In July 2014, I was in my 36th year of military service, a two-star general, a combat veteran and president of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. I worked for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
After decades of success, I had become a maniac: extremely disruptive and erratic. Finally, the chairman, who was a longtime mentor, boss and friend, summoned me to his office and said, “Gregg, I love you like a brother, but your time at NDU is done. You have until 5 p.m. today to resign, or you’re fired … and you need to get a mental health exam.”
Unbeknownst to myself and the Army, my genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder was triggered by the intense stress of the Iraq War in 2003, where I commanded a combat engineer brigade of thousands of soldiers.
My brain responded by producing and distributing excessive amounts of dopamine and endorphins, sending me into a euphoric, high-performing mania that made me feel fearless, hyperenergized and like I was Superman. Unfortunately, this mania damaged my brain circuitry and launched me into a life dominated by unrecognized bipolar disorder.
After a year of thrilling combat, with rushing adrenaline, surging biochemicals in my brain and a powerful, natural “high,” I redeployed to Germany, where the moon of depression eclipsed my sun of mania.
Unfortunately, the underproduction of these same chemicals caused a monthslong depression. I reported my depression, but because I was not suicidal and had no intention of hurting anyone, medical personnel declared me fit for duty, but I wasn’t.
After months of hard work at my job, the depression lifted naturally. The structure of Army life was key in getting me through this difficult period. This completed my first full up/down cycle of mania/depression, which would become my life pattern.
My bipolar remained unrecognized by everyone from 2003 to 2014. Meanwhile, I was promoted twice and assigned to ever-tougher assignments, where the norm was complexity, budget cuts and high stress. Yet mania helped my performance in many ways by providing ever-higher levels of energy, drive and creativity. It fueled my career ascendance, until it didn’t.
My mania went higher, and my depression sank lower, until I rocketed into acute, full-blown mania in 2014. Spinning out of control, I became disruptive, erratic and over-the-top in virtually everything I thought, did or said. Thankfully, the chairman removed me from command. It was the absolute best decision for myself, my family and my health.
After this, I crashed into dark, crippling, hopeless depression accompanied by terrifying delusions. My mind was filled with morbid, vivid imagery of violent death and dying, what psychiatrists call “passive suicidal ideations.” But, for me, they were anything but passive. Instead, they were real, powerful and life-consuming.
Fighting for My Life
For the next two years, I fought for my life. It wasn’t until a friend helped get me into the Department of Veterans Affairs that I had a feeling that my condition could change. The clinical staff of the VA provided me with excellent care, and it was the combination of professional treatment, along with the love and support of my wife and family, that prevented me from falling into the abyss.
After months of treatment, numerous medications, weeks in a VA psychiatric ward and electroconvulsive therapy, the addition of the natural element lithium, a salt, took my recovery to the next level and stabilized me in September 2016.
My bipolar disorder is now under control but not gone. To keep it at bay, I must take medications, meet with my doctors and live a healthy life, mind, body and spirit.
My self-care includes exercise, a healthy diet, plenty of sleep and water, little to no alcohol, no drugs, a network of friends, fun activities, faith and, as much as possible, minimizing stress, anxiety and anger.
As a former Army officer, I know that one of the keys to victory in combat is vigilance. The same holds in my battle with bipolar. As long as I remain faithful to the task at hand, I will have the high ground and avoid an attack by the fiercest enemy I have ever faced—bipolar disorder.
More than 7 million U.S. adults have bipolar disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. A total of 51.5 million U.S. adults—one in five—experienced mental illness in 2019, the alliance says, and mental health disorders can often lead to suicide. Thus, it is likely that nearly every person in America is affected in some way by mental illness—either themselves, a family member, friend or colleague.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that these medical conditions are treatable. Correctly diagnosed and treated, people can live healthy, happy and successful lives.
I didn’t want bipolar, but it wanted me. It nearly destroyed everything I value. But thanks to the help of a great many others, I’ve been able to transform my “gift” of bipolar into my mission: sharing my story to help stop the stigma and save lives.
I share my experiences, providing knowledge and hope. My purpose is to help save lives, marriages, families, friendships, careers and more.
My vision is that everyone who has a mental health disorder gets medical help free of stigma. There is no stigma with cancer or diabetes, and neither should there be for mental illness.
Science has validated that mental disorders are physiological and not due to a lack of character or willpower. It’s not a person’s fault they are ill, so we shouldn’t blame them. Instead, we must understand and accept this scientific truth.
We must all learn to identify the basic symptoms of mental health disorders. Then, if you or another display them, get medical help, just as you would for a heart attack.
But don’t wait. It could be a matter of life and death.
Battling mental illness has been my most brutal fight. It’s incumbent upon all of us to learn about it and help educate and encourage others. Join me in helping to stop the stigma.
If you or a loved one is in distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. For more information, visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
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Similar versions of this Commentary were published by Florida Today, Military.com, Military Times, the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings, and Task and Purpose.
Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, U.S. Army retired, is a 36-year Army combat veteran who retired in May 2015. He served multiple overseas tours, and as a general officer commanded Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and was commandant of the U.S. Army War College and president of the National Defense University. He commanded the 130th Engineer Brigade during the first year of the Iraq War. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, and holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in engineering management and public policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His forthcoming book is entitled Battling Bipolar—My Quest for Mental Wellness