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Dr. Mark Vonnegut Talks About Coming to Grips With His Own Bipolar Diagnosis

Editor's Note: This is a clip in our new video series "Andy Irons: Raw Outtakes," which serves as an intimate glimpse into the anecdotes and parting memories that didn't make the film, told by Andy’s friends and family with insights on bipolar disorder and substance abuse from leading medical specialists. This digital series sets out to expand what we know about the world champion surfer's life and the hidden struggles he faced including substance abuse and bipolar disorder. For more information about the feature film please visit tetongravity.com/andy.

Dr. Mark Vonnegut–the son of esteemed writer Kurt Vonnegut–is one of the world's foremost researchers of bipolar disorder.

RELATED: See showtimes, buy tickets for the Andy Irons: Kissed by God tour

Vonnegut, who has carved out a career as one of the top pediatricians in the Boston after graduating from Harvard Medical School, and has authored multiple highly acclaimed books that talk about living with mental health disorders like bipolar disorder. But unlike other doctors who publish on their medical specialty, Vonnegut is the subject of each of his novels: He suffers from bipolar disorder personally.

"I think as you're growing up you want to know what's different about me and what is it?" Vonnegut told TGR about growing up bipolar. "Everybody with this illness feels odd and they wanna know what is it. I think growing up everybody thinks they're normal until they're about eight or nine and they start looking around and saying, 'Maybe I'm not like everybody else.'"

Vonnegut told TGR that the manic highs that came with bipolar disease seemingly imbued him with magic powers: It allowed him moments of staggering mental acuity, moments in which he could remember exact pages from novels he'd read years ago.

But, as Vonnegut told TGR, it also led to intermittent moments where he felt immensely uncomfortable and out-of-place in the world around him.  And, like Andy Irons and so many others who suffer from bipolar disorder, Vonnegut turned to self-medicating to regulate how he felt inside.

"I discovered at the age of 12 that I could be more like other people and fit in a lot better with alcohol," Vonnegut said. "But I never wanted to abuse it, I wanted to keep this as a tool so I could fit in. High school, took a little more to fit in. College, I felt lousy, I went to a psychiatrist, didn't help. Drink half a bottle of Jack Daniels, punch trees, have a blackout, then I was good for a couple of weeks."

Unfortunately, self-medicating with addictive substances like alcohol tends to become a destructive path for those with bipolar disorder. 

"The problem with Xanax and Jack Daniels and narcotics and stuff is there comes a point where the dose that it takes to be normal, and the lethal dose is awfully close," said Vonnegut. "And it's hard to back away from... If you're on a freight train like that."

If you, or someone you know, may be suffering from a substance abuse or mental health disorder, please, call the SAMHSA hotline for help.

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