About 5 years ago, I was enveloped in clinical depression, paralyzed with helplessness, and unable to work.
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I spent everyday at home with the curtains closed, waiting to rot. One day, my husband somehow managed to drag me out of bed to go for a walk at the nearby mall. I had no interest but was too lethargic to protest. I dragged my unwilling feet behind him. Chance had it that he had to go to the bathroom so I loitered at the shop nearby to wait for him. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw a soft toy bear. It sat there, looked up at me, and gave me a shy smile. I smiled back. When my husband came into the shop and saw a smile on my face for the first time in many weeks, he immediately bought the bear for me. I named the bear, Floppie.
A few days later, my husband wanted me to go out for a walk again. When I refused, he suggested, “How about we take Floppie to play in the snow?” I lit up and agreed. We went to the Forbidden City moat, which was covered in pristine snow. I decided it was quite cold and gave Floppie a hat and vest to wear. I giggled, and for a while, was distracted from any negative or suicidal thoughts. I was engrossed in play.
Since Floppie, the stuffed toy bear collection had grown into a full on Beardom. The bears were the same design, but of different colors or sizes. I would travel with different bears or took out in Beijing, showcasing their adventures on a photo blog that I started. These toy bears became companions, and I talked to them when I was upset. But, why would someone in their mid-thirties still play with bears? Surely that’s for children!
During childhood, we play. Most of us would have had an object we kept close all the time, be it a toy or a safety blanket. Psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, coined this, the “transitional object”, which served the purpose of helping children understand the distinction between illusions and realities, to find meaning in the environment, and to grow from dependency to autonomy. As we grow into adults, we regard these activities and objects as childish, losing the ability to play. An international executive hanging out with soft toys – how would that help my promotion opportunities?
Suppressing this inner child is at our own detriment. The lack of creativity, fun and play, exacerbated feelings of stress already present in life, and I sunk into severe depression. Yet, in addition to medication and therapy, play showed me light. I had no illusion that the bears were alive, but I interacted with them in my imagination. Each bear has a name and a personality trait. “Floppie” was symbolic of my days in depression at that time, when I flopped on the couch each day and did not do much else aside from sleeping.
Playing with the bears, I created a transitional space for myself to see the world – and myself – from a different perspective. It allowed me to project difficult issues I was dealing with to an inanimate object, making it a safe environment to examine myself without being too close to ignite pain and anger, a play therapy technique used by psychologists. Take for instance, Fuzzie, the banker bear, who busied himself only with money and status, an image of myself that I loathed for a long time. Yet, in a story I made up, Fuzzie found bargains in a purchase of some bandaids, and this bear persona was more amusing than threatening.
Interactions between the bears, how they would react to the same situation, what they did when they travelled etc., were creative scenarios set in the transitional space, partly illusion, yet partly reality, for all bears were facets of myself, who I was, who I am, who I will be. Putting life into play mode, I realized that I did not have to be so hard on myself, nor take perceived mistakes so seriously. There was no “bad” or “wrong” – my life, my experience, my decisions, were all part of me. Habits take time to change, and when I found life hard, Punkie would remind me that we could play a trick on my husband, or Gourmie would bring me some 3 Bearchelin-starred chicken wings as snacks, and that day would be fun again.
Slowly, with the help of these bears, I was able to reflect, think, and steer myself away from depressive thoughts. With this life experience, I went on to do read more about the effects of play. Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the world’s most renown researchers on play, commented in his book, The Ambiguity of Play, that the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression. Indeed, I was testament. This interface between reality and illusion, created through play, was vital to my confronting my challenges and issues.
Play is paramount for our health, social wellbeing, and finding a sense of purpose. Lost in play stimulates creativity and new inspirations.
This is why I still play today!