Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Twitter in Direct Support

Originally published in Blog Them Out of the Stone Age on July 9, 2009

If you scroll down on the sidebar of this blog, you'll find a section labeled "Twitter Updates," thanks to a widget I installed a few days ago. The question is, how does this relate to military history?

As long time readers of the blog are aware, I have bipolar disorder. The subject is covered in the category "Facing the Demon," along with battle stress injury -- not because I think the two are identical: one is an illness, the other an injury -- but because both require management and both carry a perceived stigma that requires a degree of courage to address. In my own case, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was twenty-six and have probably had it since the winter of my seventeenth year. It took a long time to come to grips with it. Until I was thirty-seven I didn't fully accept the reality of the disorder -- that it was something I had and would always have and that it needed to be managed precisely as one would manage any other chronic illness, such as diabetes, which in some respects it resembles. Both are abnormalities in one's biochemistry.

In the years since, I've gradually become conscious of the fact that in dealing with the illness I instinctively draw upon a number of concepts derived from a lifetime steeped in military history, strategic studies, and my own modest military experience. The most basic insight derives from Clausewitz: "In war, the best strategy is always to be very strong." This translates metaphorically into identifying as using as many tools to combat the illness as I can. Many of them are predicated on a crucial decision I made as soon as I received the diagnosis; namely that I would acknowledge it openly. As I've written elsewhere:
People often think that because I’m so up front about having bipolar disorder, that being candid about the illness must be an easy thing for me to do. In fact, it scares me. I’m up front about it only because I’m convinced that candor is better than the alternative. Being open with my colleagues, for example, populates the department with observers who have a decent chance of identifying unusual behavior as an artifact of the illness rather than erroneously attributing it to something else: simple high spirits instead of hypomania, for example. It enables me to ask for help when necessary without having to explain the illness from scratch. And it gives me a chance to combat, in a small way, the stigma that still attaches to mental illness. If a professor protected by tenure cannot summon the modest courage required for such an act, I do not know who can.

So where does Twitter come in?

I've decided to use this social utility as a way to discuss the illness, not abstractly, but as it affects my day to day life. (The updates, by the way, appear not just on the blog but are immediately cross-posted as a status update on Facebook.) Since I find the prospect of doing so a bit daunting -- it is one thing to state publicly that I have the disorder, quite another to state on a given day that I'm depressed -- I've begun with something reasonably safe: namely to keep public track of my workouts at the gym (and other forms of exercise). This has more to do with bipolar disorder than one might suppose. Coping with bipolar disorder involves more than taking medication. There are things one can actively do to manage the illness, among them getting enough sleep and getting enough exercise, which releases beneficial endorphins.

So announcing each trip to the gym is not based on vanity or the assumption that people are fascinated with the mundane details of my life. It's the early stage of what I expect will be a larger experiment in publicly sharing the experience of managing bipolar disorder, partly as a means to expand my network of support, but primarily to model in practical terms how one goes about it, and to treat the illness as one would any other: not something of which to be embarrassed or ashamed but a simple fact of existence.


Anonymous said...

Mark - I've followed you for a while on FB, but truly, you don't know me. :)

Anyway, my mother was bi-polar and suffered mightily from it, both the effects and the social stigma (this was back in the 70s/80s) and her unwillingness to accept the condition. I know from the passenger seat how overwhelming the condition is. Which is my way of saying I admire your efforts, and think that your desire to be transparent about the effects it has on your life is really very brave.

I'll be over here quietly on the sidelines, reading.

Mark Grimsley said...

Thanks, kimboosan. My mother also had bipolar disorder, then called manic depression. Her first hospitalization was in December 1964, but with a diagnosis of schizophrenia -- a common mistake among American psychiatrists in those days. (Interestingly, British psychiatrists made the opposite mistake; i.e., they overdiagnosed bipolar disorder.) It took several years for her illness to be correctly diagnosed, fortunately by one of relatively few psychiatrists authorized to prescribe lithium before its final approval by the Food and Drug Administration. She too suffered a lot from the stigma, but even more so, I think, from the lack of support she got from her family, including me.

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