***Spoiler Warning in case there is anyone left in the bipolar community that has not yet read Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison***
It’s hard to review a memoir. It’s not the same as reviewing a how-to or history book. I try to remember (and don’t always succeed) that you should attack a person’s ideas, not the person themselves. Why would I want to attack this author (or her ideas)? Bear with me, and I’ll tell you.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison is perhaps one of the most widely promoted memoirs of bipolar disorder in existence. I am not drawing that from any statistic, but it is my experience when I am haunting reviews of mental illness lit on Amazon plus my time spent lurking on bipolar support forums. Time and time again I see someone say, “Well X book is okay and all, but the best book is AUM.” And someone will reply to that with “Totally agree. This is THE book on bipolar everyone must read.” So, to figure out why that was, I bought and read, ‘An Unquiet Mind’ by Kay Redfield Jamison.
I have to tell you, I do not at all agree that this is THE must-read book or the best book that I’ve read about a person dealing with mental illness. An Unquiet Mind is one of the few books (along with Prozac Nation) that I have thrown across a room due to sheer outrage while I was reading it.
Everyone says the book is really well-written. I’ll grant that it is. With her education and the people she had help edit her book, I would hope so. But is a well-written book my only criteria for enjoying or evaluating an author’s work? Certainly not.
This woman enjoys a level of privilege I find hard to fully grasp. How many people do you personally know who could afford to buy and care for a horse while they are in graduate school? I can’t help but think of the thrift and poverty I was living in around the same time she was gallivanting about Scotland. I don’t recognize or empathize with her world and the stratosphere she lives in due to the protective qualities of being from a moneyed family. But that is not something a person has control over when they are born. I am not blaming her for it, but I am noting it, because privilege makes a huge difference in quality of life whether you have mental illness or not in terms of the care you can afford, as well the distractions you can buy.
She talks about her purchase of a horse as a ‘bipolar shopping spree’ induced by mania. You can look at something like that and say, ‘Wow, bipolar made you buy a horse! Yikes. How horrible! Break out the meds right away and control that episode!” But now try saying that your bipolar mania induced you to buy a double-shot latte, and most folks would have trouble declaring that a sign of unmanaged mental illness. But apparently buying a horse was not just an impulse to soothe her inner child’s desire, but actually the result of a chemical imbalance in her brain. Sorry Kay, I just don’t buy it.
In the beginning of the book, Jamison is a career-driven woman, determined to be a tenured professor. She flows seemingly from highschool to college without any time-off period to find herself, presumably, because the allure of doctorhood is her overriding passion at the time. But it is during this time, when her world is all about education and learning and teaching and practicing, that she has her first major bipolar disorder breakdown.
From then on her story is one of a person trying to reconcile taking lithium, when it clearly makes her feel like crap, even as she sings the praises of how it ‘gentles’ her. The path of accepting her diagnosis involves learning to pathologize and medicalize all her past behaviors by looking at them through her nifty-new bipolar goggles.
On page 97 she recites her “Rules for the Gracious Acceptance of Lithium Into Your Life” and I think it was there that I flicked the book like a Frisbee across the living room in total disgust. Or it may have been on page 102 when Kay wrote: “I had, and have, no tolerance for those individuals, especially psychiatrists and psychologists—who oppose medications for mental illness…I also believe that, with rare exceptions, it is malpractice to treat it without medication.”
Well, I have something to say to you Kay Redfield Jamison author of Unquiet Mind and steadfast promeds advocate. I consider the unasked-for treatment of my bipolar symptoms with psychiatric medication to be medical malpractice. The treatments you espouse so enthusiastically did nothing but poison me. When I first read your opinion in your book I wondered for a few seconds if it wasn’t possible to sue you somehow for influencing my psychiatrist and caregivers to ‘treat’ me with your horrible lithium.
