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Spotlight on Los Alamos: A pretty good mind

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By Roger Snodgrass

He has a Ph.D. from Cal Tech in astronomy, mathematics and physics, and is a Laboratory Fellow, but Dimitri Mihalas has another remarkable distinction. And no, it’s not just the fact that he is the only full-time staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who is currently a member of the National Academy of Sciences.Give up?He is – along with Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, poet John Berryman, actor Robin Williams, composer Ludwig van Beethoven and golfer John Daly – among those frequently included on a list of famous people with bipolar disorder.Bipolar disorder is a potentially debilitating mental illness, marked by depression and characterized by extreme, sometimes destructive or suicidal mood swings.But it is treatable, as Mihalas, now approaching 70, would testify, and it is far from uncommon.On the contrary; according to a recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in September 2007, the number of visits by adults resulting in bipolar disease has almost doubled over the last decade. And according to the same citation by the Centers for Disease control, the number of children and adolescents diagnosed with bipolar disorder has increased by 40 times during the same interval. “This is not the thing I think most about in my life, but it is one of my most valuable contributions,” he said during a recent interview. “I get letters from people who say, ‘You’ve saved my life.’”Which is to say that Mihalas, his experiences, his own struggles on the precipice of life and death and what he has learned about and from them, have a lot of relevance. Rather than a handicap, his mental disease has been turned completely on its head. “I am an expert,” he wrote a few years ago in one his essays that are freely available on the web, “ because I have had bipolar disease for 46 years, and suffered with it, sometimes intensely, for 42 of those 46 years.”Although he now understands that there is no “cure” for what the psychiatrists call more generally “an affective disorder,” he does understand what goes into achieving a sustained remission. Two of his essays on “Surviving Depression and Bipolar Disorder” pop right up on an Internet search.In one of them, “A Primer on Depression and Bipolar Disorder,” updated in 2002, he wrote about a series of “interest groups” he led on depression and bipolar disease in the early ’90s.Although he would later trace the beginnings of the illness back to his childhood, it was not definitively diagnosed until he was 47. His journey to recovery has been both physical and spiritual.“I had to realize that I had a physical illness,” he said. “The brain is an organ and like any other organ it can malfunction.”He called bipolar disorder “the Mercedes of brain disorders” because it is relatively easy to diagnose and treat with the appropriate medication – in general, a class of pharmaceuticals known as Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors that include Paxil, Prozak and Zoloft.But along with the medical treatment and monthly visits to a psychiatrist “to be my witness,” as he describes it, he has developed a spiritual and mystical appreciation about his life and the human condition.A Quaker, Mihalas believes he has experienced both “light” (in the deeply religious sense described by the Quaker’s  founder George Fox) and “grace,” which Mihalhas understands as “a free, unexpected gift by God to man.”The definition is intellectual, he cautions, but real grace is “experiential, emotional and spiritual.”He describes this spiritual strengthening more fully in a second essay, “Bipolar Disorder and Spiritual Growth.” Written from “an unabashedly Quaker point of view,” it describes “how a struggle with a major depression or serious mania can lead seemingly paradoxically to spiritual growth by the victim of the illness.”It is this spiritual strengthening, Mihalas said, that has enabled him to feel protected, and that enables him to get beyond simply being “medically well” to something approaching being “healed.”“The totality of the experience taught me something,” he said. “If I could go back and change something, I don’t know what I would change.”Mihalas is currently working on a third edition of a landmark book, “Stellar Atmospheres,” first published in 1968, one of several that he has written, co-written or edited. At Los Alamos his more recent research has contributed to spectrographic analysis of rapidly moving plasmas.“I’m just intelligent,” he said, as a fair self-assessment. “I’m not a genius.”