We all aspire to things in life; perhaps we would like to move up the corporate ladder, to have a fulfilling and healthy marriage, to build a reputation for ourselves. Some of us have the luxury of having all of these things, and perhaps more. But then life can throw us a curve ball, and nothing seems the same.
I was 28 years old and had a high-flying expatriate contract. I relished the ‘glam life’ in an international bank, moving from place to place, to London, to Paris, to Tokyo. I went to yoga classes, socialised, ate healthily, travelled, had a relationship, worked hard, and played even harder. I thought that I had a balanced life, that I was enjoying it. I thought that I was self-aware enough to know if that changed, and so I ignored the tell-tale signs, blaming my frequent colds on the air-conditioning in the office.
In 2009, another promotion came my way, and I dismantled my entire life for Beijing. That first Friday here, I had another headache during the afternoon – but I thought perhaps it was the summer heat. When I returned to the hotel, I took some Panadol and slept. At around 2am, I woke up with a pain like no other: it was as though there was a jackhammer drilling into my head. The hotel guard accompanied me to a nearby hospital. Sitting in the bleak corridor with fluorescent lamps, I squirmed on the bench. Cold and dizzy, I vomited all over the floor, much to the dismay of the cleaning lady. When I finally saw a doctor, I was brushed off with fatigue. And it was there that I learned the word for such excruciating pain: I had a migraine.
I saw every medical specialist possible, but the migraines persisted over the next few months. Once a week. Once every few days. Every day. My GP suggested I see a counsellor for stress issues. I smirked: “I am 28 years old. I am not stressed. I can deal with it!” And so I trotted off for my weekly business trips, loaded with painkillers.
The migraines inevitably became worse. I had dizziness, vomiting, and Herculean palpitations. I was so debilitated that as I was about to leave one day at 5am to catch the first flight to Shanghai, I collapsed onto the bedroom floor. My boyfriend called for the clinic to send a doctor because I couldn’t move, who told us that the only option was a shot of morphine.
That did not sound good.
After that, I had to take an extended sick leave as I couldn’t go a few hours without a migraine. One afternoon, I visualised drowning myself in the bathtub, and so I relented, asking to see a psychologist. I was seen as an emergency case, upon which I was told: “Enoch, you have severe clinical depression.” My response was: “When do I get back to work?”
From there, I fell into major clinical depression. All life’s vigor left me. It was an unparalleled anguish, as if I was stuck under 50ft of snow: freezing wet, dark, with no way out. I stopped eating, and lost about 15kgs. I slept all day and demanded that the curtains remain closed. I cried, I screamed, I hit my head on the wall, I tried to overdose with my sleeping pills and antidepressants. I had hallucinations, thinking people would attack me on the streets. I felt utterly helpless. I quit my job and shut myself up at home.
I berated myself for being depressed. I had everything – youth, career, prospects, achievements… What was wrong with me? Looking back, it seems that this depression was expected. That I could have seen it happening. The accumulated stress of my work, the refusal to admit I needed help, the disparity between who I was and what I wanted versus who I thought I should be and what society expected: it all came together and bore down on me. My mind and body collapsed under the weight of it all.
Work stress is nothing new. Everyone has it. But mine stemmed from the insane amount of pressure I was placing on myself: I had to get that promotion, I had to be accepted to that MBA programme, I had to keep succeeding. And yet, did I want that MBA for myself, or did I want it because that was the trend for bankers? As a female leader, I felt that I had to be strong, that I needed to continue to prove myself, that I wasn’t allowed to mess up. When I saw the constant social media posts that my friends were leading such glamorous lives, I felt obliged to do the same, to show off how happy I was. I kept up with the trends, I read every single article that was linked to me, saw every tweet and every photo. I was constantly in fear of missing out (FOMO), of not being on top of everything, of not being good enough. But what was enough?
