Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Originally published in Blog Them Out of the Stone Age on July 12, 2005

It's been nearly a month since my last blog post. That's partly because I have adhered to my rule of making this blog an aid to productive scholarship, not a diversion from it. It's partly because the next posts that follow logically from Crash and, especially, Shadow Warriors, Pt 8, are ones that I have been reluctant to write, much less publish -- though I guess in the next few days I will have to embark on them. But mostly it has been due to the fact that I've spent much of the period in a state of clinical depression.

What does that mean? Well, according to the standard diagnostic manual used by the American Psychiatric Association, it means that I met the criteria listed in Facing the Demon.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness. The condition was diagnosed when I was 26; I am now 45; I will have this condition for the rest of my life. I have seen it blight the lives of some people but in most cases I have found that people manage the illness fairly well. The medications now available help a good deal, as does the diminishing stigma attached to illnesses of this sort, which makes it easier for people to get treatment rather than avoid it from a sense of shame. In my own case, I have also found it useful to keep a very tight handle on the diagnostic criteria associated with the disorder. (In Facing the Demon, I tried to give an impressionistic sense of this utility.)

Nevertheless, if you look over the criteria you'll find that by definition a major depressive episode can be identified only after a significant amount of time has passed. Officially the period is a full two weeks, though to be sure, a psychiatrist closely acquainted with a patient seldom hesitates to intervene long before then. Still, it takes time for a pattern of symptoms to emerge. Even the depressed person isn't always aware of being depressed until a few days have gone by. And although this site typically gets around 80-120 hits per day, it was not until yesterday that anyone inquired whether the dearth of blog entries might indicate that something was amiss with my health.

I knew that such an inquiry would come eventually, however. I knew which person was most likely to inquire. I knew it would come as an email, and I knew what the subject line would say: "SITREP?"

SITREP is military speak for Situation Report. If somebody asks for a situation report they are asking to know the status of your unit and the progress of its mission.

The person who requested the SITREP was an officer currently posted in Baghdad. I wrote back:
Thanks for checking up. I appreciate it.

Things are OK now, but as you surmised, until recently they weren't going so well. I had another depressive spell, this one longer than usual--probably long enough to qualify formally as a clinical depression. It may have been due in part to some tweaking in my medication. The meds have been tweaked again, and I'm doing better, though whether this is a cause and effect relationship, or correlation, or coincidence, just plain beats me. All I know is that I have had more trouble with the bipolar disorder this year than in any preceding year I can recall.

A subsidiary reason I haven't been keeping a blog is that when I am OK I'm busy doing other things. At the moment, for instance, I'm writing a 5,500-word chapter for The Osprey Companion to the American Civil War. If I needed the blog to help with my productivity I'd use it, but I've never wanted to get in the trap of letting the blog distract me from the stuff I really need to do.

I hope things are going OK at your end. Thinking about what "at your end" signifies sort of puts what's going on in my life into perspective.

Afterward it occurred to me that dealing with this bipolar disorder is a little bit like combatting an insurgency, and vice versa. For instance, I can say in retrospect that a depressive episode occurred, but neither I nor anyone else can say with much certainty what caused it, when it began, why it reached the level of intensity it did, and why it finally lifted. Similarly, although it is obvious that the United States is contending with an insurgency in Iraq, I don't think anyone can say exactly when it began, or explain the dynamic that feeds it, or gauge -- save in a very rough way -- the progress the United States has made in fighting it. Or say when it will end. In the case of bipolar disorder, it will never end, though I am told that the disorder tends to be roughest on people in their thirties and forties and tends to abate with age. Yet the presence of the disorder doesn't preclude the possibility of leading some measure of an ordinary life, just as the presence of an insurgency doesn't necessarily halt the normal functioning of a society. As military historian Eliot Cohen observed in a recent op/ed piece, "Counterinsurgency is inherently a long, long business. Conceivably, the Iraqi insurgency could collapse in a year or so, but that would be highly unusual. More likely Iraq will suffer from chronic violence, which need not prevent the country as a whole from progressing."

"The history of a battle," the Duke of Wellington famously maintained, "is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference to their value and importance." He wrote those words to dissuade a would-be historian of the battle of Waterloo, but of course his injunction did nothing to inhibit the crafting of hundreds of books on the battle. Societies have a need to find meaning in events just as individuals have a need to find meaning in their own lives. Yet when thinking about this latest depressive episode, I wonder. . . . "The meds have been tweaked again, and I'm doing better, though whether this is a cause and effect relationship, or correlation, or coincidence, just plain beats me." The only battlefield was my own life, and yet I can see what Wellington was driving at. I wonder what simile Wellington would have found to describe the history of an insurgency?

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