In July 2014, I was in my 36th year of military service, a two-star general, combat veteran, and president of the National Defense University (NDU), in Washington, DC. I worked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey.
After decades of success, I had become a maniac—extremely disruptive and erratic. Finally, the Chairman, who was a long-time mentor, boss, and friend, summoned me to his office and said, "Gregg, I love you like a brother, but your time at NDU is done. You have until 17:00 today to resign, or you're fired. And you need to get a mental health exam!"
Unbeknownst to myself and the Army, my genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder was triggered by the intense stress of the Iraq War in 2003, where I commanded a combat engineer brigade of thousands of soldiers.
My brain responded by producing and distributing excessive amounts of dopamine and endorphins, sending me into a euphoric, high-performing mania that made me feel fearless, hyper-energized, and superhuman. Unfortunately, this mania damaged my brain circuitry and launched me into a life dominated by unrecognized bipolar disorder.
After a year of thrilling combat, with rushing adrenaline, surging bio-chemicals in my brain, and a powerful, natural "high," I redeployed to Germany, where the moon of depression eclipsed the sun of mania. The under-production of those same chemicals caused a months-long depression. I reported my depression, but because I was not suicidal and had no intention of hurting anyone, Army medical personnel declared me "fit for duty"—but I wasn't.
Through months of hard work at my job, the depression lifted naturally. The structure of Army life helped get me through this difficult period. It also completed my first full up-and-down cycle of mania/depression, which would become my life pattern.
My bipolar disorder remained unrecognized by everyone from 2003 to 2014. Meanwhile, I was promoted twice and assigned to ever-tougher assignments, where the norm was complexity, budget cuts, and high stress. Yet, mania helped my performance in many ways by providing ever-higher levels of energy, drive, and creativity. It fueled my career ascendance—until it didn't.
The mania went higher, and my depression sank lower until I rocketed into acute, full-blown mania in 2014. Spinning out of control, I became disruptive, erratic, and over-the-top in virtually everything I thought, did, or said. Thankfully, the Chairman removed me from command. It turned out to be the best decision for my command, and eventually for my family, and me; but the next two years were exceptionally difficult.
After resigning, I crashed into dark, crippling, hopeless depression, accompanied by terrifying delusions. My mind was filled with morbid, vivid imagery of violent death and dying—what psychiatrists call "passive suicidal ideations." But for me, they were anything but passive. Instead, they were real, powerful, and life consuming.
I fought for my life. It wasn't until a friend helped get me into Veteran’s Administration (VA) care that I had a feeling that my condition could change. The clinical staff of the VA provided excellent care, and the combination of professional treatment, along with the love and support of my wife and family, prevented me from falling into the abyss.
After months of treatment, numerous medications, weeks in a VA psychiatric ward, and electroconvulsive therapy, the addition of the natural element Lithium (a salt) took my recovery to the next level and stabilized me in September 2016.
My bipolar disorder is now under control, but not gone. To keep it at bay, I must take medications, meet with my doctors, and live a healthy life—focusing on mind, body, and spirit.
My self-care includes exercise, a healthy diet, plenty of sleep and water, little to no alcohol, no drugs, a network of friends, fun activities, faith, and minimizing stress, anxiety, and anger.
As a former Army officer, I know that one of the keys to victory in combat is vigilance. The same holds true in my battle with bipolar disorder. As long as I remain attentive to the task at hand, I have the high ground and can avoid an attack by the fiercest enemy I have ever faced.
More than 10 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Another 50 million have depression, post-traumatic stress (PTS), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), or other mental health disorders that often lead to suicide. Thus, it is likely that nearly every person in America is affected in some way by mental illness: either themselves, a family member, friend, or colleague.
That's the bad news. The good news is that these medical conditions are treatable. Correctly diagnosed and treated, people can live healthy, happy, successful lives.
I didn't want bipolar disorder, but it wanted me and nearly destroyed everything I value. But thanks to the help of a great many others, I have been able to transform this problem into a mission: "sharing my bipolar story to help stop the stigma and save lives."
Now, I share my experiences, providing knowledge and hope. My purpose is to help save lives, marriages, families, friendships, careers, and more. My vision is that everyone who has a mental health disorder will get medical help free of stigma. There is no stigma associated with cancer or diabetes, and neither should there be for mental illness.
Science has validated that mental disorders are physiological and not because of a lack of character or willpower. It is not a person's fault they are ill, so we should not blame them. Instead, we must understand and accept this scientific truth.
We must all learn to identify the basic symptoms of mental health disorders. Then, if you or another display them, get medical help, just as you would for a heart attack. Do not wait! It could be a matter of life and death.
Battling mental illness has been my most brutal fight. It is incumbent upon all of us to learn about mental health and help educate and encourage others. Please join me in helping to stop the stigma.
[Note: September is National Suicide Prevention month. The national Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). For more information, visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org ]
This piece represents the views of the author. It does not represent the official views of the U.S. government or Department of Defense, nor do they vouch for its accuracy. An earlier version of this commentary appeared in Florida Today.