An Unquiet Mind Summary

Kay Redfield Jamison

An Unquiet Mind

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An Unquiet Mind Summary

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An Unquiet Mind is a personal memoir that addresses the subject of manic-depressive illness. The narrative recounts Kay Redfield Jamison’s own struggles with the disease, which is also known as bipolar mood disorder. Though saddening, the memoir also helps to provide hope in that it shows how Jamison has been able to use her disease and her experiences to help treat other people. Jamison’s experiences also help to champion the need for a better understanding of mental illness by both doctors and society.

Jamison, who has learned to “control” her manic depression, is a professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. With her experience and firsthand knowledge of manic depression, she has also co-written a book that is considered the definitive source on manic depression. Jamison is also considered a world expert on the subject, and has even garnered several awards for her work in the field. This memoir, however, shows just how far Jamison had to go to reach a place where she not only understood her disease, but understood just how important it was to seriously address mental illness.

A popular example from within the narrative that points to her initial innocence involves an incident in the UCLA Medical Center parking lot. Jamison was in the parking lot at 2 a.m. with a colleague. The pair were drunk and high on life while searching for her car. This was a manic episode that ended comically with the pair explaining to a policeman that they were faculty, and so were allowed to go on their way.

Moments such as the parking lot incident are retold from Jamison’s past to highlight the highs and lows of manic depression. Though some of the examples are funny, they hold a deeper—and more troubling—truth. Jamison needed help. With the incident in the parking lot, for instance, someone could have gotten hurt from their antics. Indeed, Jamison’s colleague had crashed her car earlier in the night. These comical moments did eventually give way to the cycles of manic depression, so that Jamison’s intoxication with life turned to depression. She eventually became detached from her life and began losing her grip on reality. At one point she attempted suicide due to psychosis, believing her body to be rotting.

Jamison’s narrative also highlights an often-researched topic that affected her at the same time as her manic-depressive cycles: mental illness and the creative process. Jamison herself is a poet and writer, and actually won an award for some of her creative work. With her look into the creative process as it relates to manic depression, she also was able to produce and write specials for public television that focused on manic depression and the arts.

An Unquiet Mind also addresses the topic of Jamison’s childhood. She reveals a childhood of moving around often due to the fact that her father worked for the Air Force, while her mother was a socialite. Jamison admits that she always tried hard to be the perfect student and daughter, which set her at odds with her troubled sister, whom she detested. She also wrote poetry and fell in love with life as a student while growing up. She confided to her friends that she wanted to be a writer while a senior in high school. Like her family at times, her friends tried to convince her to slow down and “get a grip” on reality. At the age of seventeen, Jamison had her first manic episode, but when she fell out of this cycle, and despite her previously rosy outlook on life, she fell into such a depression that she was not even able to function in school.

Jamison’s memoir reveals how the cycles of mental illness continued throughout college. She finally sought help, and began taking lithium for her moods. Though the pills were meant to help, Jamison did not like how they stifled her energy and the creative process, and so stopped taking them. Without the aid of the lithium, she fell back into the dangerous cycles of her illness, and attempted suicide by taking a large amount of lithium. She eventually found a way to control her dosage, thus allowing her to still feel while on medication.

An Unquiet Mind is meant to help those still struggling with mental illness, and to show just how hyperbolic the illness can be, and how dangerous as well. Jamison’s narrative is poignant and poetic, yet honest and brutal. The memoir delves into Jamison’s troubled mind to show how an illness like manic depression is not something to shrug away or chalk up as delusional, but an illness that needs to be better addressed by those who have it, and by society in general.