The Bureau of Bears kept me alive when I was driving a cab all night in New York City, with a raging undiagnosed traumatic psychosis. I knew the bears were a conscious product of my imagination, not a delusion or hallucination. They were a wellness tool.
The bears kept me company in the cab, made me laugh, watched my driving and public relations for signs it was time to take a break, and helped me interpret the lessons you learn about the Human Sphere by picking up 40 people at random every night and driving them somewhere.
There’s every kind of people in New York, and sooner or later, they all get in your cab. If you don’t have mood swings when you start hacking, the public and the streets will give them to you.
But the most important thing the bears did for me was talk back to the nasty, horrible voices and hallucinations that were telling me to kill myself or somebody else. If I ever did anything to contribute accidentally or on purpose to my own premature death, I could never go back to the woods and sleep through the winter with the woodsbears.
That was the Bureau’s Prime Directive, and there were no appeals or exceptions. Contributing to my premature death would prove I’d been contaminated by the Human Condition, and contaminated bears could not be allowed back in the woods. \
So I never took stupid risks, pushed myself when I was too tired, or tried to kill myself. Whenever the bears warned me, I listened.
I was a bear in the Human Sphere trying to travel back to the woods and sleep through the winter with the woodsbears.
The Bureau had sent me to the Human Sphere as part of an experiment. In the late 1800’s, the Bureau’s research department discovered that people were cutting down more and more of the woods. If the trend continued, there would soon be no place for bears to live.
So they decided to send one third of the bears to the Human Sphere to live a lifetime, then come back to the woods. That would leave a lot more room in the woods for bears. You can recognize bears in the Human Sphere. They have bear cheeks, noses, toes, bear tummies, and short bear legs.]
Theodore Roosevelt was a bear in the Human Sphere. He preserved woods, and taught people to love and nurture them. Government departments he created, that are being copied in states and other countries, are preserving forests to this day – but not nearly as fast as people are destroying them. He popularized the teddy bear, which changed the public image of bears from something terrifying to something children sleep with and love.
Other bears in the Humansphere wrote children’s books and made movies about bears, became forest and wildlife biologists, and contributed to a new human appreciation of the woods and bears.
But the experiment had a massive, tragic unintended consequence. The bears who came over ate too much human garbage, got contaminated by the Human Condition, and could not be allowed back to the woods. A single bear, contaminated by the Human Condition, would contaminate and wipe out all the woodsbears.
Nearing 30 in 1975-77, a normal life for a bear, homeless in New York, my diet contained human garbage. I was traumatized, experiencing crippling mood swings, suicidal, and desperate to go back to the woods before it was too late. I petitioned every night at Bureau meetings in the cab. They told me to hang in a little longer, have faith, and don’t violate the Prime Directive.
When Hollywood made a movie about the deadly combination of isolation and psychosis, they named it Taxi Driver. I heard the same voices in my head Robert de Niro did when he was driving, and when he killed all those people at the end, I knew just how he felt.
But the Bureau of Bears always talked me out of doing anything that would contribute accidentally or on purpose to my own premature death.
Fiction writers talk about a point in their process where they stop telling the characters the story, and the characters start telling them. That’s how it was with the bears and me. But I couldn’t make them a novel, though I tried many times. Writing about them always put me back in the cab.
If the genius psychiatrists from Harvard, who labeled me “manic depressive,” had known about the bears, they would have labeled me schizophrenic and delusional, given me as much major tranquilizer as I could stand. They would have told my family to give up on me because schizophrenia is always chronic, hopeless, and progressive.]
So I didn’t tell them. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone until 1995, when Patricia Deegan told me the bears were “brilliant. You channeled your illness to keep you alive. Many cultures would consider that a spiritual gift, not an illness at all,” she said.
I was channeling my creativity, not my illness. I doubt Pat would call post-traumatic feelings and behavior an illness today.
In 1997, I was listening to “I Shall Be Released” on the stereo. I looked up and saw two big bear asses with little tails rocking back and forth out the front door. I was perfectly OK with that. Ever since, the bears have been a happy memory, not a lovable presence in my life.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.