Sunday, February 8, 2015

Back to Work

For reasons I'll explain in a post somewhere down the road, back in 2012 I felt forced to suspend my involvement with Facing the Demon.  Prior to that moment, while I sometimes congratulated myself on having what I termed the "modest courage" to speak publicly about my bipolar disorder, in reality I considered myself--thanks to academic tenure--as pretty much bullet proof.  I sympathized with readers who had fears about what might happen if they disclosed that they also had the disorder, and even more with those who reported having those fears realized.  But I didn't think I myself was vulnerable.  Turns out I was dramatically wrong and, for a comparatively brief but traumatic period, scared out of my wits.

Although that experience is now two years in my rear view mirror, a potential re-occurrence is now a fact of life I may have to live with for years if not forever.  And the potential price is arguably more than any prudent person would risk.  And yet, and yet....

In recent months I've had three experiences which have reminded me that, whatever the risks, my candor about bipolar disorder has helped people, that the moral responsibility I have long felt to make this foray into mental health advocacy has not abated, and that if I abandon this task I will forever be a different man than the man I want to be.  I'm just not willing to be that man.

So, taking a deep breath, here I go.

Let me tell you about those three experiences.  The first was an outgrowth of an after dinner talk I gave at the Ohio Academy of History back in autumn 2009.  On my c.v. it appears as "Robert E. Lee and U. S. Grant in Public and Private Memory," but I published it on this blog under the title "Facing Facts."  A person present in the audience recalled the talk and when it transpired that his wife, who was also in academe, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he wrote to ask if I had made any special arrangements with, say, Human Resources to get my disorder on record as a disability, which under both state and federal law it is.  The theory was that if the institution formally acknowledged the illness as a legal disability it would debar the unscrupulous or just plain ignorant from placing her career at risk.  In point of fact I've never pursued such an initiative, save to create an informal agreement with my department's director of scheduling to schedule my classes in the afternoon, my occasional depressions being worst during the mornings.  Consequently I didn't have any dramatic advice to offer, but I got the impression that the sheer fact of my candor was in some measure reassuring.

The second was a student who heard me report to one of my classes that I have bipolar disorder, a practice I've maintained for years on the theory--or more precisely the reality--that in a class of 100 students statistically at least one of them has been or will be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  And of course several more will be diagnosed with similar disorders, such as clinical depression; or deal with friends and family members who have biochemically based mood disorders.  I don't just spring this on them out of the clear blue sky.  Instead I wait for a pedagogically appropriate moment--in my US history survey course the 19th century "discovery of the asylum" provides an obvious opening. In this instance, the student had been diagnosed with clinical depression but, like many young people who perceive the diagnosis as a de facto exile from the "normal" world, resisted taking his prescribed medication.  The student told me that he had found my blog and encountered the entry entitled "My Favorite Clausewitz Quote," which makes a concise case that it is folly for anyone with a mood disorder not to exploit every possible resource to combat it.  Convinced, he began to take his medications.

The third was a simple conversation with a student, who had also heard me speak of bipolar disorder, that eased her mind and steadied her about her own recent diagnosis.

So there you have it.  As I've said elsewhere, the ethical reasoning that nudges me to stay the course is aretaic--that is to say, driven by character rather than any moral imperative.  This kind of reasoning doesn't say that everyone has to be public about the disorder.  It just means that I do.  It's that still, small, insistent voice, and it's time for me to heed it once again.

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