REAL BODIES: LIFE DOCTOR

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When my brother and I weren't speaking last year (for reasons I can no longer recall), one channel of communication remained open. It was black and white and furry: our mutual panda, Bungoson. Even when I had behaved truly terribly, my brother always answered Bungoson's e-mails.

When I have insomnia, I don't expect my husband to stay awake. Instead the job falls to my panda. Bungoson will stay awake as long as I do. He's good like that. This animal is so esteemed that I can't leave the house if I've left him in an uncomfortable position. The whole family is shortly off to a Chinese restaurant, panda in tow, to celebrate his 25th birthday.

Outsiders have been unkind about this. They think such sentiment should be left behind in childhood, consigned to the attic, physically and metaphorically. As adults we should be able to deal with the world alone.

These people can stuff it, however, because cuddly pandas, rabbits and assorted furries have now received official recognition in the psychological world. They have a therapeutic role to play.

Dr Anna Madill of the University of Leeds and Jenny Arthern, psychological therapist at Wakefield and Pontefract Community Health, studied the benefits of "transitional objects". A transitional object could be anything that was used in lieu of a human relationship. Some people had affectionate relationships with answer-machine tapes or even pens that reminded them of a loved one.

"It's a healthy process," says Jenny Arthern. "People think that using an object with a familiar smell or touch is a very childish thing to do. But it's probably tapping into the inner child, a way of seeking strength in yourself. Often they are soft and cuddly because children find comfort in tactile things." We shouldn't eschew the sense of touch now we are grown-up. It isn't immature, it's sensible.

The ability to derive comfort from an inanimate object dates from an early developmental stage. "Little children learn that an object still exists even when they can't see it. So they don't feel abandoned when their parents aren't in the room," says Arthern. It's about self-reliance. We're alone but we imagine we're not.

Her study confirms that, unlike drugs, cuddly toys do not encourage over- dependency. Though it looked at transitional objects used by the clients of psychotherapists, you don't have to be in therapy to benefit.

Rob, 36, a solicitor, has a soft toy watching over him in the absence of his Brazilian boyfriend. "Ricardo was staying here illegally and had to leave. He gave me a kitten because his nick-name for me is Kitty. It fills the space in my bed. I feel looked after."

So bring your panda out of the cupboard. Unlike a real pet it will not die. You can't pop your grandparents in the washing machine when they lose their lustre. Unlike a therapist, your panda does not start looking at his watch after an hour.

If you are coy about parading such raw emotion, bear in mind (ho ho) the following:

Keep it select - 30 squidgy things on the bed will do no good for your image as a sexual demon;

Your panda is easier to explain away if it's very old;

Only talk to him on your own - and never in a silly voice.

Finally I'll share a poem that my brother sent me in a bad time ...

When life really gets you down

Face your toils with candour.

Let go of that unhappy frown:

Take comfort in your panda.

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