Together at the Poles

Book Review: "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison


I thought I’d try something new today, and write a book review. There are a lot of books about bipolar disorder that I really like, and a few that I really don’t, and I thought it might be a good opportunity to share some of the excellent resources and stories that are available. This review contains spoilers, if one can really spoil a memoir, but I wanted to go through the various parts of the book to show the themes she touches on.

An Unquiet Mind

An Unquiet Mind is Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, and it follows her through her early experiences of bipolar disorder in her immediate family, then her own onset and difficulties up to and including a suicide attempt, and finally how she found treatment and how that treatment has evolved over time. Each of the four sections of the book mark off different periods of her encounter with bipolar disorder, and how she finally was able to manage the illness.

Kay Redfield Jamison

Source: Alexanian – Fair Use Rationale: to illustrate the person(s), product, event, or subject in question.

An Unquiet Mind is also a truly unique book. Kay Redfield Jamison is herself one of the leading experts on bipolar disorder. She is one of the authors of one of the leading textbooks on bipolar disorder, Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression , and is an advocate for people with mental illnesses.

Her book, then, combines the perspective of someone with bipolar disorder with a clinical and detailed understanding. This memoir isn’t a textbook but it definitely carries with it a deep understanding of the illness itself and focused clinical perspective on bipolar disorder and the benefits of psychiatry.

Her Early Life

Another aspect of the book that is quite interesting is that she also has the experience of living with a bipolar father. This provides her with a completely alternate perspective that one usually finds in bipolar memoirs: someone who is experiencing bipolar disorder from the outside. Her parents’ marriage, which ultimately ended, and her own experience of her treatment by someone with bipolar disorder remind the reader of their own responsibilities not to inflict bipolar disorder on those around them.

Something sad about this is that we ultimately see Jamison commit some of the same mistakes in her first marriage. While she has had no children, her first marriage in part ended because of the difficulties with bipolar disorder and the way that it gradually wore him down.

Madness and Early Treatment

Jamison then details her experiences after the onset of the disorder. This happened to her right after she finished her doctorate and had landed a full-time position. Even after her original diagnosis, she continued on with the worst of the experience of the disorder and its terrible effects on her own life. Her description of manic episodes are especially vivid, including both a wonderful one that took her to Saturn, but instilled in her a sense of deep loss when it was over, and a horrifying one in which she saw herself covered in a explosion of blood.

For years, Jamison resisted treatment, almost leading to her death. Despite knowing that lithium, the only truly effective drug at the time, could help her treat the disorder, she resisted for years. This was in part because of the side effects of the dosages that she was given. What this section truly reflects is the kind of experiences many of us had in dealing with the side effects of medications, and the way that medication isn’t just about obeying or being “compliant” with “doctors orders”, but a real struggle with treatments that can be generally be awful and debilitating in their own right.

Nonetheless, Jamison has a unique perspective on psychiatry as she understands it. In a way, her experience doesn’t really reflect that of many people, as she knew that the treatment helped, while the rest of us, the non-experts, can only trust that it will help us. Still, her experience is very helpful to read. It can often seem that those encouraging medicine are just enforcing the obedience of the “sick role,” or serving as proxies of pharmaceutical companies. Jamison is someone who understands the psychiatry of bipolar disorder literally better than anyone, and is willing to use it. Seeing a specialist like her trust psychiatry gave me a reason to trust the profession as a whole.

Management

After some time, Jamison learned to manage her bipolar disorder. This was partly as a result of lower dosages of lithium, as psychiatry gradually realised that the high dosages she was taking were not necessary. This allowed her to no longer have to face the choice between a debilitating illness and debilitating side effects.

She also develops a healthy relationship that ultimately ends tragically, when her fiancé dies suddenly. What is so interesting about this loss, though, is the way that her experience of this tragedy is ultimately a healthy one. The ways that she has learned to cope are evident in the way that she deals with his death, and in a strange way are itself encouraging.

