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South to the Future 

Bipolar Bear Gains Cult Following

Wednesday, Dec 22 1999
December 22, 1999

NEW YORK -- At the chic SoHo offices of Vivarium, one of New York's hottest Internet design firms, the third bottle of bubbly has just been uncorked. The staff of 27 is celebrating the holidays and the close of a profitable year with an elaborate "Secret Santa" gift exchange underwritten by the company itself.

Senior Web Designer Amanda Connelly saunters up to the 15-foot tree, decked out in Sanrio figurines, that dominates the Vivarium lounge and selects a brightly wrapped present bearing her name. She squeals with delight as she tears the paper away revealing a soft and cuddly polar bear doll. "Oh my god, where did you find it?" she exclaims. "I'm sooooo in love."

Egged on by her co-workers, a beaming Connelly squeezes the white teddy bear. The audience strains to hear the bear's response. "I love you," the bear chimes, but the singsong voice of the doll is quickly drowned out by staffers who have started to yell, "Squeeze it again, squeeze it again."

"Why are you hurting me?" whines the bear, and the Vivarium office roars with laughter.

Move over Furby, it's time to make room for the bipolar bear.

The offbeat gift of choice for 1999 is harder to find than the most sought-after Pokemon cards. That's because the bipolar bear, manufactured by the educational products maker Funtastix, is not actually a toy. It's a therapeutic device used by the mental health care profession to teach coping skills to the children of manic depressives.

But at Vivarium's raucous holiday party, where the bipolar bear is still drawing big laughs 40 minutes after its introduction, the plight of such distressed children isn't on the revelers' radar screen. Joel Isackson, a computer programmer, is desperately trying to trade his own gift, a hand-held DVD player, for the temperamental teddy. "I saw one on eBay go for $500," says Isackson, who admits to being a bit bipolar himself.

Not everyone, however, is taking the unlikely success of the bipolar bear in stride. Dr. Langley Porter, a psychiatrist at NYU Medical Center, worries about the impact such a loaded toy may have on the general public. "We live in a climate where mental illness is already a joke," Porter warns. "The last thing we need is for this very specific therapeutic aid to be made into a running gag."

Porter uses the so-called bipolar bear (which is marketed to the health care industry as the "BPD Ambassador") to encourage children to discuss anxieties related to bipolar disorder, or BPD. Together with other pediatric psychiatrists, Porter is pressuring Funtastix to limit sales of the stuffed animal to medical professionals.

The San Francisco-based Funtastix claims that it doesn't market the BPD Ambassador to the general public and has no plans to do so. Furthermore, the company says, it has been unfairly criticized for the growing popularity of the talking doll. "This is not a prescription drug," explains Ana Machado, Funtastix's general sales manager, "so we can hardly restrict sales without hurting our own ability to provide quality therapeutic tools to the people who need them."

Demand for the bipolar bear has thus far exceeded the available supply. Only 1,000 BPD Ambassadors were manufactured in 1999, although Funtastix is considering expanding future production runs. In New York City, store owner Adam Nayoge fields dozens of requests a day for the latest holy grail of hip Christmas toys. Nayoge is unfazed by the brewing controversy around the bipolar bear.

"It's ironic, and then again it's not," explains Nayoge, whose shelves are stocked with the likes of the boxing nun and the Starr Report. "This is a complicated object for a complicated time -- some buy it to laugh, and I guess some buy it to cry."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments?

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