Title: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
Author: Kay Redfield Jamison
Kay Redfield Jamison is an academic. She is, according to the bio in her book, a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who has written extensively about manic-depressive illness. She also suffers from the illness. I expected the book to read more like an academic text given the author’s background. It does not. It is a candid piece of writing about a widely misunderstood illness from the viewpoint of someone who suffers from it, and who has found a way to live with it.
Jamison writes honestly and with no holds-barred about her manic depression. She grew up in a military family. Her father was an Air Force officer, and by the time she was in fifth grade, she had attended four different elementary schools. One would think that the disruption of permanence and the constant upheaval in her life may have been one of the factors to the cause of her illness, but she writes that she actually had an effortless ease adjusting to new schools and making friends with every move. The adolescence that is often fraught with angst and dark moods was the terrain of her older sister, who struggled more with the transient nature of military life.
Jamison writes that by nature as a child she always had a mercurial temperament, but it was not until she was in senior high school that she had her first manic-depressive attack. The periods of mania – or what were interpreted as teenage exuberance – were distracting, but no real cause for concern to her friends and family. The bouts of dark moods and suicidal thoughts that followed were crippling, but she pulled though them on her own, putting on a brave face when the depression hit but making it through high school nonetheless.
As an undergraduate student she still experienced the galvanised periods when she’d feel unstoppable creatively – excelling in her classes and immersed in political and social causes around campus, followed quickly by the periods when her high moods would crash and she would be unable to muster up enough energy to go to her classes. It was only after a lecture abut depression in her psychology course that she realised the need for her to see a psychiatrist, but the fear and shame she felt stopped her following through. She dealt with the swings in her moods in this manner, without any professional help. Her course choices became directed towards psychology as she herself struggled to deal with her own moods.
When she was twenty-eight years old, she was appointed assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California in 1974, and “within a month of signing my appointment papers…I was well on my way to madness.”
She accepted from the onset that she had to be in control of her manic-depressive episodes even though as she writes, the drugs dulled her senses and left her spiritless. Her illness was also diagnosed in the early years of the discovery of lithium as the drug that could be prescribed for the treatment of manic-depression. Her first manic episode, and subsequent depression were so severe that the prescribed drug treatment became the only option for her.
Jamison’s account of her life living with the illness is written in a straightforward manner, peppered with clinical facts, but it is a fascinating read. Unlike Elyn Saks, who writes about her schizophrenia and her struggle with accepting to be medicated in the The Centre Cannot Hold, Jamison struggles more with remaining on an even keel for both personal and professional reasons. She is always forthright with colleagues and friends about her illness. Perhaps because she is a renowned academic on the subject, she is relatively shielded from the stigma often associated with mental illness, leaving her the liberty of being able to lively ‘freely’ with her illness.
This was a really good read, but then issues of mental health are of great interest to me, so perhaps it is a bit of a biased review.