Belinda's Reviews > An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
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Feb 02, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: non-fiction, kindle
Read in January, 2009

Just ran across this review of "An Unquiet Mind" that I wrote a couple of years ago (January 2009). As I go back through blog posts, Twitter feeds, book reviews, etc., it amazes me how difficult a time *I* was having... and how I was paying NO attention to that whatsoever. It was all about someone else. And really, in this book, that's how Jamison seems to think it should be.

I just had the opportunity to re-read this book when it was offered on the Kindle, and I was surprised. I seemed to remember it as being immensely insightful the first time I read it, but consider that that was immediately after my husband's initial bipolar 1 diagnosis. This was the first book everyone was recommending back then.

Now, several years of living with a bipolar spouse later, I read it and think, "Meh." I have tremendous respect for Jamison as a leader in this field of study, but I can't figure out what she was going for in this memoir. It seems to have been written more FOR herself than about herself, if that makes sense--it reads as very personal and cathartic.

Is it helpful for others, though? I'm not so sure. There are some wonderful passages in which she borrows from images in poetry and literature, and those, for me, make the book worth reading. But I don't get much of a sense of hope for those dealing with manic-depressive illness, because Jamison's resources were/are simply out of the reach of most of us.

If my husband had access to the level of care that Jamison has enjoyed throughout her life, he'd probably be doing much better. Who WOULDN'T thrive with near-daily psychiatric attention and round-the-clock home care (which, just by the way, is provided by friends/family/lovers, most of whom happen to be practicing psychiatrists)? Heck, I'd like to get in on some of that, myself. As it is, we receive financial assistance from our physicians, to lower our co-pay, so that he can see a therapist (not an MD, but a psychologist) once a week, and even that's a burden. Then there's couples therapy, because this disease puts a mighty strain on a marriage.

As someone in the "caretaker" role, to use Jamison's own terminology, I found the message of the memoir a bit burdensome. Yes, she shows great appreciation for her loved ones and their unflagging support. She also puts ENORMOUS weight on that support as being the key to her success. That only reads as a compliment the first few times, then it becomes a sledge-hammer of obligation and guilt.

I don't know--I'm conflicted this time around. It's a bit of "thank you for being there," and a bit of "but for you, I'd be dead." That's a lot of pressure, gratitude or no.
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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message 1: by Tag (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tag Riggs Your comment, "It seems to have been written more FOR herself than about herself, if that makes sense--it reads as very personal and cathartic." hit the mark. This is all about 'self'. I would suggest you read it more objectively. Even her own conclusions have overtones of BP. You are putting to much 'normal' into your assessment. A normal person wouldn't do that, say that, be that, and conclude to that. I like your honesty.

Belinda Good point, Tag! You'd think, after all these years, I'd stop running BP through a "norm" filter. Only folly in that. Since this review was written, I have actually had to separate from my bipolar spouse, because, even with medication, he just couldn't (wouldn't?) hold it together, and one night one of the rages became physical. That was enough for me--never heard of that happening only once, mental illness or no. Now going through the divorce, and people keep saying, to me, "But that makes no sense, what he's doing!" Well, I usually answer... "DUH."

Jab843 It seems to me that in her book, when she talks about running around the parking lot with a friend and running into the police, that this is only a different avenue of releasing the manic side of herself. I understand if violence seems out of place, but these episodes are not always a pattern and as such do not always repeat. Looking at her book in more detail, I think that is apparent.

Belinda Yeah... I didn't take the chance. What if I wasn't there, and it was our daughter the next time? No thanks. I tried for a decade to "fix" the unfixable. It's not fair, just like any other disease, but sometimes you have to save yourself FROM people like Jamison instead of always saving THEM.

Karlee Stone what is she going for? to help people understand what life is like for the BIPOLAR person.. I am bipolar and this book is like the bipolar bible to me. no, it doesn't give steps for friends and family to help their bipolar loved one, but at least I don't feel alone because I truly feel this woman KNOWS what my life feels like and she writes so beautifully and eloquently it makes me cry. and it almost makes me cry to hear someone say "meh" about such a book that made such an impact on my life. bipolar is damn hard and I love how she gets that point across. and it has helped me be at peace with my own illness and with myself in general and I am thankful to Kay for writing her book. sorry, don't know why your review touched such a nerve with me.. i think it was because it sounded like someone was saying "meh" to my life and my struggles and it felt like a stab to my soul.

Karlee Stone by the way, mine and Kay's personalities are far from similar. i couldn't care less about poetry and I'm married with kids, but she just knows how to express what I feel inside my world from day to day, week to week and year to year. I'm a stay at home mom and she's a very successful doctor, researcher, teacher, etc etc but never once did I feel anything but mad respect and love for this woman just because finally someone could speak to me soul to soul and I could understand every descriptive detail of her pain and struggle. It has made me feel whole, and normal, and not alone, and validated and vindicated. I read much of it to my husband, just because I didn't know how to express myself as well as she did for me! and it all sounded very familiar to him and I'm so happy that it was said in a way that my family can understand and sympathize. I am a better (and nicer!!) person because of this book. And I honestly believe she wrote it in a way that would protect her loved ones from her illness. I do the same thing. It's noble and I think she is just the shit in every way.. hahaha anyway, I'm done! :) take care, Belinda.

