Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind is an acclaimed bestseller and details the author’s experience studying and riding out the tumultuous highs and lows of manic-depressive illness. Her language is captivating and her insights are profound; despite the labelling of the condition as an “illness”, Jamison owes much of who she is and the passion with which she experiences life to this unlucky companion, and she is grateful for the intensity that it has brought her, the vivacity that it allowed.
A few things immediately struck me. The conciseness and resoluteness of her language was startlingly matter-of-fact in the recounting of a journey that is anything but. She captures irrationality with vivid descriptions of her manic episodes, particularly the one involving buying out an entire pharmacy’s supply of snake-bite treatment kits, and she captures the absolute deadness of depression and realization of the destruction left in her wake. But just as important as the actual illness itself is the journey from beginning to end – an upbringing with a father experiencing similar episodes, a struggle to get and later to maintain treatment, an interest in mood disorders piqued by her personal exposure to the subject, and multiple chapters of love that ultimately provided her with the strength to make it through. A story like this demands a kind of linear retelling, because it is these experiences in order that shed light little by little on the full picture. It was the escalation of her mania that egged Jamison into seeking medication, the frustration with lithium that led to her year-long bout of depression and subsequent suicide attempt, which finally pushed her back onto her regiment and set her up for her eventual stabilization.
Jamison ends her memoir with a series of reflections, giving us a few “Kay” takeaways. First, the unquestionable best treatment for psychiatric illnesses is a combination of medication and therapy. One without the other is ineffectual in achieving both acute and long-lasting recovery. While there is now research showing the efficacy of CBT and other non-medicinal treatments such as exercise in cases of mild to medium depression, medication is a stigmatized part of mental illness that absolutely needs to become accepted as an indispensable piece of treatment. Second, people with manic-depressive disorder have made significant contributions to society, and that efforts to “eliminate” this illness and others through celibacy, abortion, or gene editing may be seriously misguided. I agree. The recent neurodiversity movement, particularly among the ASD community (although there is a significant split between high-functioning and low-functioning autistic individuals — more on this another time) is a verbatim reflection of this sentiment, that the positive energies of mania and other mental illnesses are a breeding ground for imagination and motivation, and inspire so-called crazy ideas that might ultimately change how we think about reality. Jamison herself has contributed endlessly to patient care, research, and the integration of mental illness with art, particularly music and poetry. There’s no denying that, despite her lowest lows, her highs have generated a fantastic amount of productivity and innovation. Perhaps instead of trying to erase mental illness, we should instead focus on developing more effective methods of reigning them in – controlling irrational and intrusive behaviors and thoughts without forcing those who experience them to conform to our perception of “normalcy”. In the immortal words of Hannah Montana, “you get the best of both worlds”.
One of my major focuses as a student of psychology is learning how best to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. However, while people like Mouseheart and the doctor that bluntly advised Jamison not to have children because of her disorder are not uncommon, neither are people who are infinitely loving, understanding, and compassionate. Yes, even men. It is very heartening to see the positive responses by lovers, coworkers, and professionals in the field of research and medicine to Jamison’s mental illness, and the depth with which they can love and cherish her, treating her with sensitivity but not condescension. If there is one thing we can take away from this book, it is that people are people, and that rather than treat them like aberrations when their lives differ significantly from ours, we should validate their experiences and appreciate them for who they are. After all, no matter who we are, our “normal” is someone else’s “crazy as f***”.