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What I Learned After Being Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder in the Marine Corps

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I learned a valuable lesson in retrospect. Looking back on my initial diagnosis and hospitalization with bipolar, I guess I was in no condition to make a sound determination on my own treatment. To be honest, I didn’t realize there was a problem.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

I was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps and had just recently gotten married. My first child was born, I had changed jobs and there were a plethora of other life changes happening simultaneously. After a few weeks of some odd symptoms, I headed to sickbay one morning. The thing that triggered my move to action was my memory. I had always prided myself on it and it had started slipping, mainly, facial recognition. Friends of mine I had served with for quite some time would approach me and I kind of knew them, but simply couldn’t place them. Additionally, my sleep was a wreck, mostly non-existent — and there were the taco salads. Yes, taco salads. It’s the only thing I would eat or had any appetite for eating. Anything else just seemed to turn my stomach when I considered them.

So here I was at sick call. I laid out my perceived issues in the same manner I just did here. That’s when the doctor shifted his attention to my left arm.

“How’d you get those cuts?” the doctor asked.

“Oh those? I sit in the window at night and look over downtown Washington D.C. and cut myself with an X-Acto blade. It helps to ground me. The pain sort of takes away the numbness,” I responded without a second thought that this behavior was anything except normal.

It was at this point that the doctor rose and asked me to take a walk with him down the hall. He led me through a set of double doors that locked from the inside. He told me to take a seat in what appeared to be a makeshift lounge. I waited. When he returned, there were two others with him. They sat down and asked what number they could reach my wife. I was a bit confused at this turn of event and running rampant through my mind were a hundred different scenarios, the most prevalent, that I was in trouble for destruction of government property because of the cuts to my arm. Was I headed to the brig or worse? The one thing that was not in that typhoon of scenarios however, was that I was mentally ill and about to be hospitalized because of this condition I had never heard of prior to this visit.

I did my three weeks in the rapid treatment unit. That was the unit I was in. It was for people who were not yet suicidal or a harm to the public, but there were some behavioral markers that indicated that I just may be. During those three weeks, I learned about occupational and recreational therapy and took whatever meds they handed me without knowing what they were. In group, we talked about this thing called bipolar disorder and how I was categorized as rapid-cycling.

I was no longer numb. I was scared and just wanted to go home. The day of my release, I was happy to get out and eat with regular metal utensils again. Unfortunately, of all the things I learned, I wasn’t proactive in pressing for ongoing treatment and medication. I assumed, at the time, I was “cured.”

Twenty-five years would pass for me before I had a total relapse, although is there such a thing? Basically I spent those years oblivious to the new behaviors I had developed. The hyper-sexuality, the risky behavior, the manic and depressive episodes, the anxiety, fear and anger. Because I assumed I was cured, I shrugged them off to being moody and overly ambitious with possibly an overactive sex drive. Wow, I was more lost than when I first sought help for a taco salad problem.

After getting myself back in to treatment, real treatment, a little over two years ago, I started to sift through those years, realizing the damage I had caused. From disposable relationships, to behavior I am not very proud of, an additional memory surfaced.

About 18 months prior to that visit that landed me in the hospital, I sat in a bar one night with a friend. We rolled lit cigarettes in between our forearms until they snuffed out. I still remember that pain. If you’ve ever done this, the ember doesn’t die right away. Of course the following morning, I headed to sickbay as my arm was a charred, weepy mess.

This doctor asked no questions, if he did, I don’t recall the lie I told. Following a clean-up of my arm, I was sent back to the barracks with a week supply of iodine swaps, gauze pads and bandages. That was that.

Why that incident surfaced was that who knows how very different my life may have been if I would have been diagnosed and treated a year and a half earlier. The memory of my hospitalization taught me I am the one that has to be proactive in my treatment and not to just accept what is or isn’t being offered to me.

It’s a bit painful and shameful to share some of this as I was a Marine, served with distinction and even promoted meritoriously to Sergeant. However, this disorder has a way of bringing even the most prideful and squeaky clean people to their knees, and I for one am responsible for these wrinkles in my character.

I hope that through this public sharing and acceptance, the importance of seeking out and maintaining the best possible mental health care and treatment reaches at least one person.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

Thinkstock photo via jhack

Originally published: April 4, 2017
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