I first came across Kay Redfield Jamison when I watched Stephen Fry’s The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive. In the documentary there’s a scene where Fry was just finished interviewing someone, and he sits down with Jamison’s book Touched with Fire, which details the link between creativity and mood disorders. I didn’t read the book then, but it stayed on my radar.
Fast forward a few years and I’m in the thick of my second, large depressive episode. I’m walking to one of the university bars to blot out my world, and I see a book sale going on. For two pounds, hidden amongst the other books, was An Unquiet Mind. I’d heard people talking and writing of this book with evangelical zeal. I was excited to read it, but my concentration was still bound up in the vines of depression. It was only after I’d been hospitalized and subsequently discharged that I could even hope to read Jamison’s book.
When I brought the book I had a sense that it may prove useful. I had the sense that it was going to be a cornerstone on the reading of Mental Illness 101 that I had set myself. In this assumption I was write, and I have gone to read everything she’s penned. With each of her books science is equally weighted with the humanistic and the genuine.
Jamison’s book has the status of being a seminal text in mental health literature, and it’s certainly earned the accolades that have been bestowed upon it. Jamison has since gone on to write a book about suicide, exuberance, and she’s authored the standard medical textbook for manic-depressive illness.
An Unquiet Mind is a memoir, detailing Jamison’s struggles with manic-depression (or bipolar disorder as it has come to be known in recent years). The book is much more than just this however, it’s as much a love letter to science itself as it is a catalogue of a life with a mood disorder.
Today Jamison is a leader in the field of research on mood disorders. She is a professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. In her research she focuses on mood disorders and their links with creativity and creative thought.
The book truly comes into its own when Jamison’s passions shine through. The sheer power of Jamison’s writing presents itself when she details her love of science, when she talks of talking to the man who pioneered lithium, each driven in their respective fields by family histories and personal stakes in mood disorders.
Jamison writes of what it’s like to be manic and depressed with great clarity and ingenuity. She tackles subjects that in less capable hands may be seen as boring or trifling. She writes of the severe agitation that is present in mania, and writes eloquently about, to some degree, missing her manias. For someone who as young as I am, Jamison’s cataloguing of what it was like to have a mood disorder in the seventies was revealing and touching. She frequently has to roll her eyes at the excessively Freudian psychoanalysis that she endured, which was in vogue at the time.
When I started the book I was sceptical that it could live up to its seminal status. It does this with flying colours and does so much more. Jamison is a testament to the human spirit and a fantastic writer. If you’re anything like me you’ll read everything she’s written and eagerly anticipate more.
Jamison wrote in another of her books, Nothing Was The Same, that she had to be convinced to write the book, and that she was hesitant to publish it. She feared the loss of privacy, and she expected her medical research to be derided as a result of the publication. Her objectivity may have been called into question, and thus her work may have been besmirched.
Luckily for us, she did allow the book to be published and shared her insights with the world. And that’s something to be ever thankful for as this year’s mental health awareness week draws to a close.