Pillow comforts the body and soul

Some are attached to what it symbolizes

Family Matters

February 20, 2005|By Steven Barrie-Anthony

What treasure would you save if a natural disaster struck?dyd The key to a lifetime of sound sleep, says one Atlanta attorney. "If there's a fire, what am I going in there for? I've thought about that," says Asim Raza. "Kids and wife. And then -- my pillow. If you're 35 and you've been sleeping on the same pillow for 31 years, you don't take that lightly."

This isn't a joke to Raza, or to the many other adults who are deeply attached to the cushions that lull them to sleep each night. Before getting married, Raza told his fiancee, "My pillow is really important to me." She laughed, so Raza reiterated: "No, I'm not kidding. This is really important." Despite the occasional joke about security blankets, "she has actually been very respectful of it," he says. "She knows what I'm like without it."

Like most people interviewed for this story, Raza isn't anxious to discuss his pillow on the record -- "Don't make me look like a fool," he pleads -- but pillow attachment isn't anything to feel sheepish about, says Lee Jampolsky, a psychologist in Carmel Valley, Calif.

"Ironically, people aren't embarrassed about carrying 12 cell phones, but are embarrassed if they have some kind of relationship with their pillow," she says. "It's very common, and at the core it's very healthy. Mine happens to have a name: Pillow."

While Raza refuses to disclose his pillow's name, he will chat about its history. His parents gave him the thin cotton pillow when he was 4 1/2 , and it has remained nearby ever since. It hasn't been easy: "As a kid, my brother would steal the pillow and then say, 'Either you do the vacuuming today or you're not getting the pillow back,' " Raza says.

While attending American University in Washington, D.C., Raza enlisted his roommate to help protect his pillow. Both his mother and his grandmother have made covers for it. "I've got to get buried with this thing," he says. "But I'm a Muslim, and you're not supposed to take anything with you. I'll probably leave it as a family heirloom."

Warmth of home

These surrogate teddy bears provide comfort and company, much the way a special blanket might have soothed many of these same adults when they were young. It's a dependent and healthy relationship, experts say, that stretches beyond the human world. A beloved pillow can stand in for, or even come to represent, the feeling of connectedness that all primates require, says Craig Stanford, a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California.

"Even chimps in the L.A. Zoo are very fond of the bedding they're given," he says. "They don't drag around pillows, but they do drag around their sleeping materials sometimes."

Adults who still sleep on their childhood pillows say they imbue bedtime with the same kind of warmth and safety they felt when Mom and Dad used to kiss them goodnight and tuck them in. As Raza puts it, "Harmony, music and warm milk all combine into a pillow. ... The smell of my pillow just immediately relaxes me."

Chicago philanthropist Kathy Posner can't sleep or watch TV without cradling her 44-year-old "Happy Pillow." She cried into the pillow when she was 16 and her father died, and she embraced it six years later when her mother passed away. She carried it to college and to wherever she has moved. She totes it on trips when she can fit it in her luggage.

Pillow attachment "is something I encounter quite a bit with my clients," says Yvonne Thomas, a Los Angeles therapist -- and it's a healthy alternative to addictions and vices, she says.

"There are so many ways a person can comfort themselves. They can smoke, gamble, have sex indiscriminately," Thomas says. "Let this be the way a person copes. Instead of drinking, instead of overeating, let them reach for their pillow when they're sad and stressed."

Hygiene's an issue

Chiropractors and allergists tend to disagree.

A pillow should be a tool to keep yourself in correct alignment as you sleep, says Jerome F. McAndrews, spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association -- and broken-down cushions don't provide the level of support that your head and neck require. "If you get in the habit of sleeping with an old pillow that gives no support, you're going to encourage disc and joint degeneration," he says.

Then there's the "ick" factor.

An old pillow might be "one of the dirtiest places in the home," says Jonathan Corren, medical research director of the Allergy Research Foundation in Los Angeles. Pillows that aren't cleaned regularly and protected, he says, can become a repository for dust mites, dirt, volatile organic compounds such as wood finishes, pet dander, even mold.

If you have allergies or asthma, Corren recommends that you either toss the ancient pillow or use one of the many hypoallergenic casings available.

Or leave it in the freezer overnight to rid it of dust mites, says Glen Needham, associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University.

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