Playing to survive a paradoxical life
By Manling, China Plus Host
Enoch Li takes an interview from China Plus. [Photo: China Plus]
"Thank you, sickness." "Thank you, depression." These two sentences from among Enoch Li's blog writings have lingered in my mind. During our interview, she expressed gratitude for her suffering. She was saved with the help of a little toy bear, and has become a voice calling for more awareness of people's struggle for mental health. Her efforts have been recognized by the Social Contributor of the Year 2018 Award she received from the International Professional Women's Society in China, and a Speaking Out Award from Mind HK. The International Professional Women's Society is a non-government organization established in Shanghai about 10 years ago by professionals working in China. Mind HK is a branch of Mind UK, which specializes in taking care of people's mental health.
In the West, mental health issues are dealt with better than they are here in China. Big strides have been made here in the development of psychology, but although depression has become a common clinical diagnosis, talking about it is still taboo. Most patients never seek professional help, many don't stick with the treatment, and only a few pull through trauma as successfully as Enoch. Enoch is also among the rare few willing to talk about their personal experience.
Enoch now is the managing director of Bearapy China. She chose a bold slogan for her B2B start-up: "Make the world mentally healthy". Besides running the business, Enoch also writes, makes public speeches, and embraces both traditional and new media to reach out to people. I've watched one of her livestreaming shows on social media where, surrounded by her bears, she chats with a host about how important it is to play.
Enoch wants to see no one else burnout at work, and for adults to embrace their inner playfulness. But can we really escape our melancholy just by playing? We are melancholic because we have too many choices; we don't play anymore because we have too many needs to fulfill; and we are depressed because there is rarely a right and simple answer for the choices we have to make.
The science of psychology came into being at the end of the 19th century. It was pioneered by the German scholar Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt. It is a mature science in the West, but in China and many other parts of Asia, it has developed more slowly. At the beginning of the 20th century, some avant-garde scholars seeking routes out of war and poverty introduced the subject into China. Unfortunately, wars, revolutions, and social movements over the hundred years that followed brought its introduction to a standstill. Psychology languished in university philosophy departments until the 1980s, when normal universities – teacher training schools – started to offer courses to students. I was one of the early students, although we only scratched the surface. But as China has opened itself up more and more to the world and embraced economic reform, psychology as a science experienced a renaissance, especially in the past decade.
Enoch Li introduces the concept of BEARAPY. [Photo: courtesy of Enoch Li]
Depression is a condition that has brought down some of our peers, friends, and family members, preventing them from working and living a normal life. Only last year, I lost my cousin, a man who was a promising student in his youth. He jumped out of a window at the age of 38 to bring his 20-year battle with bipolar disorder to an end. While mourning the dead, it hurts to realize that people don't just kill themselves to escape their illness; they are often seeking relief from the critical attitudes held by some people in society about those among us who have these illnesses. These attitudes sometimes prevent people from seeking the professional help they need to lead healthier and more fulfilling lives.
The majority of Chinese people don't relate a mental condition with an illness until they see someone lose control of themselves. Everyone is familiar with the term "shen xin jian kang"(身心健康): "shen"means the physical body, "xin" means heart or mind, and "jian kang" is healthy. Translated into English, it means being physically and mentally healthy. This has been our highest goal in education for decades, although ironically it has become a cliché used by people who enjoy the privilege of health and an education at an elite school. Not enough has been done to take care of people's mental wellbeing. When depression strikes, silence is considered golden – people who speak up risk losing friends or being frowned upon. People get scared, and feel forced to bury their dark thoughts deep within themselves. Their pain accumulates, and all too often their suffering ends with a tragedy that brings grief to the people they leave behind.
Enoch Li poses for a photo with China Plus host Manling. [Photo: China Plus]
Enoch was born in 1981 into a middle-class family that spent time in Hong Kong and Australia. Her family emigrated so the children had more education opportunities. Enoch became a synonym for excellence within her family and among their friends: She attended the best schools the family could afford, and jetted off to earn degrees in international law, international relations, and government from the University of London, the University of Hong Kong, and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris.
Her mother wanted her to study medicine, but when her grades weren't good enough, she pushed Enoch towards law and politics. Why not follow a path to something she would enjoy? Enoch explained that a career in banking gave her the opportunity to quickly leave Hong Kong and escape her mother. "Was your mother so scary?", I asked. No, Enoch said, but as a guaihaizi (乖孩子), an obedient child, she felt the weight of expectation and the ever-present boundaries that had been set for her that defined how she was expected to behave. Enoch has developed the habit to be excellent. "All your pain comes from being passively excellent", I concluded. Enoch was amused at this new expression concocted by me and asked whether she could quote it in her next book.
Enoch's mother grew up at a time when girls came second when it came to the allocation of the family's resources. If the household budget couldn't stretch to provide an education to all of the children, the girls were the first to go without. Many women carry the memory of watching their brothers go out into the world and of envying their schooling and the advantages that it brought them. As these girls grow up and become mothers, they do their best to make up for their own lost opportunities by protecting their children excessively and pushing them to excel.
When I asked about her father, Enoch said he was a university lecturer who could have become a genius in pure math under the right circumstances. He played a lessor role in family affairs, was comfortable with not making decisions in the family since this could avoid conflict at home. This is quite common among Chinese men.
