and now my bear is worn and tattered, with a small rip down the spine. Sometimes when I’m making the bed, I have to pick little pieces of stuffing out from between the sheets.
At one time, I might have discarded the bear in the trash. But I’ve started to save more things: meaningful birthday and holiday cards, a ticket to a special concert. There’s a large area right above my desk to display my children’s artwork, and I keep other beloved items in a special bin. Whereas I once thought I was unsentimental, I’ve learned there was more to it: Because of the sexual assault, my childhood self didn’t believe she was worthy of saving anything that may have mattered to her, and I continued to think this way as an adult.
My therapist and I have talked more about why she was so insistent about me sleeping with a stuffed animal. She said, “A beloved object can become a psychological representation of yourself, and over time, it can help you develop self-love and self-reverence.” Cherishing Teddy helped me begin nurturing myself. I now have greater self-worth. I know I matter, my memories matter and my writing matters.
It’s not just sleeping with Teddy that’s helped me get to where I am today. It’s taken a lot of hard work, self-examination and real change to start loving myself the way I deserve to be loved.
Do I think every middle-aged woman should sleep with a stuffed animal? Well, truthfully, yes. Believe me, every morning when I make the bed and gently place Teddy between the pillows, or in the middle of the night when my hands search under the sheets to find where the bear escaped to, I question my sanity. But I am trying to have more compassion toward myself and am proud of myself for making the effort.
With some surgery, I think Teddy is going to be just fine. And you know what? So am I.
Rachel Weinhaus is a screenwriter and memoirist. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in screenwriting from the University of Southern California and a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Weinhaus is the author of “The Claimant: A Memoir of an Historic Sexual Abuse Lawsuit and a Woman’s Life Made Whole.” Visit her at rachelweinhaus.com.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.