Was manic-depression a gift or a curse for Dr. Kay Jamison?

       Dr. Kay Jamison took a huge leap of faith when deciding to write her memoir, An Unquiet Mind, because some people still see having a mood disorder as a debilitating weakness. Dr. Kay Jamison was at first “plagued by fears that [her] illness would be discovered” (An Unquiet Mind 131), but now she is embracing her illness in order to help and inform others. In her memoir, Dr. Kay Jamison goes into intense detail about her firsthand experience with manic-depression as both a patient and a doctor. She experienced exhilarating highs that lead to spending sprees, no sleep, and some of her best work, but she also suffered through catastrophic lows that lead to a failed suicide attempt.  Dr. Jamison’s memoir explores how manic-depression affected her love life, how medicine helped and hurt her, and how her illness has affected her work as a psychiatrist. 

       The loving people in Jamison’s life helped her deal with her illness, but sometimes her illness led her to hurt the people she loved the most. Jamison says in her memoir, “no amount of love can cure madness or unblacken one’s dark moods….Madness, on the other hand, most certainly can, and often does, kill love” (174). Manic-depression ruined some relationships for her, but most of the people in Jamison’s life were always very supportive. For example, her boyfriend David responded with “I say. Rotten luck” after Jamison told him of her illness, and for the rest of their relationship he was extremely supportive. However, sometimes Jamison’s moods caused her to rebel against the ones she loved most. For example, her first marriage ended because Jamison became “restless, irritable, and craved excitement all of a sudden” (73), excitement she could not find in her marriage. Jamison’s family members also served as emotional rocks for her during the toughest times. Her brother helped Jamison recover from her spending sprees, “a classic part of mania” (74). Also, Jamison says,”my mother- her love and her strong sense of values- provided me with powerful, and sustaining, countervailing winds” (119) showing how her family helped her through the toughest of times, during mania and depression. Love from family and friends certainly helped Jamison cope with her illness, however she had to be more cautious with love than the average person. Jamison struggled with who to tell about her illness, and she says no one without the illness can truly understand it, so sometimes Jamison felt utterly alone.

       Medicine, specifically lithium, and therapy also played key roles in helping Jamison deal with manic-depression. However, lithium was not an immediate cure, and it caused many struggles for Jamison. She describes a period of mania as when “the ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find a better and brighter one” (67). She loved her periods of creative, productive mania, so at first Jamison refused to take lithium in fear of losing these thrilling highs. Lithium caused side effects such as not being able to read and understand things clearly, severe nausea and vomiting, and slurred speech. Eventually, with the help of her psychiatrist, she found the right level of lithium to take and was able to balance her moods, while still experiencing less severe highs, and fewer side effects. In her memoir, Jamison writes thirteen rules for accepting lithium into your life such as “learn to laugh about spilling coffee, having the palsied signature of an eighty-year-old” and “be appreciative. Don’t even consider stopping your lithium” (97). Unfortunately, Jamison went through a few periods where she stopped taking her lithium, and during one depressed episode Jamison tried to commit suicide by overdosing on lithium. Luckily, her psychiatrist helped her through these tough times. Jamison describes psychotherapy as a “sanctuary…a battleground…it is where I have believed that i might someday be able to contend with all of this” (89). It took a while, but Jamison found a balance between medicine and therapy that allows her to control her manic-depression.

       Manic-depressive illness also severely affected Jamison’s professional life. Three months after getting hired in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, she was “ravingly psychotic” (63). Eventually, Jamison had to tell someone on the staff about her illness, but luckily they understood, and the colleague she told about her disorder insistently told her she needed to go on lithium, and helped her through her period of mania. Her first job at UCLA was understanding about her manic-depression, but for the rest of Jamison’s career she has had to consider the question “Do I really think that someone with mental illness should be allowed to treat patients?” (204). Jamison thought that despite her illness she was able to be a good psychiatrist, and I agree with her. In my opinion, Jamison’s struggles through her highs and lows have helped her more fully understand the mind of a person with manic-depression, thus making her an even more qualified psychiatrist. However, I agree with the caution hospitals take in hiring someone with a mental illness, because he/she must be stable enough to handle the pressures of work.    

       An Unquiet Mind also brings to the surface the question of whether “we risk making the world a blander, more homogenized place” (194) if we try to get rid of the genes for manic-depressive illness. In my opinion, the madness that is involved with manic-depression should not be condemned because with this madness comes creativity. Many of the most talented artists, politicians, and scientists have had manic-depression. Nowadays, with the help of modern medicine and therapy, patients can control their moods to a level where they are not insane, but they conserve their creativity. Without people who have abnormal minds I believe society does risk losing some new, innovative ideas, therefore making the world a blander place.

   

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