The dark side of the self

AN UNQUIET MIND by Kay Redfield Jamison, Picador pounds 15.99

The statistics are scary: manic depression affects one in every hundred people; women are almost twice as likely as men to suffer; one in seven of those untreated commits suicide. Each year in Britain some 400 people use anti-depressants to end their lives.

Kay Redfield Jamison was brought up in Washington in a military household. After a period of pathological mood disorder, she tried to kill herself by overdosing on lithium. Though not an anti-depressant, lithium is an anti-psychotic medication approved for use in mania and it can end a life just as effectively. Unknown to the young Jamison, the anti-depressant she was taking with lithium only encouraged her suicidal tendency.

Jamison is now a world expert on manic-depressive illness (what clinicians quaintly term "bipolar disorder"). She has lived with this demon for most of her adult years and, at 49, is currently Professor of Psychiatry at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. "There will always be propelling, disturbing elements," Jamison writes of her own personality. But at least she has learned to control them, with the help of drugs. Tens of thousands of others have not been so lucky; the great clinical problem with manic depression (for which there is as yet no cure) is that patients often refuse to take the drugs which really do work. Usually, this is because they believe that to do so reveals a weakness.

Characterised by excessive mood swings, mania is va-va-vroom one moment (unrestrained shopping sprees; florid acts of generosity) and blank depression the next. Her confessional memoir, An Unquiet Mind, suggests that Jamison might have been good company when she was on the up. Glowing with the "light, lovely tincture of true mania", she could inspire a rare happiness in others. Then things slowed down as the psychosis took hold; very soon, life was just a cold, inward deadness.

Depression crept up on Jamison like a lengthening shadow. "For as long as I can remember I was frighteningly, although often wonderfully, beholden to moods," she writes. Her childhood manias (ping-pong, dissecting frogs, reading Gray's Anatomy at the age of 12) were warning signals; things began to go seriously wrong in her at the age of 28 when Jamison was hired as an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry. Fizzing over with energy ("antennae perked, eyes fast-forwarding and fly-faceted"), soon she was ravingly psychotic.

Convinced that Los Angeles was about to be invaded by rattlesnakes, Jamison cleared a chemist's of anti-venom kits. Irresistibly flirtatious (or so she thought) at a university garden party, she had unwittingly daubed her face with the gaudiest make-up. All this Jamison relates with a brave humour. The white-coated professors at UCLA are fondly recalled (the psychiatrist who was well-known for having "accidentally killed a rented circus elephant with LSD"); and Jamison describes her suicide attempt with a winning candour.

If she refused to take lithium again for so many years it was because her upbringing demanded a stoic approach to mood- swings: WASPs are not supposed to fall down. It's an astonishing moment when we learn that Jamison's own father, an Air Force officer, was himself probably a manic-depressive. Beneath his Brooks Brothers conservatism there lurked a man who knew the black chaos of life as well as its elations; did mania pass from father to daughter via a dangerous gene? Jamison is in no doubt that it did.

Superbly written, An Unquiet Mind recognises the poetic exhilaration of pure mania. Jamison says she does not resent her manic-depressive illness (now that lithium works so well for her) because it has made her test the limits of her mind. She also knows that the down side is awful beyond words. To witness a deep depression in someone is a frightening experience; as she says, one would put an animal to death for far less suffering. In so courageously putting her own life under the microscope, Jamison has written a compelling work of literature. She speaks both as the wounded healer and as one who has been touched by a most mysterious illness.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn