• Depression

Kay Redfield Jamison: Voice of bipolar disorder

Note: This article is a profile of a person who has triumphed over mental illness, as are other Moodletter personal profiles. Ms. Jamison is not associated with this site and we cannot accept mail addressed to her.

Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, an international authority on mood disorders and a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has unique insight into the world of mental illness. She has been there herself.

In her book, An Unquiet Mind, she tells her story.

"I was a senior in high school when I had my first attack of manic-depressive illness; once the siege began, I lost my mind rather rapidly I raced about like a crazed weasel," she said, as she described the way she immersed herself in activities, stayed up all night, night after night, and made expansive and unrealistic plans. "My sense of enchantment with the laws of the natural worlds caused me to fizz over, and I found myself buttonholing my friends to tell them how beautiful it all was. They were less than transfixed by my insights into the webbings and beauties of the universe, although considerably impressed by how exhausting it was to be around my enthusiastic ramblingsI could see it in their eyes: For God's sake, Kay, slow down."

Her bipolar disorder worsened when at 28 she became an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA and, while living with pain and chaos, advanced in her profession. During a period marked by tumultuous relationships, damaging decisions and bizarre spending sprees, she was plagued by fears that discovery of her illness would cost her her practice and faculty position. During the early part of her career, she experienced both heightened creativity and energy that fueled her writing, teaching and working with patients. But there were also periods when she could do little but stare mindlessly out the window, sleep or contemplate suicide. "When you're high, it's tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones.But, somewhere, this changes. The fast ideas are far too fast, and there are far too many; overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of the mind." As many who are prescribed lithium do, Jamison resisted taking the medication. She did not want to believe that she needed to take medication and she thought she ought to be able to handle her illness without it. She had also become addicted to the energy and euphoria that her high moods brought. But her resistance proved hazardous.

"I reaped a bitter harvest from my own refusal to take lithium on a consistent basis. A floridly psychotic mania was followed, inevitably, by a long and lacerating, black, suicidal depression; it lasted more than a year and a half." Jamison now credits lithium with saving her life. Jamison's autobiography, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (Knopf; 1995) is a candid memoir told both from the perspective of her personal triumph over her illness and her medical knowledge. She risked her career by publicly disclosing her experience with her illness. Jamison completed her undergraduate and graduate work at UCLA, where she was a National Science Foundation Research Fellow and a John F. Kennedy Scholar. She became Director of the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic, was selected as one of five individuals for the PBS-TV series Great Minds of Medicine and was chosen by TIME as a "Hero of Medicine."

Dr. Jamison has published over 100 articles in academic journals and has authored or co-authored five books, including the standard medical textbook on manic-depression, which was chosen in 1990 as the most outstanding book in Biomedical Sciences by the American Association of Publishers. Dr. Jamison was a member of the first National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research and has received numerous awards for her medical achievements, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. A Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, Dr. Jamison has become a trusted spokesperson for millions of people who suffer from mental illness. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (Free Press; 1993) is a groundbreaking study of manic-depression and creativity. Drawing from the lives of artists such as Van Gogh, Byron and Virginia Woolf, Jamison examines the links between manic-depression and creativity.

In Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide (Knopf; 1999), a national bestseller, she explores the complex psychology of suicide, especially in young people, why it occurs and how it can be prevented. "I have become increasingly optimistic about the possibilities of suicide prevention, Jamison said, "but deeply frustrated by the lack of public and professional awareness of the terrible toll it takes." Jamison's most recent book, Exuberance: The Passion for Life, (Knopf; 2004), frequently named as one of the best books of 2004, is an exploration of exuberance and how it fuels our most important creative and scientific achievements and relates to intellectual searching, risk-taking, creativity, and survival itself. She delves into some of the phenomena of exuberance-the contagiousness of laughter, the giddiness of new love and the intoxicating effects of music.

Jamison's rigorous yet compassionate approach is an offshoot of her own journey from suffering to sharing. She offers a powerful message of hope to those who most need it. "I have often asked myself whether, given the choice, I would choose to have manic-depressive illness. If lithium were not available to me, or didn't work for me, the answer would be a simple no and it would be an answer laced with terror. But lithium does work for me, and therefore I can afford to pose the question. Strangely enough I think I would choose to have it. It's complicated. Depression is awful beyond words or sounds or images So why would I want anything to do with this illness? Because I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely; loved more, and been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs, for all the winters... and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty and seeing things through. Depressed, I have crawled on my hands and knees in order to get across a room and have done it for month after month. But, normal or manic, I have run faster, thought faster and loved faster than most I know."

Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind

Manic-depressive illness