I also find that you wimped out of the full scope of bipolar treatment. You took the lithium but you never took the brain damaging antipsychotics even though you admit you were ‘floridly manic’. You are missing out on the full ‘bipolar treatment experience’, doc. You don’t know what it’s like to be that patient whom you told, “You’ve been given a shot of Haldol. Everything is going to be alright.” It didn’t turn out to be all right did it?
Further in, she has the gall to blame the man’s mania on his lack of lithium. I am not joking. Page 107 “Neither the resident nor I needed to see the results of the lithium blood level that had been drawn during his admission to the emergency room. There would be no lithium in his blood. The result had been mania.”
I mean give me a break, ‘doctor’. How you can be so unscientific as to posit this man’s psychotic episode as the result of a lack of lithium, (and not some other kind of trigger, like, I don’t know, maybe… stress?) This is kind of like how a headache is the result of not having aspirin in your blood, right? Sure. Makes perfect, logical, scientific sense Kay. No. Not really.
I don’t consider you an authority on bipolar or mental illness or it’s treatments. You are certainly not an expert on my suffering nor the treatments I used to cure it. You’ve spent your whole post graduate life informing others of what mental illness is and how it’s supposed to be treated. Blissfully unaware that your preferred treatment drove me to within an inch of taking my own life. Yes, you read that correctly. Lithium made me want to kill myself—because of how awful it was.
You’ve made claims that are (still) not substantiated by current science (Page 190 “The fact that manic-depressive illness is a genetic disease…”) For all that time spent in academia, spouting about mental illness, you have done nothing, absolutely nothing to advance the real understanding of its causes or possible cures. A whole career spent in an ivory tower fixated with this unshakable belief in manic depression as a genetic disorder and nothing at all to show for it. As a former bipolar sufferer, you do not speak for me and you never shall. If I ever get the chance to tell you this to your face, I will.
Another thing that offends me comes from the back of her book, on the cover, where she is described as having the dual perspective of the “healer and the healed”. In her own book, in her own words, she states that to this day she suffers, even though she is on the ‘proper’ drugs for the condition. And nowhere in her book does she claim to have healed anyone else, much less herself.
At every turn in her illness and career there is a family member or someone with a Dr. before his name to attend to her. How she praises psychotherapy and her support network. Must be nice Doc.
When Kay feels like hurting herself, she gets babysat in her home by a ‘colleague’ instead of doing time at the local psych ward. It’s like she floats over the heads of people who really (I mean really) suffer from bipolar disorder. When she finally does try to off herself, she’s already in a safety contract with friends and relatives and she ODs and leaves the phone right in the next room.
Of course you can probably guess at what happens then. Someone calls, and she is all slurred-voiced and nodding out, and naturally 911 is called promptly and she is saved from herself. For most of us getting admitted to an ER for an OD it’s a guaranteed stay at the psych ward for assessment. But she gets to recover from her attempt in the comfort of home, surrounded by concerned experts, as opposed to acute patients. She didn’t have to socialize with the sick proles as befits everyone else that goes inpatient for a suicide attempt. She got special treatment—because she is Dr. Jamison.
In her Acknowledgments section, she gives thanks to no less than twenty-eight M.D.s or PhDs. Unfortunately, the medical and psychiatric profession does not know how to heal from mental illness and despite being surrounded by all those highly educated people, Dr. Jamison clearly does not know what I know about how the mind works and how it can be truly healed. It’s almost as if she is too close to the tree to gaze upon the forest that I see when it comes to mental illness and the nature of the mind.
If my tone sounds a little annoyed, it’s because of how many people keep saying how truly wonderful and amazing her book is. While I do not begrudge the woman her remarkable academic achievements (which are many), and I do agree that she can turn a phrase, I can’t see why this book is so highly acclaimed. Maybe someone will explain to me the appeal.
In the final analysis, I find myself in that small bracket of people who do not think that Unquiet Mind is an omg amazing five star must-read book on bipolar. It’s an okay book. Definitely worth a read. But other than at one time experiencing the symptoms of the disorder, I find that I have very little common ground with the author.