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Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind

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I just finished reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, which describes her long journey with manic-depressive illness. It was a wonderful read and really depicted the roller coaster ride that comes with mental illness—its highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, beauty and despair. Anne and I are particularly interested in talking about An Unquiet Mind because it very much relates to Margaret Price’s Mad at School. Jamison, who works in psychiatry, reveals throughout her book the struggles of coping with her own illness in the academic setting, and more specifically the field of psychology.

 A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Jamison finds the academic structure as a whole to be unaccommodating towards her illness. She tells us, “…it is a very real adjustment to blend into a three-piece-suit schedule, which, while comfortable to many, is new, restrictive, seemingly less productive, and maddeningly less intoxicating” (92). Jamison brings us back to the issue of “crip time” and how the regulated schedules of the academic setting don’t always allow for full participation of those who suffer from a mental illness. Jamison also explains how she didn’t always do well in her courses as an undergraduate because “university administrators do not consider the pronounced seasonal changes in behaviors and abilities that are part and parcel of the lives of most manic-depressives” (49). She laments the disjunction between the pace of the academic world and the pace of her illness and how she, situated between both temporalities, must find a way to negotiate their oppositions. 

More recently, Jamison has become interested in combining her scientific research, her own personal accounts with mental illness, and also “excerpts from poems, novels, and autobiographical accounts written by individuals who had suffered from manic-depressive illness” (166) in her academic work. And in this bridging of the binary between the intellectual and emotional (which Price brings up throughout her book), Jamison yields both positive and negative results. During her time at UCLA, she was worried that her manic-depressive illness would be found out and that she’d have to give up teaching and her clinical practice. And after having to tell the chairman of the department of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins about her illness in response to hospital appointment forms, he responds, “I know you have manic-depressive illness. If we got rid of all the manic-depressives on the medical school faculty, not only would we have a much smaller faculty, it would also be a far more boring one” (209). He acknowledges that mental illness within the department of psychology contributes to the department’s success and that perhaps those with manic-depressive illness end up making the best psychiatrists. 

But there were other people in Jamison's life who weren’t so understanding. Her psychoanalyst friend, Mouseheart, tells Jamison that he was “deeply disappointed” upon hearing her struggles with manic-depressive illness and wondered how “under the circumstances, that [she] was going to be able to handle the stresses of academic life” (201).    She tells us that these moments of cruelty and lack of empathy have often deterred her from being more open about her illness, but most recently, she’s been working on overcoming stigma. She starts her conference papers with personal narratives and hopes that others are finding this melding of the objective and the personal enhances the study of manic-depressive illness. I think that Jamison is doing important work.  She's changing the way we think about who we are versus what we study and that maybe these things don’t have to be different or separate, but can be the same.