Interview with a Bipolar General -- Part I

Major General Gregg Martin, U.S. Army (Ret.) has bipolar disorder. For decades, low level mania helped him achieve an amazing career. West Point. Airborne Rangers. MIT. Two master’s degrees and a doctorate. Two more master’s degrees. Bronze Star recipient. General Martin identifies the Iraq War as the event that triggered acute mania. By 2014, while Martin was serving as president of the National Defense University, it was out of control. His boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey,  asked for his resignation and ordered him to get treatment. I had the honor of speaking with General Martin about his forthcoming book, his career, and his bipolar illness. This is part I of that interview.

You’ve been working on a book. Tell me about it.

The tentative title is Bipolar General: My Forever War with Mental Illness. It hits several key components. One is my, kind of, service and success, which my mental conditions helped me quite a bit over a number of decades until my condition went too far, and it undermined and hurt me. So I go from service and success to mental health crisis. You know, going through the bipolar journey, which then culminated with acute bipolar, to include full-blown mania, full-blown psychosis, and then severe — really crippling — depression. And then after the crisis, I, really, talk through my recovery, how the recovery went, what the different elements were, what it was like. And then once I recovered, or got stabilized, because I think once you get stabilized  — you know, that’s kind of the definition of recovery, where you feel and can live normally again — I talk about building a new life.

Did you have bipolar II, hypomania, and then it sort of flipped into bipolar I?

Not quite. I had a condition, which nobody talks about or studies in the U.S., called hyperthymia. Not to be confused with hypomania. What hyperthymia is is it’s a personality type or mood condition below the level of a mental illness, where the person is in a nearly continuous state of mild mania. And I probably had that from junior high, high school, all the way until my actual bipolar disorder kicked in in my forties. So that condition gave me a boost. It elevated my natural talents and helped me perform better than I otherwise would have. But all the time from my teenage years until my forties, it kept increasing and increasing and increasing. And the problem with hyperthymia is that as long as it doesn’t turn into something more serious, it’s actually a help. It’s a performance enhancer. But it puts a person at greater risk for bipolar, for depression, for anxiety disorder, for other problems. And so it transitioned, or jumped, from sub-mental illness to actual bipolar.

When you were in command of troops, how did the bipolar manifest itself?

So, a lot of this is retrospective analysis on my own part, with the Army psychiatrists, and more extensively with the VA. The Department of the Army did a Medical Evaluation Board on me and my case, and the VA also did an evaluation. A lot of their findings are based on their own conversations and interviews, and they dig back into your medical records and try to find any traces of mental illness. And both of them independently came to the conclusion that I had a genetic predisposition for bipolar that was triggered by the intense stress of leading troops in combat, 2003 in Iraq. They believed that prior to 2003, I did not have bipolar. But in 2003, based on what I had told them and their analysis, they feel that was the trigger point. I’m not sure they got it right, and my wife thinks that it came earlier. She thinks it came, not in 2003, but between ‘97 and ‘99, when I was a battalion commander. She thinks there’s strong evidence I went into mania during the time I was a battalion commander. Be that as it may, the Army and VA position is that’s what had happened. And it’s entirely believable and plausible to me. What I felt was that I always had high levels of energy and enthusiasm, drive, problem solving ability, and creativity. But that elevated dramatically once we attacked into Iraq, and I’ve written about it, I remember it, felt it. I felt like Superman — mentally and physically. My problem solving capability was really off the charts. And recognized by everyone around me — people above me, people below me, peers. And then physically I felt fearless to do anything.

Did you go without sleep? 

Yeah. I could go without sleep. I moved all over the battlefield — checking, getting eyes on target, eyes on mission, talking to everyone down to platoon leader, squad leader level. And I was a colonel. You know, just relentlessly moving around the battlefield. So that’s where I felt different. It was a great feeling. As I look back in retrospect to 2003, I knew it was phenomenal, it was euphoric, I was high, I felt great, I was happy. I wasn’t scared of anything. My reactions were laser-sharp. But then when the attack was over after about a month, we started operating out of these big base camps, and we really got into a different kind of war — guerrilla warfare, counter-insurgency, anti-terrorism. So we lived in these big base camps that were literally hit with rockets, mortars. And when you would go off base, there was a constant threat of snipers and ambushes, IED attacks, and so forth. The whole dynamic of the situation changed. In retrospect, I now realize I started dipping into depression. So I was still mostly in mania, but I would dip into depression. It might only be for an hour, a couple hours, half a day. It might be for a whole day. I might wake up with it, but it would go away after a couple hours. I guess they call that rapid cycling. I was going from mania into depression. And every time we planned a combat mission outside the wire, I would just come alive. I would be up. And I went outside the wire just about everyday, to check on, you know, I was an engineer brigade commander, so we had combat engineers clearing IEDs, finding IEDs, plus doing construction, civic action in these Iraqi villages and neighborhoods. And so I was continuously going between depression and mania. It would still be characterized as bipolar type I, because it was predominantly mania. But then when I got to Germany after a year, I crashed into depression. And I was in a state of depression for probably ten months, and I reported the depression to the medical people. They discussed it with me and said you’re fine, there’s nothing wrong with you, go back to work, you’re good. But I wasn’t good. Now I realize I had completed my first full extended mania, extended depression — up, down — which was the first, that would continue for the next 11 years,  where I’d be going into higher highs, lower lows, increasing paranoia, delusions, and then at some point hallucinations came in, and then eventually I went into full-blown, out of control mania, followed by crippling depression, and terrifying psychosis. Over the course of 11 years.

Another excerpt of this interview will appear on Thursday.