‘Looners’ Substitute Balloons for Love, Sex and Intimacy
(NEW YORK) -- For children, balloons can make the heart soar, but when an adult tucks his balloons into bed at night, he could be considered a "looner."
Dave, a former piano teacher from outside Little Rock, Ark., thinks of his balloons as his children. And he has fathered 65,000 of them. He cuddles them and coddles them, but insists the relationship is purely platonic.
"Some people think I am doing something else with them, but I am not," he says. "I am pure in my life -- I keep the balloons the same way."
Dave is one of four stories that will air on National Geographic Channel's series, Taboo, which airs Sunday, Aug. 19 at 10 p.m.
Each night, he tucks one under his shirt and sleeps with the chosen balloon. "They create a world of sleeping on clouds and I want to feel the love emanating from these beautiful, beautiful balloons," he says in the episode.
"It feels so warm and your heart just reaches out to [them]," he says. "I believe these are my children. They are a part of who I am ... and make a part of my so-called family."
Loving balloons seems harmless enough, but Dr. Rebecca Beaton, director and founder of the Stress Management Institute, said attachment to objects can be considered a mental illness if it interferes with daily life or causes great stress.
"I presume he has some difficulty with relationships with other people if he has a balloon under his shirt," said Beaton, who has never treated Dave.
"It feels like intimacy but it's not a real human and humans can hurt you," she said. "It's safer with an inanimate object … They don't feel so alone."
Humanizing objects is not that uncommon, she said. Chuck Noland, the Fed Ex executive played by Tom Hanks in the 2000 movie Cast Away, was best friends with his volleyball. Of course he was a castaway on a desert island.
Men also have close attachments to blow-up dolls. And just like balloons, these objects "from a kinesthetic perspective are like a human body -- kind of soft and have some characteristics like a person."
Dave may insist that he isn't sexually attracted to his balloons, but there are many who are, according to licensed sex therapist Kimberly Resnick Anderson, who is director of Sexual Health at Summa Health System in Akron, Ohio.
These attractions are defined paraphilias by the psychiatric Diagnostics and Standards Manual (DSM5) as "intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors generally involving nonhuman objects."
Anderson consulted in a similar series from TLC, Strange Sex, which featured Christopher, a man who pops balloons for sexual pleasure.
Christopher's fetish was so intense, he moved from Rutland, Vt., to New York City to explore his balloon fantasies with others so inclined.
"A fetish is when a person prefers an object to a live person, and it becomes a requirement for a sexual response," she told ABCNews.com in an interview about a man who had a fetish about suckling his wife's breast milk and getting her pregnant. "I have seen that with fur, rubber, diapers, bugs -- even car fetishes -- anything you can think of, there is a sector out there."
One of her patients fell in love with an inflatable duckie he found on the beach as a child. By the time he reached puberty it became sexual. "Some imprinting goes on and hard wiring and it's extra difficult to change it," she said of those with fetishes.
As for Christopher, he demonstrates his erotic love of balloons. "All I want to do is pop it," he says of his favorite orange-colored balloon. "This is going to be epic. As it gets bigger, I get a little anxious and a little nervous, you know, then really excited."
With a loud bang, he exclaims in the TLC episode, "I guess pretty much all balloons deserve to die."
His favorite trick is "necking" the balloon. When it gets to 14 or 15 inches in length, Christopher holds the balloon and stretches out the neck.
As a child he remembers coming home from school and pleasuring himself with a balloon.
"When it finally popped, I found I was most attracted to the balloon itself," he says. "I think it's calming, and it's important in my life."
What Christopher really wants is to share his love of balloons with a woman.
And that, says psychologist Beaton, is exactly the point. Attractions to objects like balloons are often just "coping mechanisms."
"They are using the balloons to fill the need for intimacy," she said. "We try to help them find other ways of getting those intimacy needs met and helping them to realize that they can self-soothe and gradually start to change."
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio