Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Moments of Decision - Pt 2

Originally published in Blog Them Out of the Stone Age on April 14, 2005

I have Bipolar Disorder : what used to be called "manic depression."

I was diagnosed with the disorder in September 1986, shortly before my twenty-seventh birthday. I have since concluded that the actual onset of the disorder most likely occurred almost a decade before that, in the winter of my seventeenth year.

Friends, colleagues and, indeed, almost anyone who has ever met me face-to-face will be unsurprised by this information, since from the outset I made the decision never to act as if I were embarrassed or ashamed to have the disorder. Close friends also know that I have long been looking for the right moment to "go public" with this information. I myself have known, since the day I began keeping a blog, that one day I would be composing this post. On the whole, I am surprised I wound up waiting as long as I have.

The principal reason for waiting is that while I figured I would go public with the news in this medium--and by go public I mean to share this information with people whom I cannot look in the eye as I do so and gauge their reaction--I wanted the focus of the blog to remain unchanged. My principal concern continues to be to assess the prospects of military history as an academic field. It's simply that I wish now to introduce the "canon of military history" as I have experienced it personally: a very rich set of metaphors by which to manage and survive the inevitable struggles of life. True, I could use other examples, but to do so would feel so much to me as if I were dodging the most obvious example that I would be violating my first rule concerning the disclosure of my having bipolar disorder: when, within a given context, the most direct response involves acknowledging the disorder, always acknowledge it.

Acknowledging it, however, turns out not to be the same thing as accepting it. The rest of this entry was composed in November 1997, a day or two after my return from a weekend staff ride on the Antietam battlefield with officers and cadets from West Point. (If you read Starship Troopers, Civic Virtue, and the American Civil War you will be reading an essay that I dashed off in twenty minutes, gave improvisationally to a group of thirty plebes who cheered me at the end, and then revised into present form all while hypomanic . As you'll see, initially I failed to make the connection between my mood and the manic episode in 1986 which led to my hospitalization and diagnosis. But look at my choice of wording and examples when I finally, reluctantly, did make the connection. You'll begin to get an inkling of the ways in which I routinely use combat as metaphor.

Three O'Clock in the Morning Courage

It is said that by the age of forty [I was then thirty-seven], every human being has the face he deserves. What is perhaps also possible is that by the age of forty, most human beings have the life they deserve. I never realized how literally that could be the case until now.

About eight hours ago, I was obliged to do the one thing we humans hate: face facts. There is nothing harder. For ten days now I have been amazed to discover how very intelligent people, namely my colleagues within the academic profession, can so readily run from the facts. It never occurred to me to realize that I have spent eleven years running from the facts. Yet that is what I've done.
There is no doubt in my military mind--the phrase, at the moment, is exact--that I am at present in the throes of hypomania. I wasn't in much doubt even when [my wife] and I went to see Don ______ [a close personal friend who was also a psychotherapist] this afternoon. I am in no doubt whatever now.

There'll be time later, I hope, to write down some of what I've thought during the past several days. For now I want to say only that this evening I had a long talk with my wife, and then by phone with my brother, and then by phone once again with my sister. All three in their ways have given me courage to accept what I must: that bipolar disorder is not something I must accept because, however stale the diagnosis, the DSM-IV [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association, 4th edition] yields no way to undo the diagnosis. Rather, bipolar disorder is something I have in the here and now. I've always had it, at least since 1986. As my father would have said, "Mark, even you can learn something if you're hit over the head with a two by four."

From maybe 6 p.m. this evening onward (we left ______ Psychiatric Services at 5 p.m.), I've been seriously coming to terms with my discussion with Don this afternoon. Don is a little too client-centered to say his full piece if the client isn't ready to hear, but as soon as I asked Don what he'd do in my place, he said without hesitation that he'd make an appointment with a psychiatrist and get on meds [medication]. I agreed to make such an appointment. I have one in the morning at 9 a.m, which is why I can permit myself the luxury of writing these words now. Because I'm writing them at 2:29 a.m. in the morning (by the computer clock). I feel fully rested and refreshed, yet I went to bed just three hours ago, and washed down an over the counter sleep aid before doing so.

When I awoke about twenty-five minutes ago, I was certain it must be near dawn. I was amazed to look at the bedroom clock and note the actual time. I could feel a slight "buzz" around my cranium, somewhat the way it feels when you've been wearing a hat for a long period and then remove it. Your head feels like the hat is still there. So too with me, though I can feel the sensation ebbing now. I'm beginning to feel a bit sleepy again, and as soon as I can jot down two more thoughts I'll head back to bed.

The two thoughts are: First, when my family first moved to Columbus back in 1972, my father read us Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. In it the main character is a mildly retarded young man named Charlie. He has an operation that makes him normal--indeed, supernormal, because his intelligence expands prodigiously and eclipses even that of the brilliant man who performed the operation. But Charlie's great intelligence only enables him to see more quickly than anyone else the facts: the success is temporary. His findings indicate that his new intelligence is eroding, that he will become retarded again.

My situation is not exactly like that, but it is similar. (Both [my brother and my sister] picked up on this when I mentioned the book this evening, though [one] relished the analogy while [the other] seemed slightly disquieted by it.) I could have used this manic high to embark on grandiose projects. Instead I used it to investigate the age-old question: Something feels wrong. What is it? The conclusion: Something is wrong. I've been cycling through manic and depressive phases for years, not wildly, as Mom did, but within a mostly functional range. I was surely hypomanic on March 4, 1992, the day I gave the job talk that one graduate student called a "tour de force," and which wowed the Department so greatly that it took the unprecedented step of hiring a tenure-track faculty member directly from its grad student ranks. So far I've managed to get through the cycles through my ability to cope, though at what unnecessary personal cost I cannot imagine. How long can I expect my luck to hold? I'd better get with a psychiatrist and do what the hell he directs.

The second thought will seem unrelated and perhaps inappropriate to the context, though I assure you it is not. The second thought is that, while neither I nor anyone else could ever prove it, I think I now know why General Robert E. Lee halted his army on the Sharpsburg ridge on September 15, 1862, rather than do the "prudent" thing and recross the Potomac River. Instead he turned to face his much larger enemy and fought a pitched battle (the bloodiest single day of the Civil War) with a wide, unfordable river about a mile to his rear. Military historians have wondered ever since why he did it. Most of the explanations (which I won't waste time rehearsing) center on operational or political factors. But is it possible that Lee stood at Sharpsburg because something in his own personal history combined with these impersonal factors to compel the decision he made? If so, I think it was his father.

Light Horse Harry Lee was, in some respects, a more successful man than Robert. He was a hero of the Revolutionary War and a governor of Virginia, among other things. Yet Harry Lee wound up dying far from home and penniless, for reasons that have to do ultimately with a refusal to face facts or to stand and face the consequences of his life. He fled the country rather than go to debtors' prison for debts he'd contracted in a series of risky land speculation ventures. In September 1962, Robert took a risk by crossing the Potomac and embarking on a raid into Maryland while his army was reduced in numbers and ill-equipped. After the defeat at South Mountain he should have departed from Maryland as soon as he could. But perhaps something in him resisted the idea of running from the consequences of the risk he had taken. Perhaps he realized that if he did so his future generalship would be compromised. (Generals are human beings first of all; the same psychological dynamics that affect the rest of us affect them.) Perhaps in a much different way than I am doing, Robert E. Lee was also facing facts when he made his stand on the high ground west of Antietam Creek.

Part 1 - Part 2

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.