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In Mind, Jamison willingly breaks her profession’s taboo of revealing her own illness, but admits that it took a long time to overcome her fears of repercussions from colleagues and students. She remembers that she “lived in terror that someone would find out how ill I had been, how fragile I still was, but —oddly and fortunately—sensitivity and keen observation Mind could help those similarly afflicted: Firsthand accounts of the many forms of depression are often characterized as attempts to capitalize on illness, but they can in fact spur readers’ recoveries.
Jamison begins Mind with the illness’s genetic basis, explaining that her father was sometimes bedridden with depression. Jamison’s own disease emerged during high school, but periodically went into remission, which she notes is “common in the early years of manic-depressive illness and a deceptive respite from the savagely recurring course that the untreated illness ultimately takes.” It wasn’t until she joined the UCLA psychiatry faculty in summer 1974 that she noticed the black moods seeping back, blanketing her mind’s eye on a consistent basis. In fall 1974, she began taking lithium, the natural metal element used to treat manic-depression—though she experienced side effects including nausea, slurred speech, and poor coordination. The years between 1974 and 1981 were marked by career hurdles and a continuous struggle to stay sane. The episodic narrative covers many years, but the pace is as crisp as the tales are harrowing.
As the ’80s progressed, so did Jamison’s standing in medical academe. In 1993, she wrote Touched With Fire, a controversial book that posthumously diagnosed artists, writers, and musicians as manic-depressive. Mind reprises Fire‘s thesis that creativity doesn’t arise from the illness, but that creative people may be more inclined to inherit depression—a romantic and potentially dangerous notion that links mental illness to high art. Yet even as Jamison waxes nostalgic for the manic days when she felt like she could accomplish anything, she warns that debilitating lows inevitably follow.
Jamison writes with energy: She describes a hallucination during a manic phase as “a huge black centrifuge inside my head” and explains her life as a “tidal existence” dictated by mercurial moods. Such highly descriptive prose indicates her love of literature—she frequently quotes Byron, Dylan Thomas, and other authors. The clearheadedness Jamison exhibits in An Unquiet Mind clarifies her clouded past, and gives fellow sufferers hope of a brighter future.