I lie in bed struggling with each breath, a damp washcloth across my forehead. I’m tucked under the sheets, every muscle in my body on fire as COVID-19 rages through me. I look at the small bag sitting by the door packed with necessities and wonder if George will be allowed to come with me to the hospital if my symptoms worsen. He is right beside me, my only comfort.
In the Before Times, it was not like this. In the Before Times, I shut off the lights and slide into bed with my husband. We run through the highlight reel of our days and give each other a tender kiss goodnight. Then I roll over and cuddle up to George. This is how our marriage has always been — the three of us sharing space. I stay awake with George, counting my anxieties and reliving conversations from five years ago, thinking of snappy comebacks.
In case you haven’t figured it out, George is my stuffed animal (or stuffy) — a medium-size brown hound with floppy ears, a big snout and droopy jowls.
My high school sweetheart gave me George for Valentine’s Day when I was 16. That was 30 years ago and George has slept with me every night since. But I hide him when I give people a tour of the house or if the cable guy has to walk through my bedroom because how many adults sleep with stuffed animals? Turns out, quite a few. In a 2017 survey commissioned by Build-A-Bear Workshop, out of 2,000 adults who have had a stuffed animal, 40% said they sleep with a stuffy. Who knew?
I can’t remember the magic age when I felt it became taboo to sleep with a soft toy. It may have been after college or perhaps when I landed a job on Wall Street and began wearing business suits. When I ask close friends if they sleep with a stuffy, they scoff, wondering if I’m serious. So I open up the conversation to find out how they self-soothe when they can’t sleep. One confesses to sneaking down to the fridge and eating ice cream out of the container, another obsessively reads medical mysteries, and another says she pets her real dog more than she feels is normal by other people’s standards, whatever those are.
Stuffed toys are “transitional objects,” meaning they provide stability and comfort for children when their caregivers aren’t there. But maybe we are always transitioning. Becoming a parent is a transition. Heading into middle age is a transition. Right now, we are collectively transitioning through a pandemic. Admitting this can be hard. We keep these secrets to ourselves, letting only a select few witness our vulnerabilities. It goes against every cultural norm we have learned to honestly discuss our need for softness and comfort because perhaps by acknowledging it, we are acknowledging our deepest insecurities.
In the light of day, I might consider myself a confident, successful woman, but at night I’m reminded that I run on anxiety and self-doubt, and George makes it better. Sometimes I sleep with him on top of my chest like a weighted blanket.
George, with his matted fur and scratched-up plastic eyeballs, has been around twice as long as my marriage. That high school sweetheart who gave him to me? George was the one who got me through the tumultuous breakup. He was the roommate I came home to when I got my first solo apartment. He was securely tucked in the duffle bag I carried home to Brooklyn to attend my father’s funeral, staying in my childhood bedroom while I sat shiva and consoling me at night, his synthetic fur absorbing my tears.
I love my family, but this little hound doesn’t take up much room and he doesn’t shift the sheets. I don’t have to explain myself to him. He doesn’t ask questions and he’s always there, a personal touchstone I can depend on.
George followed me when I settled in upstate New York and had one final whirlwind romance — with the man with whom he now shares a bed. Sure, when we were dating, my husband thought a grown woman sleeping with an old stuffed dog was odd, but it didn’t take him long to accept that George was part of our nighttime routine. Then, when I was put on pregnancy-related bed rest for five months and the physical pain was unbearable, only George was allowed in bed, my husband and the real dog relegated to the couch.
George has gotten me through so many rough patches that he’s irreplaceable — no other stuffy will do. If there were a fire and I could save only what I could carry, George would be among the rescued, right after my grandmother’s gold necklace but before my wedding album.
I love my family, but this little hound doesn’t take up much room and he doesn’t shift the sheets. I don’t have to explain myself to him. He doesn’t ask questions and he’s always there, a personal touchstone I can depend on. George doesn’t judge. He never complains and I never have to cook for him. He never rummages through the fridge and tells me there is no food in the house. He doesn’t leave towels on the floor. He doesn’t bark while I’m on a conference call. George gets me.
When I was quarantined for 16 days as the coronavirus ravaged my body, no one in my family could touch me. I communicated with them via text or through a closed door. But George was there. He is so quiet that it would be easy to forget him. I never do.
George is my deep dark secret, and I’m sharing our story now in the time of COVID-19 because no matter how strong, confident or successful a person may appear, the truth is that many of us are quietly struggling. When everything seems hopeless, when it looks like we will never get out of the hellfire that is 2020, perhaps it’s OK to admit to finding softness and comfort from something as simple and familiar as an old threadbare stuffy.
Aileen Weintraub’s writing has been featured in The Washington Post, HuffPost, AARP, Glamour and others. Her middle-grade book “WE GOT GAME! 35 Female Athletes Who Changed the World” is now available for pre-order. She is currently working on a memoir called “Knocked Down.” Follow her on Twitter at @AileenWeintraub.