Book review: An Unquiet Mind
A memoir from within Bipolar Disorder – An Unquiet Mind
Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir (subtitled of moods and madness) was first published in 1995, and yet feels like mandatory reading for anyone whose life has been affected by their own or others’ mental illness, in her case Bipolar Disorder. It is a memoir structured in four parts, from the onset of her illness in high-school, through resistance to medication and “failed” suicide, to her PhD studies in Psychology and appointment as faculty of the Psychiatry Department of UCLA and her acquired conviction of the life-saving capacities of lithium; she tells this story through her family life and career story, her loves, mental suffering and the stigma she bore from her illness, as well as its reception by researchers and health professionals.
It is her outsider reflections on insider experience which makes the memoir so extraordinary: she is frank, vulnerable, funny and always lucid, with little recourse to self-pity. She does not dramatize her illness, but provides essential understanding of its hereditary nature, its brain physiology, the abysmal depth of her depressive events, and the seldom-named positive experiences which still managed to break through. In closing, she considers whether, given choice, but only with the benefit she has of lithium working for her, she would choose to have the illness: she resolves that she would, because “of the intensity it gives to things and the perspective it forces on me … The countless hypo-manias, and mania itself, all have brought into my life a different level of sensing and feeling and thinking”. How else could one consider this to be possible without hearing it from the pen of a survivor of bipolar disorder who at the time was Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and recipient of multiple awards? The memoir is published by Picador.