World Bipolar Day commemorates the birthday of iconic bipolar artist Vincent van Gogh on March 30 each year.
I have embraced the moniker, “Bipolar General,” taking great pride and gratitude in the fact that I have survived more than 20 years of bipolar disorder, a brutal disease of the brain that included thrilling mania, hopeless depression and terrifying psychosis (delusions and hallucinations). I survived bipolar hell. I’m on a miraculous journey of recovery, rebuilding my bipolar-shattered life into one of health, happiness and purpose.
From my teens through most of my career, I was at the low end of the bipolar spectrum, experiencing “hyperthymia”, a state of near-continual mild mania. It surely enhanced and boosted my natural talents as a student, athlete and leader, giving me extra energy, enthusiasm, drive, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and more. This condition was below the level of actual bipolar disorder, and was a blessing.
This run lasted from high school, through West Point and Army Ranger School, graduate school at MIT, and throughout most of my Army career, up to the rank of colonel, and even into the first years as a general officer.
My hyperthymia was like a natural miracle drug that worked wonders, until it went too high, morphing into actual bipolar disorder, with my genetic predisposition for the disorder triggered by the intense stress, thrill and euphoria of leading soldiers in combat during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
For the first several years of the full-on disorder, my high-performing mania enhanced my performance. But as it progressed — as yet undiagnosed — my mania took me ever higher and my depression and psychosis plunged me lower.
In 2014, as President of the National Defense University in Washington D.C., I went into full-blown mania and became so disruptive and over-the-top, that I was forced to resign and retire, thus ending my Army career.
Within months, I crashed into hopeless depression and terrifying psychosis, including delusions and hallucinations, and slogged through two years of bipolar hell, where vivid visions and hopes of death were my constant companions.
It took God’s grace, my own will to recover and an army of angels to lift me up and launch me on a journey of recovery: my loving wife Maggie, my devoted battle buddy retired Col. Bill Barko, and the team at the VA hospital in White River Junction, Vermont. Lithium, psychotherapy and a move to bright, warm, sunny Florida were also key.
Seven years into this recovery journey, I am living a wonderful new life of health, happiness and purpose, but with bipolar disorder ever lurking in my brain, threatening to take me down again. I am fighting a “forever war” that requires constant vigilance. I’ve had two dangerous episodes – near misses — in the past two years which could easily have launched a relapse back into full-blown bipolar disorder. I was fortunate.
But while recovering, my hyperthymic personality has mostly returned, and I am a lot like my old, pre-bipolar disorder self: energetic, enthusiastic, driven, creative and happy. After helping me to achieve the rank of two-star general, my bipolar disorder ended my career and nearly destroyed me and all that I value.
My crash and recovery have made me a better person — more humble, kind, generous and empathetic, as well as even more of a people-person. I live in a wonderful place, with a vibrant circle of friends, with an inspirational life purpose of “sharing my bipolar story to help stop the stigma, alleviate suffering, and save lives.” I write, speak and confer on bipolar disorder and mental health. I’ve written my first book. I enjoy my wonderful family. My life is rich and full.
After decades of bipolar benefit, then years of bipolar destruction and hell, my life today on the bipolar spectrum is once again my friend. But over the span of my lifetime, it’s been both a blessing and a curse.
Gregg F. Martin, PhD, is a 36-year Army combat veteran, retired two-star general, and bipolar survivor and thriver. A former president of the National Defense University, he is a qualified Airborne-Ranger-Engineer and Strategist, and a graduate of West Point and MIT. His new book, Bipolar General: My Forever War with Mental Illness, is available at Amazon. For more information, see www.generalgreggmartin.com.
These views are solely those of the author, and do not purport to be the views of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
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