The Bipolar's Dilemma: Anticipating When Things Go Right

Patient Expert

Last year, I wrote about the bipolar's dilemma. Here's the situation:

On one hand, we have to accept certain limits our illness imposes on us. In certain situations, this may involve staying home rather than venturing out into situations that risk maxing out our vulnerable brains.

On the other hand, playing it safe also carries its own set of risks. Too often, we lose out on all those life-affirming experiences that define us as human.

In my piece, I made reference to two long-distance trips I took 10 months apart. The first ended in disaster, the second turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. We have no way of knowing ahead of time the possible outcome. Hence the bipolar's dilemma.

The first trip involved a cross-country flight for a weekend in New York. I knew in advance the risks involved in being out of my time zone and sleep-deprived on a tight schedule. Nevertheless, I felt confident in having set aside some recovery days once I got home.

But then all manner of things went wrong, stuff I could not have possibly anticipated.

This was at the top my mind last summer when I contemplated driving from San Diego to central Oregon and back to attend a didgeridoo festival. I have a mortal fear of driving, by the way. The wise choice was to stay home.

But as the festival approached, I found myself sliding into a deep depression. At the last minute, I decided damn the torpedoes and all that, and threw my camping gear and three didgeridoos into the trunk of my car and headed out at one in the morning.

Everything went right. Nothing went wrong. Life was good.

No decision is a casual one for us. The stakes are way too high. We need to weigh our risks in advance, but we also need to have the courage to dare to step outside our safety zones.

This past weekend, the stakes were far lower, not really a bipolar's dilemma. Yet I had to think ahead. The event was a two-day yidaki workshop. The yidaki refers to a particular type of didgeridoo crafted by the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land in Australia.

Yes, didgeridoos, again.

Jeremy, the person leading the workshop, had spent years among the Yolngu learning their culture and their style of play, which they have developed to a very high art form. Jeremy teaches all over the world, with the consent of Yolngu elders. Two years ago, I had the privilege of attending a one-day workshop he gave, and I was looking forward to taking my learning further.

In this case, I only had to travel six miles. But it was a two-day event, and I anticipated being a wrung-out dishrag the entire second day. As it turned out, being in the presence of my tribe only served to give me a second wind.

And another positive thing happened: Learning sets the scene for making eye-popping realizations. Perhaps the learning itself is localized to a specific part of the brain. But a realization engages every neuron. It's like a room of mousetraps going off.

The brain literally comes to life, together with every organ system in the body. I returned home feeling energized, whole, connected. As it happens, not all the stuff we fail to anticipate turns out to be things going wrong. Get this "

Often, that which we fail to anticipate are things that turn out right.

Life is full of pleasant surprises. One more thing we need to take into account when contemplating the bipolar's dilemma.