Kay Redfield Jamison, now a professor of psychiatry, tells the story of her battle with bipolar disorder. It is a moving account of the extraordinary highs and numbing lows inflicted by manic depression.
“Although I had been building up to it for weeks, and certainly knew something was seriously wrong, there was a definite point when I knew I was insane. My thoughts were so fast that I couldn’t remember the beginning of a sentence halfway through. Fragments of ideas, images, sentences, raced around and around in my mind like the tigers in a children’s story. Finally, like those tigers, they became meaningless melted pools. Nothing once familiar to me was familiar. I wanted desperately to slow down but could not.”
So writes Kay Redfield Jamison in her much-praised book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. She goes on to describe her battle with bipolar disorder, including the dizzying highs and sickening, black lows, her suicide attempt and, through it all, her successful career in clinical psychology. Despite her harrowing journey she is now Professor of Psychiatry at John Hopkins medical school.
In spirit this book is a companion piece to Elyn R Saks’ ‘The Centre Cannot Hold‘, which I reviewed recently in the article, schizophrenia explained. While Saks suffers from schizophrenia, primarily a thought disorder, Jamison suffers from bipolar disorder which is primarily an emotional disorder – although these rough psychiatric classifications do little for the understanding of their experience.
The lived experience of mental illness is precisely what Jamison wants to communicate, which she does with admirable clarity. The zip of Jamison’s manic states: her mind whirling from one thought to the next, making connections, spinning new stories, driving her forwards, often through the night. Then the sudden thundering weight of deep depression as she is dragged down by thoughts of hopelessness and suicide.
It is a story informed by experience from both sides of the tracks. Jamison has been a patient in a psychiatric institution and a professor of psychiatry at a highly respected US medical school. She writes with both academic knowledge as well as the personal experience of the symptoms she understands intellectually.
Jamison does not stint on the sometimes shocking details of her illness but, like Saks’ memoire, this is a profoundly hopeful book. Unlike Saks, though, Jamison states if she could press a magic button to remove the manic depression from her life, she wouldn’t do it:
“Depressed, I have crawled on my hands and knees in order to get across a room and have done it for month after month. But, normal or manic, I have run faster, thought faster and loved faster than most I know. And I think much of this is related to my illness — the intensity it gives to things and the perspective it forces on me.”