After Enoch went into banking, it didn't take long for her to start climbing the ladder and recognized for her top performance. With a promising future, a good income, and a loving boyfriend, she shuttled between Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Singapore, before severe migraines and a cascade of other symptoms brought her life to a tipping point. Uncontrollable thoughts about wanting to take her own life scared her into seeing a clinical psychologist and doctor. After she was diagnosed with depression, she asked the psychologist when she could go back to work again. In retrospect, she said she didn't see the warning signs, because she didn't think that depression could bring the life of a high-flyer like her to a standstill.
Enoch Li and her bears. [Photo: courtesy of Enoch Li]
Enoch felt numb. Through her eyes, life was devoid of hope, love, and friendship. She struggled to sleep and lost interest in food. She was lucky to have a supportive boyfriend fighting alongside her. He's now her husband and the father of their two children. He led her to discover her first toy bear and helped her to grow her bear kingdom into a business. Enoch named the first bear she received from him Floppie, because she felt that it, like her, was doing nothing except lie around the house achieving nothing. This might sound a bit grim, but it was a sign that Enoch had starting to come to terms with how she was feeling and was venturing into her own psychology. Enoch gives each of her bears a name and a personality. Playing with them and talking to them helped her to realize that she needed more in her life than just career success.
Enoch began the Bearapy's World Mental Health Day newsletter with a quote from the book "The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression" by the writer Andrew Solomon. "Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair." Enoch pondered on this line until she finally figured out what she had been despairing: the loss of herself.
Many tiger mothers and wolf fathers justify their tough love or overprotection for their children with the belief that parents are there to make sure that their kids excel. They force their children to learn art, literature, and sports, because these hobbies will glorify their CVs and add charm to their personality. But by attaching practicality to extracurricular activities, parents strip the element of play out of their kids' hobbies. This turns them into burdens, rather than pursuits that nurture imagination and creativity.
When we're young, when we aren't blaming our mothers for being overprotective, we're criticizing them for their tough love. We seldom realize that when we get older, if we have kids, we turn into a version of our own parents. Enoch is grateful to her mom, and says she'll pass on to her kids her mom's perseverance, determination, and modesty. But she won't ask them not to cry, like she was, and will be open to their feelings and will refrain from setting boundaries for them unless they stray into serious danger. Enoch pointed out that even animals play to test their own boundaries and to get to know the world around them;
When I asked how she would take care of her children's mental health, her answer amused me. She said that babies traditionally start to receive red envelopes stuffed with cash as blessings soon after they're born. Many parents use the money to buy daily essential like diapers, but Enoch has opened a bank account for her daughter in case, 30 years in the future, she wants to use the money to talk to a counsellor about how her mother has messed up her life.
[Photo: courtesy of Enoch Li]
Play therapy is becoming more and more popular in the West. I learnt from Enoch that Australia has equine therapy, where people with conditions including depression and anxiety learn to ride and established emotional bonds with horses – an animal that can mirror a rider's emotions. And I know some students in the United States can book in to spent time with pets at school to relax. According to Enoch, anything, even an idea, can be play therapy as long as you are introducing fun and playfulness into what you do. For her, bears appeared in her life by chance.
Her only memory of them earlier in life was when she was in high school: One roommate sent her two bears that resemble the ones she has now. That must be the connection, she said, although she has no memory of playing with them. Perhaps if she were able to cuddle them, talk to them, and sleep with them, she would have had more fun in her life and could have avoided losing her sense of self after she grew up.
On her blog, Enoch writes: "It's time to be me, to be natural." From 2013 to 2015, after recovering from her depression, she invested three years of her new life in studying organizational change and development, informed by clinical psychology, at INSEAD, and transformed herself into a social entrepreneur encompassing organizational and leadership consulting expertise. When I asked why she has chosen to work with institutions rather than individuals, she said she wants to reach more people. She also pointed out that she has experience working in and doing business with large corporations.
Enoch works with multinationals, governments, and start-ups across the Asia-Pacific to advocate emotional and mental health awareness and promote resilience, leadership development, and optimum productivity. She wants bosses to know that giving employees time to play not only benefits their workers but will eventually raise the productivity of their workforce. She has also published a book, "Stress in the City: Play My Way Out of Depression" to tell people, if I can get through the worst that my depression had to throw at me, you can get through yours, too. It's all part of Enoch's mission to help adults access their inner playfulness.
[Photo: courtesy of Enoch Li]
But how well does that message go down in China? After all, a common saying in China is "Wan wu sang zhi" (玩物丧志). Wan (玩) means to play, wu (物) means object or material, sang (丧) means to lose, and zhi (志) is the Chinese word for will. Translated into English, it warns that once someone becomes obsessed with playing with an object or a hobby, they will lose the will to fight. It's an admonition not to waste time on things other than work and study. An English saying I picked up when I was learning English at university is, "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy!" But Enoch said, "The opposite of work isn't play; it's depression," quoting a line from "Play: How it Shapes the Brain, and Invigorates the Soul" by the Stanford University professor Stuart Brown. Can we maintain our enthusiasm for going to work if we aren't interested in what we are doing? And can we live without good food, cinema, travel, holidays, our hobbies, and time spent with loved ones and friends?
Early in our interview, I asked Enoch to define herself. She said she is a paradox – a child in an adult's body. The child is curious and wants to push boundaries that the adult in Enoch wants to leave well enough alone. The adult in her talks about rules and discipline; the child wants fun and adventure. Nature knows how to tame the childishness inside of us. But perhaps Enoch's Bearapy shows us that, through play therapy, we can make peace with the paradoxical selves inside us, and find a fulfilling balance between working as an adult and playing like a child.