My brain burst into full-blown mania in 2014, at age 58. This “late onset bipolar disorder” is rare, with only about five percent of diagnosed cases occurring this late in life. I may have had undiagnosed bipolar disorder earlier, but there were no symptoms that were recognizable to myself or others, until I was 58. In retrospect however, there were warning signs for more than a decade.
It is likely that before diagnosis, bipolar lifted me up for most of my life and helped make me more successful than would otherwise have been the case. My extraordinary energy, drive, enthusiasm and extroversion were key to my high achievements as a student, athlete and leader. But after a tumultuous ride, and a life of mostly strong achievement, it eventually brought me down. Thankfully, I’ve come back strong.
In a way, this story depicts a person of high achievement who was on top of the world – a kind of “superman”, indestructible and flying high – whose brain blew up, causing him to crash into many pieces; followed up by him, with much help, putting his life back together.
Even up until the end when I was in acute mania in 2014, it was very tricky for everyone – myself, family, work colleagues – to differentiate between the “normal” Gregg Martin, “hypomanic” Gregg Martin, and even “full-blown manic” Gregg Martin; and the same was also true regarding the depressive side of the bipolar.
There are often no clear lines between personality and the various stages of the disease as it progresses. Bipolar disorder can hide itself in and among normal, healthy personality traits. It frequently masks itself, making it devilishly difficult for doctors and other concerned individuals to detect and diagnose it.
As bad as my situation was, I had an extraordinary safety net and supportive family. Many who are struck by this devastating disorder are not even close to being so fortunate. They go from being confused, lonely and poor, to being broken, penniless and in jail…or dead.
The Effects of Bipolar on Others
Nor does bipolar disorder limit itself to the afflicted individual. More often than not, it becomes a family affair and often a community affair – “no man is an island.” The impact on others can be destructive. Bipolar ravages in big, wide swaths as it indiscriminately shreds marriages, families, friendships, emotions, careers, finances and more. It can be deadly and destructive. Like many with bipolar disorder, I became a kind of human wrecking ball.
It pushed our family relationships right to the edge of breaking. They were painfully stressed and strained; and figuratively bloody, scraped and bruised. If my family relationships were like the victims of a serious car crash, there would be shock and confusion, concussions, lacerations, bleeding, sprains, contusions, broken bones and some internal organ damage. We came almost to the breaking point of irreparable damage.
Thankfully my marriage and family relationships survived the experience, healed over time, and have been continually strengthened in recent years; they’re probably as strong as I can recall. I’ve been truly fortunate and blessed to have such a caring, concerned and loving family – my wife and three sons – who stuck with me, never gave up on me, and didn’t walk away. My two sons who have also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder have been especially helpful and empathetic, given their own situation. Bipolar disorder has provided a powerful common bond that we never expected and would never ask for. But in its own unusual way, it has brought us closer together, and proven to be a unique, though unwanted, blessing.
Likewise, friendships were put under enormous strain. I had some strong, loyal friends who stuck with me, through the hardest of times, and they gave me steadfast support and friendship; they believed in and practiced the Army ethos of “never leave a fallen comrade.” One great friend – retired Army Colonel Bill Barko – was literally critical in saving me. My West Point classmates have been fantastic – keeping faith, remaining loyal, a true band of brothers. I had some tremendously supportive senior leaders as well. On the other hand, some friends and mentors just faded away – I was the guy who lost it and went crazy, or just fell off the side of the earth and disappeared. Although to be fair, they mostly did not understand what I was going through, I went silent, and I did not reach out much to them either, which was my own shortcoming.
As far as my career, I believe bipolar disorder helped me enormously, until such time as it went out of control; and then it didn’t any more. In fact, it caused the inglorious end of what was otherwise a highly distinguished Army career. I was extremely fortunate that my bipolar didn’t go acute until very late in my career, less than a year from my scheduled retirement, at which time I was removed from command. My actual medical diagnosis of bipolar came with just six months until retirement. If my bipolar had been diagnosed earlier, I would have lost my security clearance and been medically boarded out of the Army. This truth motivates others with mental illness to hide it, not confront it. This is similar for all mental health disorders – depression, Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), etc.
Organizationally, my breakdown had a serious, disruptive effect on the university I had been leading. They had to pull a senior leader – Ambassador Wanda Nesbitt – from her senior vice presidency position and put her into a temporary, acting presidency role, until such time as my permanent replacement could be identified, moved and installed. Likewise, the unit that accepted me for ten months after NDU – the Army Corps of Engineers – had to provide support of all kinds (an office, computer, phone, assistant, mission, purpose, etc.), while figuring out how to suddenly integrate a brand new, just removed 2-star into the leadership mix and organizational chemistry. My situation caused extensive disruption to both the losing and gaining organizations. There were many ripple effects.
Some of my subordinates from the bad times of my mania either ignore me or refuse to speak with me, even when I tell them that I was ill and that their candid observations could help save lives. Unfortunately they were so traumatized by the experience, and/or angry against me, that they choose not to revisit that chapter of their life – it’s just too painful. There are also some peers and superiors from this time frame who just ignore me and what I am striving to do by sharing my story. Just thinking about that chapter of their lives is too traumatic, painful and bizarre. They have blocked it out and refuse to go back into it, or to engage with me. At that time, I was mad, a maniac. I scared them, and it shook them to their core.
This series of blogs tells the story of a general’s service and success, followed by mental health disaster and recovery, then new life. The purpose is to raise understanding, build hope, and help abolish the stigma. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or the US Government.
Gregg F. Martin, PhD, is a 36-year Army combat veteran, retired two-star general, and bipolar survivor. A former president of the National Defense University, he is a qualified Airborne-Ranger-Engineer and strategist. A graduate of West Point and MIT, he writes and speaks on his bipolar experiences to help stop the stigma and save lives.
For more information, visit www.generalgreggmartin.com. His charity of choice is the International Bipolar Foundation. To read more, check out General Gregg’s Corner.