My oldest son Phillip insists that a major difference between my own case of bipolar disorder and many millions of others’ cases is that I was fortunate enough to recover. Indeed, I was alive and recovered with my marriage and family intact, a pension, medical care, no addictions, and no criminal record.
While I understand that I worked hard to earn these benefits, millions of Americans are nowhere near as fortunate as I was. More important is the fact that even with these benefits, my recovery took many years, and for two of those years I was largely incapacitated and virtually on life support.
Connections and Hope
My recovery simply could not have happened without a myriad of willing actors, compassionate institutions and the networks among those actors and institutions. When I wasn’t enough, family saved me. When family wasn’t enough, friends helped out. When friends did all they could, institutions were necessary. When the institutions had done all they could, it was once again family who stepped in.
First among those actors were my wife and close family members who refused to give up on me. My wife calls her secret the “P” Word, for perseverance. She just kept on going, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, while I was largely in a zombie-like state. She lived on hope.
After a year of paranoid delusions my youngest son Conor confronted me and pushed me, yet again, to call one of my closest former colleagues and last boss — a three-star general — to have him confirm or deny that I was justified in my psychotic beliefs that I was under secret surveillance and would be arrested.
When my old friend and boss, Lieutenant General Tom Bostick, heard what I was asking him, he was in shocked disbelief, and worked quickly to connect me with other options for medical care.
For nearly 15 months I had been too terrified and depressed to ask this question, afraid that my inquiry would speed up my arrest and conviction. I required a few conversations with old colleagues to believe their assurances, but once I allowed myself to trust them, my delusions faded, although my depression continued to hold me in its unyielding grip. I had a glimmer of hope.
I’m forever in my son’s debt for that extra push I needed to begin re-engaging reality; and my friend’s empathy and pushing me to get more medical help. My old boss and friend, along with other senior Army leaders, never abandoned me, and treated me like a wounded comrade. They continued to support me and my family. And they lived up to the Soldier Creed to ‘never leave a fallen comrade.’
Second was another former colleague, Army comrade and friend with whom I had served closely for years. Although my family supported me, effectively making sure I was still breathing and eating without abandoning me, they and I were not enough to help me get the proper level of professional medical treatment. I was seeing a local doctor, but the fit was not right and the confidence was not there.
My great friend, Colonel (Retired) Bill Barko, realized that a more serious intervention was needed. I needed inpatient care, both the right inpatient care, and the right team. He helped make this happen. He was relentless in facilitating and basically holding my wife and my hands to get me into the particular VA hospital he had in mind. Sometimes we need a helping hand.
My family and Army connections always had hope, which then gave me hope.
Professional Medical Treatment
It is no stretch to proclaim that the staff at the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in White River Junction, Vermont — where my friend helped arrange for me to go, and where I lived for six weeks, two weeks as an inpatient and four more on campus as an outpatient — saved my life.
The VA inpatient treatment was a game-changer. My VA team and I tried different medications, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy (14 treatments), chaplain counseling, marriage counseling and more. But again, my depression was intractable. Even with world-class care I remained deeply depressed and mostly hopeless.
While it pains me to write this, my life-long go-to self-medication of prayer and the reading and recitation of powerful Bible verses, along with hearing inspirational religious music and positive thinking that had lifted and empowered me my whole life, had little effect on my depressed mood. Nor did exercise.
But God’s grace would soon lift me up and out of depression through the expertise of VA medical professionals and the wonders of modern medicine and science.
Exasperated by my seemingly unending depression, my determined wife persevered in pushing me and my psychiatrist to try a stronger pharmaceutical intervention. In August 2016 — over two years after mania had shattered my Army career — my doctor and I agreed to begin lithium carbonate, a naturally occurring salt, and tried-and-true mood stabilizer for bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, lithium comes with significant side effects, which up until then, my doctors and I had not wanted to risk.
Astoundingly, within one week of starting lithium, I began to feel better. I was rising out of the dark pit of depression. Soon, I had new energy and hope and began to enjoy my life again.
Lithium helped construct a floor and a ceiling inside my brain: a floor to prevent me from sinking back into depression, and a ceiling to keep me from shooting back into mania. Almost like a kind of magic bullet, lithium worked — and continues to work — for me, despite the negative side effects, principally hand tremors and compromised balance at this point, in my sixth year of use. Lithium is a miracle medicine that is found in nature, that works wonders for many bipolar patients – God’s grace at work. Hope in a pill.
My road to recovery would be incomplete if I left out the fact that, shortly after commencing with lithium and raising myself out of depression, my wife and I relocated from New Hampshire to Cocoa Beach, Florida, where the summer lasts most of the year and the weather is much sunnier, warmer, and brighter than in the northeast. This climate has had a medicinal effect on my brain and mood.
In addition to the subtropical climate, we also live in a fun community full of happy, fit, friendly people who enjoy the healthy, laid-back lifestyle. We have built a whole new life, and are loving it.
But I will always have bipolar disorder. The disorder is an inextricable part of my brain’s physical design. And there is no known cure. Yet bipolar disorder can be effectively managed, and people who have bipolar disorder can live healthy, happy, fulfilling, successful lives – I am living proof. The list of famous people with bipolar disorder is long and includes people in virtually every profession.
According to my doctors, the keys to my staying healthy and preventing another onset of mania or depression, are to religiously take my medications; get plenty of sleep – at least seven to eight hours per night, plus a nap if possible; exercise regularly, and stay fit – mind, body, spirit, emotions; eat a healthy diet; drink plenty of water; make friends, be a friend, enjoy friends; avoid stress, anxiety, agitation and anger; construct guardrails to protect myself from known stressors, and cultivate calmness; have fun and enjoy life.
Build connections, nourish oneself on hope, and leverage professional medical support. Recovery is both possible and likely, if…you want to recover, and you live these principles.
To be continued…
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. This piece was originally published in Task&Purpose.
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, or read more of General Martin’s blogs on General Gregg’s Corner. His charity of choice is the International Bipolar Foundation.