“This is Banker Bear. He’s super OCD. And this is Chillie Bear. He likes to takes it easy,” says Noch Noch Li as she introduces her collection of stuffed bears. My eye roves over the fuzzy collective jumbled on the couch, before I’m completely won over by a dashing bear with an impressive moustache. “Oh him?” says Li. “That’s Snobbie Bear! He drives an SUV, but thinks it’s a Porsche!”
This is “Bearapy.” Or bear therapy, if you will. Li created Bearapy (email@example.com) as a way of dealing with her own depression, and it’s evolved into a support group for fellow sufferers. It’s possibly the only English-language support group for those recovering from depression active in Beijing.
Li emphasizes that while she isn’t trained as a medical therapist, she does use a variety of creative methods and play techniques to help participants discover what inspires them. The group also helps fellow sufferers connect, lending them a safe space to share their experiences, both positive and negative, without fear of being judged. “Depression isn’t something you can talk about [in public],” says Li. “I’ve had all sorts come in, people who, if I’d met at a social event, I’d never guess they had depression.”
Brought up in Australia and Hong Kong, Li has an easy smile and the relaxed mannerisms of her native Australia. She’s not the kooky child-woman I expected to meet—she was a high-flying corporate executive that worked all across the globe.
“I thought I was so important,” recalls Li. “Here I was, working in Europe, working in Japan. But the relocation was stressful. I was in my mid-20s, so I didn’t realize it. I never picked up on what my body was telling me.”
It eventually got worse. She felt such a depth of “helplessness and hopelessness” that even suicide was no longer a foreign concept, feelings that she details on her personal blog.
Li was once a high-flying corporate executive
It was during the bleakest days of her depression that she found Floppie Bear, the adorable stuffed animal that started it all. She was dragged out to Solana by Tim, her husband. There, of all places, she spotted a plushie bear “looking” up at her and smiling. She, of course, smiled back—the first time in a long while.
“I smiled at a bear!” says Li with a wry grin. “It was the first time I smiled in two months, and I smiled at a bear. Tim said, ‘We’ve got to get this bear!’” The 14-inch GUND Snuffles bear was swiftly brought home.
Li, the “bearalist” (or bear specialist), admits it sounds childish. “She’s 30-something and playing with bears!” That, admits Li, is what many people tend to think. Even Li herself has moments where she wonders what she’s doing with the bears. “Am I getting weirder?”
Initially a form of “self-amusement,” it later snowballed into a completely separate blog dedicated to her coterie of bears. Later, through her therapist, she realized the bears came to represent aspects of her personality. Banker Bear was her careerist, perfectionist past, Chillie Bear was the relaxed, chilled-out person she wanted to become.
Play is important for adults, says Li
And Li is quite serious about play. “As adults, we forget to play. We often think toys are just for kids. But we learn, develop and create new solutions through play,” she says. “For me, I express myself with my bears. Whenever I go into a depressive episode, my husband asks, ‘What would Chillie think? What would Floppie think?’ It helps me come out from my spiral of thoughts. I’m hoping people can look at themselves and see what serves the same purpose, and look at their creative side through these [play] objects.”
So where does Bearapy come in? As Li tells it, the intensively personal creation was sparked on a day that she just simply didn’t want to go outside the apartment—so her husband Tim whimsically suggested they take Floppie Bear with them.
“Shall we take Floppie out in the snow?” The suggestion was admittedly odd, but it temporarily snapped her out of the “ruminating thoughts” swirling inside her head. She would eventually amass a collection of nearly 40 bears, but she insists that she’s not a collector. “They all have names. They all have personalities.”
There are squee-inducingly cute photographs of her bears squashed into a bike basket, adorably clutching bottles of vodka or snoozing in front of the telly. Friends often take her bears with them on holiday, snapping a few photographs along the way. Li used to post all these photographs on her personal blog, adding a cute line or two.
Li during a Bearapy session
Posting and writing about her bears gave her a creative outlet that, while not exactly curing her depression, gave her energy and a new playful attitude toward life. She rediscovered her love of writing, something she’d neglected since school. She’s since been published in a number of high-profile newspapers, writing about her depression.
Though the black dog (or is that black bear?) has marked Li’s life, she now wouldn’t have it any other way. “Depression taught me to be empathetic. I’m thankful in a way. If I hadn’t gone through this, I wouldn’t have accepted myself the way I am.”
“This is who I am,” she says, with an adorable stuffed bear perched on her lap. “I no longer have the need to put on a show for people.”
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