As I went through the emotional roller coaster of rage, self-pity, guilt, and hopelessness, my boyfriend managed to drag me out to a nearby shopping mall for a walk after a few weeks at home. By complete and utter chance, it happened that I was loitering around a toy shop whilst waiting for him to go to the bathroom. When he came out, he saw something he had not seen in months – I was smiling, and at a stuffed toy polar bear. He bought the bear immediately and asked me to give the bear a name. I blurted, “Floppie, he just flops around all day, watches TV, and does nothing.”
I found out the brand of the bear, that there were different sizes and colours, and started to collect them. I gave them names and personalities. As I got better, I took them travelling, taking photos of them, and amused myself with a photoblog by creating one-liner stories for each photo.
Psychotherapy and medication helped with the depression, but to find myself, the bears were key. They created a safe space for me to project my fears onto them, to analyze myself, and to face myself. It was where creativity lay, between reality and fantasy. This was how I engaged my brain, my imagination, my thoughts, my emotions, and my reason. They instilled life in me once more – I learnt to play again.
The life saving reflection through playing with my bears, was that I was wearing a mask for the 30 odd years prior to the depression. The assumption that I needed to be strong, or that crying meant I would be weak or a failure meant I denied the unpleasant emotions of hurt, pain, loneliness, disappointment for fear that others would judge me or reject me.
Denying our real emotions has severe health consequences, especially for sufferers of depression, as it is only after acknowledging we’re not fine that we seek help and can recover. I was a prime example. The World Health Organisation classifies depression a global disease burden, responsible for more deaths than heart diseases or cancer. 350+ million people suffer from it every day. Companies lose USD 1 trillion annually to absenteeism, medical insurance, and low productivity from employees with depression.
Seeing these issues, I decided to combine my personal experience with knowledge. I ventured to study organizational behaviour, researching the psychology of playfulness and its links to everyday creativity and corporate culture. Then I established my company, Bearapy, to consult for corporates interested in creating a mentally healthier workplace by incorporating the psychology of playfulness in my workshops and talks. Playfulness is highly correlated to innovation, relaxation, and stress management. When we play, our brain excretes hormones and rewires neural pathways for learning, stimulating creativity, and catalysing chemicals to maintain a happy state. This is the reason why playing with bears helped me recover.
Bearapy’s mission is to make the workplace mentally healthy. This year, the theme for WHO’s World Health Day is “Depression: Let’s Talk.” To support this theme, Bearapy has launched an online social media campaign to raise awareness. The objective is to encourage us to show our real emotions, to be courageous enough to say, “Everything’s NOT okay” instead of forcing a smile. For the last 10 days, I posted a picture of a bear on my social media platforms (both English & Chinese) and asked people to comment with their instinctual responses of how the bear is feeling.
We tend to project our own feelings onto others and onto objects around us. Depending on our emotional states, our feelings and thoughts in both the conscious and unconscious minds, and our learnt perspectives of the world, we would see the same picture differently from others. How we think the bear is feeling is the first step. The bigger question is: WHY do we see the bear like that, and WHY do we feel like that way? This then helps us understand our deeper, inner feelings to increase self-awareness.
Even though the campaign comes to a close today, I urge you to go through the posts and continue to share with your friends by reposting, stimulating the discussion, and self-reflecting. This is one step towards being able to face up to our fears and worries in life – and to be able to confront them. This is one step towards talking about the less-discussed topics as depression.
Wearing a mask is tiring. I found a new life through accepting that I had depression. I found my creativity and published my experience in media. I recreated my career identity. I was able to face up to my vulnerabilities and accept them as part of me. I had the courage to be honest with myself.
So can you.
About Enoch Li
Based in Beijing, Enoch is a Play Consultant and Founder of Bearapy, consulting on corporate culture and organizational behaviour, focusing on executive wellbeing, leadership development, team dynamics, and employee engagement using the psychology of playfulness and object-relations. Enoch has been published on the topics of mental health and self-development with her experience in depression on her blog and media (pen name: Noch Noch), and is a regular commentator and corporate speaker on women leadership, creativity, and mental health, as well as a mother of a vivacious 3-year-old girl, and one more on the way this summer.