How learned helplessness can lead to becoming one of the professionally unwell

Diagnosis of a major illness is a devastating event; of that there can be no doubt.  When I was diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder 17 years ago my whole world felt false.  I immediately questioned ever success in my life and every failure that I’d been part of.  I asked myself if mania had driven my successes and depression founded my failure.  The onset of Bipolar Disorder in me was most likely in my very early teens so I had 20 years of questions to ask.  That alone felt like an insurmountable task or one that I felt I could tackle without a superhuman effort.  I felt hopeless and not at all inclined to try.

With the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder came the news that it would never improve.  Not only would it never improve but it could, and would, deteriorate.  Medication was available but not easy to get right.  Treatment wasn’t about attempting a cure but about trying to achieve a level of stability that I could live with and that level of stability wasn’t necessarily achievable.

With a strong support network in place this would have been a difficult time but all I had was a new partner who lacked the intellectual capacity to understand what was going on.  His intentions were good but he soon realized that he could exploit the situation to his advantage leaving me in a vulnerable position.

My partner blamed every problem and every difficulty on Bipolar Disorder.  He called it my “condition” in the same way that women used to refer to pregnancy, which seemed to imply that I could not have it if I chose.  He used it as an excuse to encourage me to moderate my work ambitions when he was really very insecure about being with a woman whose earning capacity was greater than his.  He used it as an excuse for me not wearing make up or plucking my eyebrows when I have always felt that they were needless vanities.  Every time I was tearful or unhappy or tired or human he trotted out that it was all about my “condition”.  Because I was afraid, isolated and vulnerable I believed him.  It is easy to indoctrinate someone who is vulnerable.

At a time when I had a lack of self worth and a sense of fragmentation (my personality seemed to shatter and fly in a thousand different directions on hearing the words Bipolar Disorder) my partner could have helped me to see things in a different way.  What he did was misguided at best.  Under the guise of care and consideration he helped me to change my life for the worst.

I had to move home because I had antisocial neighbours, I lost my job when a review at work revealed that I had a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and my partner made it clear that people with my “condition” would never fit it and implied that I should be grateful that he was there.  He slowly eroded what little self worth I had left and instilled in me a sense of helplessness.  His solution to my distress over becoming obese was to feed me chocolate he knew I would find hard to resist.  I changed from being a competent and secure person to one who learned to be helpless.

Once you learn to be helpless you can fight back or you can become one of the professionally unwell.  It can be easier to become professionally unwell than to face reality and accept that there are things, no matter how difficult they are, that you can do to improve your situation.  I wanted someone to look after me, to take care of me but what I achieved was lack of control over my life and therefore a lack of choice over how I tackled things.  I needed to learn how to stand on my own two feet and know that there was a guiding hand at my back not an iron grip on my arm.

The professionally unwell hide so completely behind their various symptoms it is impossible to divide the person from the illness.  Every twinge, dip in mood or tiny thing that goes wrong is because of whatever health condition be it physical illness or a mental health problem the person happens to have.  Nothing ever happens because that is what life is about.  It is a simple way of devolving responsibility.

Whilst there are health problems that are so debilitating that your world has to revolve around them the majority of health problems do not even come close to that.  There is nearly always something that you can do to improve the way you approach illness.  The professionally unwell mix almost exclusively with other people who have the same collection of symptoms.  It is both a competition and a way of gaining extra symptoms.  They learn to hide behind a collection of symptoms; they begin each and every conversation with how ill they are and how devastating their illness is.  Often they live active lives and have opportunities that most people would love but have a kind of ungratefulness because life isn’t better.  They seem to lack the understanding that life is perfect for no one and that we all have to strive for something.  Whether the illness is wholly genuine or partly factitious is open to debate.  We all know people like this, the ones who throw doubt upon the genuinely disabled and the ones who, because they do not complain, are suspected of not being genuinely ill.  The professionally unwell do us all a disservice.

Learning to be helpless instead of learning to challenge illness and disability makes it possible for us to be completely enveloped and dictated to by that which should not be allowed to rule our lives so strictly.  I will never stop having Bipolar Disorder.  I have it in an extreme form that can take me from content to suicidal in a very few moments.  I despair that I may not live through some days but I do not spend the days, hours and minutes that I feel well immersed in the memories of unwell days and projecting to days when I will be unwell again.  I am learning to let go.  I am learning not to be helpless.

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