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Reflections of Biology in Her Unquiet Mind

ctreed's picture


Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s book An Unquiet Mindprovided many examples of biological concepts that we discussed throughout thecourse in the context of an individual’s life.  Due to the intricacies of her condition and her acuteawareness of death, her story embodies, perhaps to an extreme, the complexitiesof what it is to be fully human and not just a creature of chemical processesmoving through life.

Throughout her book, Kay Redfield Jamison describesmany instances in which aspects of her story had to be revised.  The most poignant example is her viewand understanding of herself.  Whenshe was young, she had a very clear and strong grasp on who she was as a person,and how she had been raised to behave. As she grew older and her manic-depressive illness began to manifest shenoticed changes in her personality. They grew to a point at which she could not ignore them when her first“psychotically manic” episode hit. After that experience, she states that “it was a very long time until[she] recognized [her] mind again, and much longer until [she] trusted it”(83).  Her manias, depressions, andmixed states all produced perspectives and behaviors in her that wereunfamiliar, if not entirely opposed to what she used to know as her Self.  She comments that “as with a suicideattempt, living with the knowledge that one has been violent forces a difficultreconciliation of totally divergent notions of oneself” (120).

         Additionally,the story of manic-depressive illness itself was changing as in later years “thepace of discovery [became] absolutely staggering” (196).  Jamison notes the continuous researchdone on the subject by herself and other scientists and physicians, as well asthe institutions of new research facilities focusing on mood conditions, one ofwhich she helped to found at UCLA – the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic(126).  She discusses thedevelopment of new methods such as different types of brain scans, and newdiscoveries made through such methods (195-6).  Jamison does point out that it was not clear what some ofthe discoveries proved, and that there were “more questions than answers”, butalso confirmed that “the very fact that the science was moving so quickly had away of generating hope” (198). 

Concerning the medications prescribed, thoughclearly describing the unpleasantness of lithium in high doses as she wastaking it, she admitted that “certainly, it was a vast improvement on thebrutal and ineffectual treatments that preceded it – chains, bloodletting, wetpacks, asylums, and ice picks through the lobes” (103).  She also explains that othermedications were developed to aid manic-depressive patients, and that sheeventually altered her own medication to a lower dosage of lithium.  After doing so she appears to havegained a new license on life, explaining she “could feel life seeping back intocrevices of [her] body and mind that [she] had completely written off as deador dormant” (157).

In class we discussed that variance is notnecessarily disorder, and not inherently bad.  Jamison spends a good deal of time elaborating on the factthat while manic-depressive illness is certainly a terrible and detrimentalcondition, that is not all it is. There is a wonderful side to it in the form of less intense manias thatheighten productivity, creativity (as exemplified by the concert she organizesof manic-depressive or depressed composers), energy, and generally bring withthem states of elation.  Sheemphasizes that there are beneficial aspects of the condition, but also thatthose highs are difficult for patients to forfeit and cause them, as she did,to resist medication (128). 

As we concluded that society plays a large role indetermining that something is a disability, Dr. Jamison encounters individualsthroughout her life that see manic-depressive illness in an entirely negativelight.  However, she also meetspeople who understand its dynamic nature. One such person is the chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at JohnsHopkins who took to heart the dual nature of the condition, and actedaccordingly when he reassured Dr. Jamison saying “if [he] got rid of all themanic-depressives on the medical school faculty, not only would [they] have amuch smaller faculty, it would also be a far more boring one” (209). 

I thought it was particularly interesting that sheexplained how factors other than just medication affected her condition.  While she insists that manic-depressiveillness is a medical illness and must be treated with medication (102), shealso pushes the benefits of therapy and the positive influence of love in herlife.  This reminded me of theclass’s discussions about aspects of us being determined by more than justgenes, and how reactions in the body affect not just that one part, but alsosometimes the person as a whole. She admits that the effects of her illness powerfully influenced everyother aspect of her life, but also clarifies that her “moods were themselvespowerfully shaped by the same relationships and work.  The challenge was in learning to understand the complexityof this mutual beholdenness and in learning to distinguish the roles oflithium, will, and insight in getting well and leading a meaningful life” (88).

There also seemed to be a sense of a kind ofentropy, in that the breaking down of minds (namely those of the family ofMogens Schou, and Dr. Jamison), lead to the collection and analysis ofinformation and development of treatments.  As Dr. Jamison states, she “was one of many who owed theirlives to the black circles and squares in Schou’s family tree” (191). 

Ultimately, she emphasizes that nothing in life isever completely one-sided, and that a balance must be sought in order tosurvive.  Dr. Jamison details howessential a person’s moods are to adding meaning and spark to life and definingoneself, and how “it was difficult to give up the high flights of mind andmood, even though the depressions that inevitably followed nearly cost [herher] life” (91).  However, thatbeing the case, it was necessary to give them up in order to survive.  A swing too far in the oppositedirection, on the other hand, is equally intolerable. The high doses of lithiumshe was initially prescribed numbed out the world and produced incrediblyconfining side effects, causing her to wonder “if [she] can’t feel, if [she]can’t move, if [she] can’t think, if [she] can’t care, then what conceivablepoint is there in living” (111). Like most other organisms, people have a range of conditions in whichthey can survive, and a set of ideal conditions in which they can thrive.  It is necessary to achieve a balance ofstimuli and regulation in order to live a fulfilling yet not self-destructivelife.  For people, beyond thebiological requirements for maintaining life, these conditions vary byindividual organism and are determined by a combination of hereditaryconditions, ingrained values, and unique outlooks, desires, opinions,personalities, and ambitions. 

Works Cited:

1. Jamison, Kay Redfield. An Unquiet Mind: AMemoir of Moods and Madness. Vintage Books, New York: 1996.


Paul Grobstein's picture

An Unquiet Mind: Being Fully Human

Jamison's book has always seemed to me a rich source of wisdom about how we all need to see ourselves as more than just ... whatever. This essay pulls out an important set of examples that make concrete "the complexities of what it is to be fully human, and not just a creature of chemical processes moving through life" .... for all of us.