Coping With That Very Helpless Feeling: The Bipolar Question of the Week

Patient Expert

For me, this wasn't a good week to be bipolar. I run my own business, and one of my income streams dried up. Not good. Now I have to figure out how to make up the short-fall.

You think I have problems? Yesterday, I was talking to the guy who patched up the back porch to the apartment I live in. He once had a thriving construction business. Then a contractor failed to pay him to the tune of two million. So, here he is - age 65 - tool belt back on, fixing porches.

One thing about life, it sure tests our resourcefulness.

With working brains, we can figure our way out of jams. The catch is we that we can't rely on our brains to work. It's all about resiliency vs vulnerability. Life deals us a hard blow, we shut down for a little while, then we take stock, pick ourself up, and start afresh. That's the resiliency part.

But try doing it with a factory-reject brain. Depression is a state of learned helplessness.  You expose a lab animal to foot-shocks, then you disconnect the lever that stops the shocks. First, the animal panics, then gives up. Even when the lever is reconnected, the animal will take no steps to end its misery.

Learned helplessness - this is the animal model of depression. We have lost our capacity to adapt to the environment around us. Even if there is an easy solution, our brains won't cooperate. It's like we can't get out of the way of a truck. Our lives predictably spiral down, sometimes to the point of no-return.

That's the vulnerability part. There was no sense in my fighting the blow. I needed to shut down, and for an extended time. I lack the capacity to get right back on my feet, but at least I know that. The sleeping I put in this week, I think I broke Rip Van Winkle's record.

Late last night, I took my first steps in adapting to my changing environment. I have no idea whether there will be any kind of pay-off. But at least my factory-reject brain is booting back up. We can always expect life to deal us some hard blows. A fully operational brain gives us a fighting chance. The rest of us - we have to do the best we can with what we've got.

Question:   When life deals you a hard blow - how do you cope? When the learned helpless strikes, how do you weather the storm? How do you contain it?

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