Right after becoming a Navy SEAL I had my first manic episode. All that training on mental toughness and still I wasn’t prepared for the agony of losing my mind. At the time of my breakdown I was helping a former SEAL commander brainstorm strategies for a book called the Unbeatable mind. Turns out my mind was beatable. I experienced the SEAL selection process just a few months before spinning out in a psych ward, perhaps giving me unique perspective on the two difficulties. Let me say one thing: if you are living with severe mental illness, you are as tough as a Navy SEAL.
The Navy and hellweek pushed me, but I was surrounded by friends striving toward the same goal. In training we accomplished tasks together, never being allowed more than a few feet from your swim buddy. For miles we carried inflatable boats on our heads to learn to move as a single unit. We were grouped together into things with names like “unit” and “squad” and “boat crew”. You always had a friend nearby.
But you go through delusions alone. You hear voices and see faces alone. I was locked in a psych ward for weeks, sometimes in restraints. Lost in my own mind and more frightened than I’ve ever been. All of this alone. Mental illness, like death, is faced alone no matter how many confidants you have.
Preparing for BUD/S I set an informal world record for doing 3,000 burpees in seven hours. Find it on YouTube. I swam for hours out in the ocean and ran with a weight vest for miles and miles. Nothing in selection was gonna shake me. Hellweek they kept us awake for a week with endless suffering. Constant hypothermia, running until your toenails fall off, collapsing from exhaustion. We started selection with 260 guys determined to be SEALs. After hellweek we were down to 46. Almost all of them quit. Out of 80 guys in my boot camp class, I was the only one to graduate BUD/S the first try.
All that suffering and subsequent victory in selection and still totally sideswiped by mania. There is nothing that can prepare your spirit for mania. It is absolute chaos. It’s left me swinging from rafters above a two story drop. It’s left me jumping out of cars. It’s left me naked one time and covered in paint another. And that’s what’s going on on the outside. Inside my mind I am surrounded by demons and conspiracies and brutal cosmic pain. In my mind I am followed and hunted like an animal by powerful government forces.
We suffered in BUD/S. We suffered in hellweek. But hellweek suffering never made me want to step in front of a train like mania or severe depression did.
On graduation day when I got my trident they threw a big party for me at the beach. Everyone I knew was there. After the beach party we went to the bar and my friends threw me in the air over and over above the dance floor. It felt like the pinnacle of my life. When I was forced out of the SEAL community for being bipolar I was mocked and laughed at, literally. Another SEAL, who at one point would have given his life for mine, spit at me. I slipped into a cage of shame and wanted to die. It took years to recover.
Everyone seems to think it’s badass to have survived SEAL training. But no one has ever told me I was a badass for surviving a mental illness. Well fuck, they should.
The bipolar and schizophrenic people out there deserve medals but instead they wear the shame you force on them. This isn’t a mental health crisis, it’s a type of genocide. You all are killing us with shame. 60% of those living with mental illness didn’t receive treatment in the last year (NIHM). Shame drives the decision making process for many of these people. It took me three years from when a doctor told me I was bipolar until I could convince myself to take a pill. Three years and another manic episode. That pill saves my life every day and I was too scared to take it. Too scared people would call me crazy.
In BUD/S I was a top 3 swimmer, top 3 on the obstacle course and a top ten runner. I was smooth on dives and not bad on an M4. I had so much to be proud of. That didn’t stop me from wanting to end my life only months later. The ridicules and laughs and silences echoing in my head. The times people couldn’t stop looking at me. The times no one was looking at me. It almost crushed me. A Navy SEAL brought to his knees by mental illness. I went through arguably the toughest military training in the world and I barely survived mania and depression.
Over 20 American Veterans kill themselves everyday (VA Study). That’s a far greater death rate than any of our current wars. One without medals and gunfire yet still able to massacre. Secret battles inside the minds of our finest.
90% of suicides are linked to mental illness (American Journal of Psychiatry). If you are fighting a battle in your mind and don’t know anyone with the capacity to hear your story, please, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t have any wisdom on how to heal from mania or depression. Sometimes I think you just survive the rough parts, like BUD/S. I travelled around the world trying to shake everything off and it didn’t help. I hammered down drugs and collected lovers but I was still dead inside. The only thing that helped some was sharing my story with others. I first started telling strangers, people I’d smoke a cigarette with on the corner as it was easier that way.
Life slowed down as I moved onto a sailboat and started spear fishing a lot. Being in the water helps me meditate. Eventually I met a girl who loves every part of me, even the crazy parts. I think it’s one of the greatest human fears to think we cannot be fully seen and fully loved. But until you are seen fully, how can you be loved fully? Be brave enough to speak your narrative, even the shitty parts. It took me years to do this. I used to weep without hope but I know happiness now.
Happiness feels different on the other side of such pain. It’s softer and quieter but somehow more real. I wake up early and often create with my hands. I look people in the eyes when I speak to them. I have been to hell and back and I am unafraid. I will fall again, but I will rise. I will be beaten, but in the end I will prevail. I am bipolar but I will stand tall. My head is bloodied but unbowed.
This article is dedicated to Navy SEAL Glen Doherty. You ran into a firefight when others wouldn’t. Your death haunts my dreams and your life inspires me daily.
*Originally post at link below*