Overall Impressions

Jamison’s memoir is rich and moving. It is also incredibly insightful, in that she brings to bear on her experiences a deep understanding of what she has gone through. This insight carries on to the reader, who can really learn a lot of about bipolar disorder, how to conceptualize it, and how treatment can ultimately help in managing the condition.

For me, the most important impact of this book is that it helped me to trust psychiatry more. Jamison lived through a period in which the treatment for bipolar disorder, while it worked, carried with it deep suffering in itself. I lived through the unfortunate period in which antidepressants were often used alone in treatment, and had horrible side effects as a result. I lost a lot of trust in psychiatry from my experiences, but seeing someone who really knew about psychiatry gave me more faith that there was something there worth pursuing.

The book is available at Amazon:

U.S.
Canada
U.K.

8 Responses to Book Review: "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison

  • I have been dealing with bipolar disorder for over 20yrs. I must say it is a battle everyday all day!I do not like the meds that are prescribed, and haven’t found anything that makes me feel normal!I do not like the fact the meds make u sleep constantly, and sometimes it is hard to walk or perform daily duties. I have been off of work too many times on and off meds. It has been hard to maintain employment. I am far from incompetent but because of the disorder it gives the perception that I am. I truly enjoyed the book by Jamison, but found it difficult to complete the reading because I myself was going through similar things she was experiencing in the book!Prayerfully, I will complete the book since I read the commentary given!

    • Thank you for your response, April. That’s a really interesting point about how some parts can be very hard to read for people with bipolar.

  • I’ve only recently discovered your page on fb and have found your writings very interesting. I live in Italy, where there is widespread ignorance about bipolar disorder, which makes everything more difficult. I like your review of ‘An Unquiet Mind’. I really think it is a unique book. Maybe I’m biased. It came out in 1995, shortly after I was diagnosed. The stupid psychiatrist just told me “you are a manic depressive” and “be careful, you might lose your job” (I’m a high school teacher of English) but said nothing about the illness itself. So when I read a review of the book in TIME I immediately ordered a copy and devoured the book in a few hours. I knew nothing about the illness, nobody who suffered from it. The book made me feel less alone. And she writes beautifully. Her considerations in the epilogue (would she choose to have bipolar, given the choice) are sheer poetry. I have translated those lines in order to let my close friends read them. Jamison proved a bit too optimistics about drug treatment: I have tried every med for long periods (from lithium to anticonvulsants) but apparently I’m treatment resistant. Meds have no effect whatsoever (I’ve been on lithium since 95 and also on Depakote since 2006). Oddly enough, compared to the years I was untreated, my manic episodes have become more intense and more frequent (five major ones over the past ten years). But I’m digressing. I have read several books and autobiographies dealing with bipolar, but ‘An Unquiet Mind’ is the one that most struck a chord with me.

    • I’m really glad to hear you’ve been translating some of the book for people to read. As far as I know, the book isn’t available except in English, so it’s a real service.

  • hi Daniel~Good idea to review bks; there are so many bks, it’s annoying to waste $ on one that isn’t useful/appropriate. Read many books about depression (I was misdiagnosed as unipolar for years); and some about bipolar. Jamison’s books are good; especially the one about creativity. I have Bipolar II; and I would recommend that people with BPII should only buy bks about BPII. Books that are about all Bipolar usually just devote a few pages or maybe one chapter to BPII. I think BPI & II are so different that I wish they had different names.

    • Hi Martha. I’m very happy with the response so far on doing a book review. I honestly wasn’t sure how it would go over.

  • Thanks for this Daniel – I’m working my way through a huge stack of books on bipolar, both personal accounts and clinical books. This one is in the pile, but I’ve not got to it yet! Just got moved to the top. Really good review, thanks x

    • You’re welcome, Hazel. It’s definitely one of my favorites, and one of the first ones I recommend to anyone who asks about it.

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Psychotherapy from Daniel

Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RP (Qualifying), CCC

Daniel Bader, Ph.D., is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) and Canadian Certified Counsellor specializing in bipolar disorder, offering in-person psychotherapy in Kitchener, Ontario, and online and telephone psychotherapy within Canada.

To book an appointment with Daniel, please visit his Psychology Today profile.