When I was an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital some thirty years ago, I developed an unbelievably strong transference with my psychiatrist. He became my entire world and I wanted nothing more than to be able to climb inside his skin and live next to his heart forever. When he told me one day that he was leaving for a two week vacation, I felt like my entire world was coming to an end. I didn’t know what to do! I went into full-blown panic mode. My anxiety skyrocketed.
Shortly thereafter, I was in the gift shop and I saw this little teddy bear. He had salt and pepper fur just like my therapist had and he had the cutest little brown eyes. I dug into my billfold and pulled out the money I needed to buy him. I promptly named him after my psychiatrist and carried him back to my room where I lovingly placed him on my bed.
Over the next few days one of the nurses commented on my cute little transitional object. I had no idea what she was talking about so I asked her what she meant.She explained to me that a transitional object is used by small children often when they are coping with separation anxiety. For many children this can be something as simple as a “blankie” (think Linus Pelt’s security blanket which he carried with him always).
For a child, the transitional object brings comfort. It allows them to gently separate from their loved one in a way they can tolerate and which alleviates their fear and anxiety.
The term “transitional object” was first used by D.W. Winnicott in 1951 as a way to describe an object which allowed a child to make a shift from mother to other object relationships. It is important to recognize that children choose their own transitional object and that it holds great significance for them. For most children, it is often their first “not-me” possession and helps soothe them and gives them comfort when they are under stress. This transitional object often helps a child bridge the gap between their infancy and early childhood. This early relationship is often indicative of how the child will navigate his or her way through the world as they mature. It is therefore, important that the object not be denigrated by members of the family — made fun of or taken away.
Having a transitional object helps the child separate from their mother in a healthy way. I never had any transitional objects when I was growing up. Despite the fact that I was abandoned as an infant, I never chose to attach to an inanimate object until I made the primary connection with my therapist when I was in the hospital. It was an important relationship for me to have — this relationship with this small teddy bear — because I was able to go to him for the comfort I needed whenever the thought of being separated from my psychiatrist became overwhelming. I would “talk” to him when my therapist was not present. He became my new sounding board. He was a non-judgement pair of ears who was always available and always ready to listen to whatever I had to say.
My therapist was extremely encouraging of me having him. He chuckled over the fact that I had named the little bear after him and asked me to bring him once (but only once) to a therapy session. As the time drew nearer for my therapist to leave, this little bear began to become even more important to me. And once my therapist actually departed, he became the centre of my universe. He was the bridge between my therapist and my crazed world — my connection to my therapist who remained ever constant even when the therapist had departed. He held the promise that my therapist would actually return as he had promised he would. Having this little bear helped me separate from my therapist in a healthier manner than I would have without him. Without him, I would have acted out all over the place, threatened to hurt myself or actually self-harmed. He became the connection to the absent therapist, he became the object that allowed me to remain connected to the therapist who was no longer in my immediate sphere.He allowed me to process my fear of abandonment in a whole different way than I ever had before.
Even after all this time, I still have that little bear. He sits in a rocking chair which is in my living room. I don’t talk to him anymore but I do look at him fondly from time to time because of what he represents which is the way I started to grow up during my inpatient experience.