Kay Redfield Jamison experienced her first manic episode at seventeen years old. Throughout the next 30 years, she rode a roller coaster of mania and depression that made her either insane or suicidal. Throughout this time, she struggled to build a career as a professor of psychology and clinician. After a life of suffering, she finally decided to write this book to reduce the shame and stigma surrounding a life of mental illness.
Jamison grew up in a military family as the youngest of three children. Her father was an AirForce pilot and meteorologist known for his intense enthusiasm for life. He often filled the house with music and discussed the amazing beauty of something as simple as a snowflake. Her mother was a kind, generous, and loyal woman who made a warm and stable home for her family. Both her parents supported Jamison’s dreams of becoming a doctor and encouraged her to think independently.
The reassurance Jamison found in the structured military world was ripped away after her father’s retirement. The family moved to Los Angeles when she was 15, and Jamison struggled to fit in. Around this time, Jamison’s father started to behave more erratically. His flights of fancy became dark brooding moods, and he was often violent and verbally aggressive. Jamison also started to notice her own severe shifts in mood, but she had always been a moody child and figured it was more of the same. Although others noticed both her wildly active mind and behavior and her withdrawn depressive symptoms, Jamison remained unaware that anything was wrong.
Jamison’s mood swings got worse after she started attending UCLA for undergrad. She swung between high-flying intense periods of passion and productivity, and days where getting out of bed and changing clothes were too much to ask. After studying the signs of depression in a psychology class, she decided to seek treatment. But she chickened out at the last minute.
The only blessing during Jamison’s undergraduate career was a job as a research assistant with a psychology professor studying unique manifestations of individual personalities. The slower pace of conducting research and case studies was more suitable for her unreliable moods. She quickly realized that she wouldn’t be able to handle the demands of medical school and decided to train to be a research psychologist.
After enrolling in the psychology doctoral program at UCLA, Jamison experienced a brief reprieve of her symptoms. She started working with patients in the medical center, but she never made the connection between the mental illness diagnoses she provided with her own behavior. Her lack of awareness translated into a lack of treatment, and shortly after she graduated and joined the medical faculty, she experienced her first severe manic episode.
The goal of every assistant professor is to receive tenure. Jamison worked toward this goal for 7 years in the midst of the worst period of her illness. She attributes her success in receiving it to the brilliance and ceaseless energy she experienced during her manic states. But these states carried significant consequences.
During her first major manic episode, Jamison separated from her husband and went on a massive shopping spree....
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Kay Redfield Jamison became an assistant professor of clinical psychology at UCLA in 1974. She was 28 years old and already entangled in the grip of manic depression. Three months later, her disease hit full throttle. She resisted treatment for years, the same treatment she often encouraged her patients to follow. She assumed her illness was just an extension of her character and believed she could manage it on her own.
Mood swings were nothing new for Jamison. She’d been an emotional child, a temperamental young girl, a depressed...
Jamison’s childhood differed greatly from the chaos that would become her adult life. She was the youngest of three in a military family. Her father was an Air Force officer who worked as both a pilot and meteorologist. He fancied all things related to the sky and had a robust personality. He was gregarious, charming, and easily aroused by art, life, and literature. He encouraged independent thinking and pushed his children to follow their dreams.
Jamison’s mother was a lovely woman. She was kind, generous, thoughtful, and social. She also encouraged her children to think big and for themselves, and she supported almost every endeavor they set their minds to.
As military families do, Jamison’s family moved often. By the fifth grade, she’d lived in Florida, Puerto Rico, California, Tokyo, and Washington twice. Because of this, the family was close. Her mother made a secure and loving home, and her brother, who was three years her elder, was her hero. She followed him everywhere and always felt protected when he was around. He was intelligent, capable, confident, and honest. He was athletic and a model student. He was everything Jamison’s sister wasn’t.
Her sister, the middle...
Jamison’s forays into the dark side would become her way of life starting her senior year of high school. Once the illness took hold of her mind, her emotional and psychological states deteriorated quickly. Her moods changed from moderate swings to full-blown episodes.
Her manic states were huge and explosive periods of creativity and productivity. She threw herself into sports, school activities, socializing with friends, books, writing, and elaborate plans for her future. She was like a wind-up doll that never had to be rewound. She felt amazing during these periods. Her mind took in information quickly and deciphered it even faster. Math came easily, her mind was clear and focused, and the world made sense.
