An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison, is a memoir about Jamison’s experience with manic depressive illness. She is a professor who specializes in mood disorders and psychiatry and has made tremendous strides in the mental health field by advocating for manic depression. Jamison shares her biological causes, her first realizations that something may be different about her, her struggle with the tremendous episodes of mania and depression, and her experience with other patients.
Throughout her childhood, Jamison recognized that her sister had what she would call “black” moods, which she would later recognize as severe depression. Jamison’s father was quite charming throughout her childhood. She would see him as the shining light that brought all hope and wonder into the household. She would describe it as “having Mary Poppins for a father” (17). After their family moved to California, her father’s happiness and eccentricity gave way to dark moods with anger, depression, and emotional withdrawal.
By the time Jamison was around sixteen years old, she began noticing that her elevated moods were becoming too much for others to handle. During her senior year in high school, she had her first manic depressive attack. Her mania grew and then came to a grinding halt. College became very difficult to handle until she became a research assistant at UCLA and realized that she works best on her own. From that point on, she gained insight into the methods of learning that work best for her and dedicated her life to learning more about mood disorders and manic depressive illness. Her illness only got worse though, until she finally caved in to lithium. Jamison was first prescribed lithium in 1974, but it took her a long time to commit to taking it. Every time she quit, she would experience a mania and depression even greater than the time before. Her manias included buying sprees, rapid and incoherent speech, extreme ideas of grandeur, and impulsivity among all categories. The side effects of lithium included severe nausea and vomiting and the lithium levels would get too high due to other lifestyle changes. Severe reactions included trembling, ataxia, and slurred speech. She could also no longer read or comprehend text, which drastically impacted her ability to learn and study. This would later be fixed by decreasing the dosage. After one particularly lethal depressive episode, Jamison attempted suicide by taking a massive overdose of lithium. This incident is what finally made her commit to her medication.
Although Jamison was battling her illness with manic depression, she still cared for other patients. One of her patients at the UCLA emergency clinic had manic depression, but although she and the doctors supported him with lithium, he refused to take it, which led to his death. Also at UCLA, Jamison and two others cofounded an outpatient clinic, named the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic, which specialized in the diagnosis and treatment of people with depression and manic depressive illness. They also put together a teaching program within the clinic for psychiatric residents and predoctoral psychology interns. The clinic put a strong emphasis on the combined use of medications and psychotherapy and the importance of educating patients and their families about the illnesses.
Throughout the memoir, Jamison addresses her personal experiences with manic depressive illness, but backs each downfall with something she accomplished, whether it be a realization within her recovery or inspiration to be an advocate for mental illnesses. At the end of the memoir, she notes that although her journey has been astronomically difficult, she would never throw animosity toward her life with mental illness. She says that manic depression has given her the opportunity to experience intense emotions like no other, and she would never give that up.