Understanding life with bipolar disorder through the eyes of a retired major general 

What’s it like to live with bipolar I disorder? For those who do not have the disease — including those who research and treat the conditions — it can be hard to truly understand what the experience feels like.  

A new podcast from the University of Illinois Chicago bridges this divide by showcasing a conversation between UIC psychiatry and biomedical engineering professor Dr. Alex Leow and retired Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, who chronicled his experience with bipolar I in his book, “Bipolar General: My Forever War with Mental Illness.”

The two met earlier this year at a conference on bipolar disorders and have become friends. Leow suggested they speak together on the podcast “Collaborative Endeavors,” which is put out by UIC’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science

Bipolar I disorder is marked by manic episodes that last seven days or more. Martin details how he gradually went from a high-functioning officer to episodes of full-blown mania and extreme depression.  

I literally went into a state of madness,” Martin said of his manic periods. “Extreme grandiosity, where I thought I was this apostle from God to the Department of Defense, extreme religiosity, where I was doing 25 or 30 religious events per week. … I started talking faster and faster for longer periods of time. Sometimes I would talk nonstop for hours.”  

Eventually, in 2014, his colleagues became concerned enough to file anonymous reports that were sent up the chain of command to his supervisor, the chairman of joint chiefs of staff. Soon afterward, he was forced to retire from the Army and was urged to get mental health treatment. Even so, he was misdiagnosed three times. 

Martin’s history of misdiagnosis was of particular interest to Leow and reinforces how important it is for researchers and clinicians to fully understand complicated conditions like bipolar disorder. 

“I’d like to think of our conversation today as a conversation between two bipolar experts,” Leow said. “I am a psychiatrist with expertise in treating people with bipolar disorder, and Gregg is a bipolar expert by lived experience. It’s like, you can become an expert in the city of Paris if you read a lot of books and you learn all the facts about Paris. But, you can also become an expert in Paris by living in Paris. This is so important, because this ability to experience something firsthand, it’s so powerful. Ever since we first started chatting a few months ago, I feel like I learned so much about what it actually means to be living inside a brain that has bipolar disorder.” 

You can listen to more of their conversation in the three-part series from the Collaborative Endeavors” podcast 

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