Much like the way her father used to command the family’s attention, Jamison now commanded the attention of her friends. She thrust her insights and observations of the wonders of the world at them with a frantic zeal. Her friends frequently asked her to slow down or commented on how exhausting it was to listen to her. Eventually, she would slow down, but it was caused by a swing into depressive darkness, not her friends’ opinions.
In her adult years, the swings...
Manic depression is a deceptive disease. The sensations vary greatly depending on whether you’re up or down. When you’re in the throes of mania, you feel like a giant. Everything is working with maximum efficiency. Thoughts and emotions zoom in and out like falling stars. They light up your dark mind and show you where to follow. You are extroverted and certain of your charisma. You feel a keen gift for seduction and crave it in return.
Then, as fast as a snap of your fingers, the elation dissipates. The efficiency drains. You can’t hold all the thoughts anymore. You become overwhelmed and confused by the scattered ideas. You can’t remember simple things. You get annoyed, upset, and scared easily and feel yourself slipping into darkness. The darkness goes deeper than you thought it would and feels like it never ends.
The people in your life fill you in on what happened while you were consumed by your manic brain and unaware of your actions. You never know how much of your frighteningly bizarre behavior is being left out to spare your feelings. Overdrawn accounts and maxed-out credit cards are clues to what happened. You start a round of apologies to everyone who got caught in...
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Even after her diagnosis, Jamison struggled for many years to manage her manic-depression. Part of this struggle was her resistance to take her medication despite her education and clinical work. Her reluctance wasn’t from stubbornness. There were many factors that caused her to retreat from lithium.
As she believed in the early stages of her illness, she still felt as though she should be able to manage her mood swings on her own. Her military-bred resilience and independent upbringing reinforced this idea. Her sister, who was also battling volatile moods, tried to persuade Jamison to not take the lithium. She said it would steal Jamison’s spirit and the intensity of her experiences. She also said the medical profession wanted to turn Jamison into a shell of her real self. This advice was too tempting for Jamison, which meant it was dangerous. Jamison further distanced herself from her sister, essentially ending their already modest relationship.
The problem was that Jamison knew that part of what her sister said was true. She had experienced a loss of herself because of the lithium. The drug helped dampen her mania and depression, but it changed her, too. Those changes...
For all the ways Jamison suffered because of her illness, one area of her life seemed to withstand the damage that manic-depression wreaked—love. Jamison had the pleasure of experiencing love many times, and some of these experiences ended better than others. But each one provided a reprieve from the roller coaster of violent highs and dangerous lows. And each one taught her something about herself and life. These lessons showed her that it was possible for the mind to heal given the right circumstances. Love brought a bit of light to her dark world and helped her learn how to keep moving forward.
Jamison first met David Laurie, a psychiatrist in the British Royal Army Medical Corps, during her first year of her assistant professorship. She’d already had her first major manic episode and separated from her husband. She’d also started treatment with her psychiatrist and stopped taking lithium the first time.
David was serving as a visiting professor for several months. The attraction was instantaneous and mutual. They had coffee after their first meeting and learned about their common interests. They both loved poetry and performing arts, they...
Jamison used her personal struggles with manic-depressive illness to inform her research, treatment of patients, and lessons for students. But once she was free from the stronger grips of the illness thanks to medication and a stable personal life, she was able to come to her field of study with more objectivity.
One of the first events that forced her to look beyond her own experiences was receiving a letter from an angry civilian. The woman who wrote the letter was angry that Jamison had used the word “madness” in a lecture title. She voraciously attacked Jamison for her thoughtless insensitivity to people living with manic-depressive illness. Jamison’s first instinct was to push back against this woman’s accusations. But after some time, she also started to question the use of language and how that confounds the already stigmatized lives of those living with mental illness.
Language once acceptable within the inner circle of those who have, treat, or study mental illness has become morally questionable. Referring to someone as mad, crazy, or certifiable seems to carry an insensitivity to the palpable struggles those with mental illness...
Jamison’s story is about mental illness, but it is also about resilience in the face of struggle. How does her story make you think about your own struggles in life?
What aspects of Jamison’s journey with manic-depressive disorder are beneficial in helping you along your own journey in life?
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Part of Jamison’s motivation for writing this memoir was to bring awareness to the struggles of those living with mental illness. How do her experiences affect your beliefs about mental illness?
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