An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
Author: Kay Redfield Jamison
Published by Knopf Publishing Group starting in January 1997
Pages: 240
ISBNs: 0-330-34651-2. 0-679-76330-9
$26.95 trade cloth, $12.95 trade paperback
Audience: General Adult

An Unquiet Mind is an incredibly insightful work that was written by a woman who is considered by some to be the foremost authority on manic-depressive illness. The reason is because Kay Redfield Jamison both studies and lives with this disorder. She is a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. This book is from the perspective of both the healer and the healed. She gives readers of her book insight into what it’s like to live with bipolar affective disorder. It chronicles her struggled with this illness since adolescence and explains how it has shaped her life. Readers of this book grow to respect and admire Redfield Jamison. The book is not just a patient’s view. It includes clinical details, but they are there subtly so that readers learn without even realizing it.

In this book the author discusses her thoughts and many of the issues that surround mental illnesses. There is one chapter in the book, “The Troubled Helix” where she talks about the research that is being done on the causes of manic depression and what the best treatments may be in the future. She also discusses ways in which the stigma of mental illness might be reduced.

Hypomanic episodes are described as the most exhilarating times. Being bipolar myself, I agree with her. Readers envy this unique experience, and reading the sections about it made me want to be in that state again. Her descriptions help people understand why some manic-depressives resist medication.

She balances the accounts by engulfing you in the true depths of depression that inevitably follow the manic episodes. Redfield Jamison presents a frightening account of herself in the midst of psychosis, of the insidious suicidal thoughts, and of her eventual suicide attempt. Through all this she still managed to become a highly effective clinician and researcher, as the book shows.

Kay Redfield Jamison acknowledges the fear of being exposed as a psychiatric patient within the medical profession. Her message in this book is people should not be afraid of seeking help. "The real dangers [are] those clinicians... who-because of the stigma or fear of suspension of their privileges or expulsion from medical school... are hesitant to seek out psychiatric treatment. Left untreated, or unsupervised, many become ill, endangering not only their own lives, but those of others." She points out that even though it is never easy to confide in a colleague and there will, unfortunately, be those who react negatively, many offer unexpected understanding, empathy, and invaluable support. She then outlines the advantages of involving colleagues. This allows them to intervene if your clinical judgment suffers, to protect both you and your patients.

Bipolar disorder is often genetic. The author’s own father was an enthusiastic but depressed man. He was an indication for what Jamison would face later in life. Kay Jamison’s first manic episode was in high school. College, however, was a struggle marked by violent moods and passions, and grad school pushed her over the edge. She eventually was put on Lithium. The side effects of the drug blurred her vision which made it difficult for her to concentrate and she was only able to write journal articles and poetry during the first decade with this medication. The author's traumas helped drive her academic passions; her work also led her to a happy marriage. She has not had children of her own and raises eloquent ‘unanswerable‘ questions about manic-depressives bearing children.

In the end Jamison came to grips with her illness and recognizes the importance of medication used in conjunction with psychotherapy. With this combination she has her illness under control and is enabled to succeed. The story and her writing style are both inspirational and educational. With this story she sends the message that with medication (especially a mood stabilizer) as a regulator, psychotherapy as sanctuary, and with professional support and love, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses CAN be managed. The book is ultimately a tale of the healing power of love and the indestructibility of the human spirit. Anyone who is seeking an insight into what it is like to live with the experience of psychosis will find this book invaluable.

As someone who suffers from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, this book helped me to understand that the feelings, suicidal thoughts, depression, mania, and stereotypes that I have to deal with are not just unique to me.  It shows that people from all walks of life, and in different careers, suffer right along with me.

In 1998, I flew to New York City to a NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) Convention where Kay Redfield Jamison was appearing to lecture about her life and her book.  I had the great honor of meeting her personally and getting an autographed copy of this book.  She is a very beautiful woman, both inside and out.  She gives me hope of overcoming my mental illnesses.

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