Living Well With Bipolar: Dealing With Unexpected and Inevitable Black Swans

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I recently posted two pieces (here and here) about what “successful” patients do to manage their bipolar. These were based on two studies in which the researchers solicited the wisdom and insights of those with a bipolar diagnosis. 


    These “stay well” strategies place a lot of emphasis on mindfully spotting trouble before it happens and then acting fast. This is not a technique that can be learned overnight, but with practice we can achieve a certain degree of success in the battle over control of our brains. Over time, we can attain a measure of satisfaction in learning to live well.

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    But then life has a way of showing us who is boss. Let me elaborate:


    I just finished reading Nassim Taleb’s 2007 “The Black Swan.” Taleb is a philosopher by inclination and a Wall Street wheeler-dealer by profession. To summarize his thesis:


    Until Europeans reached Australia, those in the northern hemisphere assumed that all swans were white. “Black swan” events are unanticipated. They come out of the blue. They are very rare, but when they happen their impact tends to be catastrophic. If only we were able to predict them. Alas, we can’t.


    A surprise is not a surprise, in effect, if we can anticipate it. But we do know life is full of surprises.


    What gives Taleb great credibility is that he has turned life’s inevitable surprises into a very successful investment strategy. In other words, he has put his money where his mouth is. Thanks to his successes on Wall Street, Taleb can now devote himself full-time to his scholarly pursuits. 


    Back in the day, Taleb would bet against the markets. This involved a high certainty of small losses over the years. But when a black swan event did occur (such as the stock market crash of 1987), the pay-off was exponential, off the charts.


    For those who paid no attention to black swans, the math worked the other way. This is when you read of banks and investment houses going under. Despite all their highly paid risk managers, these Wall Street firms never saw it coming.


    In effect, if you’re a turkey living a comfortable life on a farm, you can expect tomorrow will be very much the same as today and yesterday - except for the fact that tomorrow happens to be the day before Thanksgiving.  


    Taleb’s book came out a year before the financial meltdown of 2008, which instantly changed his status from one of a contrarian grouch to that of a prophet. But no - Taleb didn’t predict the event. He was simply smart enough to know that life doesn’t always abide by everyday rules.


    Okay, let’s bring this back to managing our bipolar. Let’s assume we have learned to be pretty good at turning lemons into lemonade. We have our stay-well plans in place. We know what to do when we start feeling stressed, when our brains start running away from us. We rack up success after success - manias that did not happen, depressions that we rode to soft landings, on and on.


    Not only that, we have learned to exploit our bipolar advantages - our creativity, intuition, our unique way of looking at the world. Yes, life is a challenge, but sometimes life can be very good.


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    So, here you are, managing okay today, thinking you will manage okay tomorrow ...


    Then the black swan event happens. It happened to me two weeks ago. I won’t go into details. All I can say is that for all my planning ahead, I didn’t see it coming. Not only that, I could not have possibly seen it coming. This one was a true black swan.


    So here I am, dealing with a black swan event with skills I developed in the far more tame and predictable world of white swans. My whole stay well strategy is based on seeing it coming. But with a black swan event, we cannot possibly see it coming.


    Short story: I had a pretty scary two weeks. Fortunately, I am pulling out of it. But when things settle down, I won’t be returning to the same existence I had two weeks ago. I will adjust, but I will need to pick up some new skills. I somehow managed to survive this particular black swan. But I know this won’t be my last one.

Published On: October 27, 2013