AN UNQUIET MIND by KAY JAMISON

reviewed by Emma Ross

 

Kay Jamison is a famous expert on bipolar disorder, co- author of a

textbook, Manic-Depressive Illness, that your p-doc probably has on his

or her shelf. She has been well known among professionals for many years,

but until recently, very few people knew that she also has manic

depressive illness. In contemporary parlance, Jamison has bipolar1

disorder, severe, with psychotic features.

An Unquiet Mind is the memoir that marked Jamison’s coming out of the

closet. In her unique, beautiful-yet-candid prose, in vivid and precise

detail, with the occasional touch of mordant wit, she tells you about

her life with the disorder. She describes,, what it was like to be

manic, depressed, mixed, and occasionally psychotic; what it was like to

attempt suicide, and very nearly succeed; what it was like to spend like

there’s no tomorrow, to rage incoherently. She describes – remarkably, for

a clinician- what it is like to know very well that you need a mood

stabilizer, but constantly refuse to take one, even after the refusal

threatens to ruin your life a few times. If you are bipolar and your

spouse or friend or parent Just Doesn’t Get It, just fails time after

time to understand your condition, you might consider buying him or her

a copy. It can go a long way in showing him or her that you really

suffer, that bipolar symptoms are not something that you make up in order

to get attention, that it does not go away of you only ‘snap out of it’

and that your violent rages are not to be taken personally. If you are

an artist, or otherwise in a field requiring creativity, Jamison is one

of the first popular authors to treat the bipolar-creativity connection

seriously – unlike those books who seem to dismiss the concerns of the

lithium-ized artist as if they were unreasonable whines (in another book,

Touched With Fire, she addresses the matter of bipolar disorder and

creativity in detail).

Jamison’s is the story of a person with severe mood swings succeeding as a

professional, helping others, and making a life for herself. In certain

moods – when you are discouraged about your own chances of making it in

the world – it is easy to envy Jamison bitterly, to dismiss the message

of hope that she tries to bring by claiming that she got ‘the breaks’ that

most of us don’t get. Personally, I cannot help but envy her the

wonderfully loving and supportive mother she has. When short on cash,

it’s easy to point at the fact that Jamison’s rich brother helped her with

her huge, mania-related debts. Wouldn’t that be nice… But one must

remember the various respects in which Jamison “had it harder “ than many

of the readers of Bipolar World. She started her life as a bipolar in a

time where very, very little was known about the disorder, when

essentially only one medication- lithium – was available for it -

prescribed in unnecessarily high, zombifying doses, and it wasn’t

time-released either. Being “manic depressive” still meant, in many

cases, spending your life in a back ward of a mental institution.

Stigma, as bad as it is now, was much, much worse (and so was sexism in

the workplace). There was no Americans with Disabilities Act, no

pamphlets from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, no Bipolar

World, no books on the subject for the layperson to read. Can you imagine

how scary it must have been? If you were born in the 70s, like me, you

probably cannot – thanks to the work of people like Jamison. Remember

that, and have hope.

 

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