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An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

by Kay Redfield Jamison

Reviewed by Diane T. Marsh, Barbara Pilvin, and Judith Tydings, for the NAMI Literature Committee.

In An Unquiet Mind, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison has written an extraordinary account of her experience with manic-depression (the term she prefers to bipolar disorder). For more than three decades, Dr. Jamison has lived with this "quicksilver" illness, with its mercurial moods, and with its "peculiar kind of pain, elation, loneliness, and terror." No reader will be untouched by her memoir, which is inarguably one of the most powerful, insightful, and eloquent depictions of life with this illness.

Dr. Jamison is professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and coauthor of the standard medical text on manic-depressive illness. Thus, it is with fascination that we read of her struggle against lithium, the drug that would ultimately save her life. She writes about her belief that she should handle her illness without "crutches" such as medication and about the severe side effects she experienced. Dr. Jamison also shares her deep resistance to relinquishing the exhilarating highs of the illness--"the intensity, glory, and absolute assuredness of my mind's flight"--for a life that seemed restrictive, less productive, and "maddeningly less intoxicating." Ultimately, she made peace with lithium only when it was clear that the alternatives were death or insanity.

The book also offers a compelling description of her recovery process. She acknowledges the value of medication, of psychotherapy, and of the many people in her personal and professional lives who have provided essential--indeed, lifesaving--support. Readers will also witness her personal resilience in a struggle that took her to the "blackest caves of the mind." In her words, "One of the advantages of having had manic-depressive illness for more than thirty years is that very little seems insurmountably difficult."

The book's arrangement is essentially chronological, beginning with Dr. Jamison's childhood and adolescence. She describes the emergence of the disorder, its relentless course, and its increasing hold on her life. She details her severest symptoms of depression and mania, her visual hallucinations, and her deliberate--and nearly fatal--lithium overdose. From the dual perspectives of patient and professional, she places these experiences in the context of her own life and of the larger professional territory. There are also some wonderful philosophical and humorous passages.

Given Dr. Jamison's multiple roles as a consumer, professional, and family member, as well as her gifts as a writer, this book is likely to appeal to the widest possible audience. At the same time, readers may respond differently to a number of themes in the book, as did NAMI reviewers. The three reviewers agreed on the overall value and importance of the book. They responded differently, however, to Dr. Jamison's discussion of the positive aspects of this disorder, including the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity, which was explored in Jamison's earlier book, Touched With Fire. One reviewer, a psychologist, family member, and painter, felt that the emphasis on the creativity and contributions of people with bipolar disorder offers a valuable corrective to the widespread tendency to define people in terms of their illness and to ignore their strengths, talents, and potential for recovery.

On the other hand, a second reviewer, who has bipolar disorder herself, remarked on the level of courage required to write such a personal memoir, but reacted negatively to Dr. Jamison's mention of the positive aspects of this disorder--as if she were trying to convince herself (and her readers) that it is truly worth having. The third reviewer, who has a brother with bipolar disorder, pointed out that Dr. Jamison has been very fortunate in spite of her illness, as the author herself acknowledged when addressing the NAMI convention last summer. Through her writing and television productions, she focuses on the giftedness of painters, musicians, and others like herself who enrich our lives despite their illness. This reviewer was concerned that the emphasis on giftedness would deflect attention away from those who are not particularly gifted and, in fact, are ravaged by this illness.

An Unquiet Mind will remain with you long after you have put it down. Far more than a memoir of moods and madness, the book is also a journey into the heart of our humanity through the lens of this volatile illness. Dr. Jamison has charted this journey with grace, candor, and humor. Hers is an important and moving story, told by a distinguished scientist who has a poet's sensibility.

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. Knopf, 1995. 244pp.