This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What does it feel like to experience a bipolar depressive episode? How does it manifest in day-to-day life?
Kay Jamison has battled with bipolar depression since she was in high school. Initially, her bipolar depressive episodes were rather mild. But they became increasingly darker as she progressed into adulthood.
Read about Kay Jamison’s experiences with bipolar depressive episodes, as she recounts in her memoir An Unquiet Mind.
The Highs and Lows of Bipolar Depression
Manic depression is a two-sided illness. One side of the coin involves episodes of energy and euphoria, the other – distorted thinking, a loss of rationale, and a desperate desire to end your suffering, often through suicide.
Jamison became aware of this volatility inside her after she witnessed it in her father. Bleak spells of depression replaced his heightened moods. Darkness filled the space in the home that music once filled. Jamison hoped and waited for the joy to return to her father, but the opposite happened. He became angry, distraught, and withdrawn. Sometimes, his bipolar depressive episodes were so severe they paralyzed him. He stayed in bed for days and lost all hope for his life.
When Jamison was 17, the swings between mania and depression were rather mild. In her adult years, they became frenetic and dangerous. Her mania burned bright and hot for a brief period before fizzling into another bipolar depressive episode. The clarity and genius she experienced when she was flying high vanished when she plunged into darkness.
During her bipolar depressive episodes, she couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t take in information, and couldn’t make sense of the world around her. Her mind, once a trusted companion filled with wit, humor, and knowledge, became her enemy. She became serious, brooding, and deeply troubled young woman. She worked hard to hide that version of herself from the world.
In the Grip of Bipolar Depressive Episode
When Jamison was in the grip of a bipolar depressive episode, all of the thoughts and observations she had about life became silly notions of a stupid girl. She no longer found comfort in friends and often couldn’t muster the energy to engage with the world. She struggled to get out of bed. She wore the same clothes for days in a row because deciding what to wear was too big a task. Worse, her inspired thoughts now turned almost entirely to death.
Jamison obsessed over death. Living seemed unnecessary, even unreasonable, when everything alive eventually died anyway. She wandered cemeteries and wrote bleak poems about her decaying mind and body. Yet somehow she was able to hide this internal turmoil from the outside world. Only a handful of people ever noticed a disturbing change in her behavior, and she always assured them she was fine. Inside, however, she felt as though the darkness was tearing seams into the fabric of her mind and soul. She felt herself slipping away and death around each corner, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
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Here's what you'll find in our full An Unquiet Mind summary :
- How Kay Redfield Jamison first experienced a manic episode at the age of 17
- How her illness made Jamison buy taxidermied animals and multiple Rolexes
- Why Jamison believes there are positives to her manic episodes