Literature Annotations


Jamison, Kay Redfield
An Unquiet Mind


On-Line Text and Audio
Genre Memoir (221 pp.)
KeywordsChronic Illness/Chronic Disease, Depression, Disability, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Illness Narrative/Pathography, Mental Illness, Patient Experience, Professionalism, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Suffering, Suicide
Summary

The author, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is an authority on manic depressive illness. With this powerful, well-written memoir she "came out of the closet," publicly declaring that she herself had suffered from manic depressive illness for years. Jamison describes the manifestations of her illness, her initial denial and resistance to treatment with medication, attempted suicide, and her struggle to maintain an active professional and satisfying personal life.

The author was "intensely emotional as a child," (p.4) and in high school first experienced "a light lovely tincture of true mania" (p.37) during which she felt marvelous, but following which she was unable to concentrate or comprehend, felt exhausted, preoccupied with death, and frightened. (pp. 36-40) Interested in medicine as an adolescent, she pursued her goal in spite of mood swings and periods of mental paralysis. Jamison completed graduate work in clinical psychology; shortly after obtaining a faculty appointment "I was manic beyond recognition and just beginning a long, costly personal war against a medication that I would, in a few year’s time, be strongly encouraging others to take [lithium]." (p. 4)

Jamison eventually, through strong support from friends and colleagues, excellent psychiatric care, and her own acceptance of illness, has been able to reach a state of relative equilibrium--tolerable levels of medication (fewer side effects) and dampened mood swings. But she makes clear that she must stay on lithium and remain vigilant.

Commentary

Jamison’s purpose in writing this illness narrative is to inform, educate, and advocate. By revealing her condition, Jamison took professional and personal risks, which she thoughtfully considers here. She is well aware that there may be questions of professional responsibility and competence, and discusses how these issues were handled.

The author’s descriptions of how she felt during the manic and depressive stages of her illness are vivid and gripping. She makes us understand the seductiveness of the manic state--its intensity, the exuberance and energy it bestowed, how difficult it was to give that up by taking lithium. And Jamison also paints powerful pictures of anti-social behavior, black periods, the inability to work, and the disabling side effects of lithium.

Jamison’s paradoxical struggle to deny her own illness and avoid drug therapy is not uncommon among medical professionals. It is also not unusual to find health care workers who have themselves suffered from the disease they become expert in treating. The author’s insights, intelligence, and fluid prose shed new light on these phenomena and provide the reader unusual access to a devastating condition.

PublisherKnopf
Edition1995
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate PublisherVintage
Alternate Edition1997
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Aull, Felice
Date of Entry 09/15/97
Last Revised 01/14/10