Belinda No, I totally getcha. My "meh" shelf is about the books, not the authors, per se. I doubt very much that you have put your family through the things that my husband (who, since my last update, has tragically passed away--natural causes) put us through. Financial ruin that I will be years recovering from, identity theft, heartbreaking betrayals, serial cheating from mistresses to prostitutes, alcoholism and drug addiction (crack cocaine being his drug of choice)... I could go on and on, but you get the point. Sometimes the burden on the caretaker is just. too. big. Sometimes we have to save ourselves. So it's definitely, like everything else in life, something that is viewed through the filters of our personal experiences. For my part, I struggled desperately for over a decade to pretty much carry another person through life. I loved him dearly, and gave him chance after chance after chance. Raising his hands to me in violence was, apparently, my "deal-breaker." God knows nothing else got through to me. My heart aches, as it always has, for what he suffered and how painful living his life must have been. At the same time, it doesn't lessen the pain he inflicted on others through the choices he made. I stand by my assessment of this book as being burden-heavy on the caretaker, and by my appreciation of all that Jamison has done to "out" bipolar disorder and raise awareness and acceptance.

Ironically, my husband never read this book. Or any others about his illness. Who read them all? And I mean ALL? Me. That should've been a big tipoff right there, but I missed it, and just kept plugging along. Good for you for being introspective. I have blogged for years about our struggle with mental illness, and through that outlet have made many wonderful bipolar friends, so I'm quite aware that it doesn't HAVE to be the way it was with my husband (who was always, btw, fully med compliant and never treatment-resistant, even having ECT at one point). At the end of the day, illness or no illness, it's still about choices.

Belinda And not for nothing, but if you're a stay-at-home parent? You are clearly doing some damn fine coping and handling things well. My husband could not, in a million years, have pulled that off. When he went on full disability due to his BP, we considered it... for about 30 seconds. There was just no way. He couldn't stop thinking of HIMSELF long enough to care for another life, no matter how much he loved that life. He just stayed home and came up with ways to fraudulently get money and bad things to do with it. Not that that was the whole of who he was, because obviously he was someone I loved enough to devote my life to. It's just a big hairy mess.

Karlee Stone that's so sad and I'm sorry you had to deal with such hardships but I'm proud of you for being there for him and sticking through things with him. I'm sure he appreciates you more than anything.

yeah, I've done all those harmful, stupid, destructive bad behaviors, too, at different points, but my husband is definitely my rock in that I work really hard on my bipolar problems because he believes in me and it just costs too much (physically, spiritually, emotionally) to let my mania just go without doing something about it. I have come a long way over the years. actually my first manic episode was right AFTER we got married in 2005 (I was 25 -- psychotic as in police picked me up and took me to the hospital where I slept for 3 days straight then stayed there for 2 more weeks). So just the fact that my new husband stayed with me during that time and that he has stuck with me all this time, really has made me learn how to get my ass in gear and figure out this shitty natural disaster called bipolar. and I am working so hard. I really am. I had a 1 yr old when I met my husband, and we have 2 more together. so we have 3 boys. It's hard, but I have learned to forgive bipolar and I've learned to forgive myself and go forward after each episode. I have learned responsibility, love and respect for myself and my loved ones. I am blessed and happy that I have finally gotten to a point where I feel like I know how to cope with and even BEAT bipolar (with tons of help, which I have, including a GREAT psychiatrist and psychologist).

anyway, I am so very thankful for my "caretaker" and his love and patience means the world to me and I know I can never repay him for his compassion and patience. It's hard sometimes to forgive myself for that and just let him love me even when I don't feel like I deserve it. which is very often. but my kids need me, and need us to be together, and I need him. so I just try my best and hope that's good enough.

Karlee Stone and i agree it does all come down to CHOICES.. big and small. life is choices.

and i also agree I have some really good introspection :) i have seen many doctors over the years and most of them have said that they were impressed that I could see myself from what seemed like an outside prospective. My therapist I see now also told me that "people don't know when they are psychotic, but YOU know when you're psychotic". He said that because when I have been in full blown acute mania (psychosis), I finally figure out that the only thing I should do is just be quiet. Don't answer questions, don't talk at all. i think deep down I knew that my husband, parents, and the doctors needed to figure out what to do with me instead of asking all these questions just to have grounds to admit me or also my husband didn't know what to do and he was basically asking me what he should do. anyway, I just go silent when I'm psychotic and it is honestly and truly the hardest thing to do. be quiet when your mind tells you everything is URGENT and in dire need of my opinion and I need to save the world, etc etc. I think after the first episode, deep down I learned and understood that psychosis isn't real and everything I'm feeling is not what it seems and it will be better if I can just be quiet and let my loved ones figure it out for me with their rational, healthy brains. I'm tellin ya i'm figuring out this bipolar stuff. every time i have an episode I learn a crap load of new concepts about it. it's "crazy"! :)

message 11: by Tim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Tim Wow! Good luck to the both of you. You've had a rough time of it, and your stories are very moving.

I had pretty severe bipolar until my early 30s. But I never harmed anyone, although I worried my parents a great deal whenever I would blow all my savings on an exhibition that sold nothing (no-one bought photos as artworks back then).

But I guess I'm lucky to be in a creative field of work where a bit of madness is tolerated. And I certainly entertained people along the way with some of the financially foolhardy but interesting creative ventures I initiated.

I'm kinda grateful in a way for what bipolar put me through. Not trying to romanticize it or anything, but a lot of people do end up using it to make beautiful music, stories and art. Obviously if you are hurting those around you then you need to take steps, but I am a bit suspicious of the psychiatric profession wanting to make us all 'well'. As a profession it has tons of skeletons in it's closet and has definitely not lived by the motto of "Do no harm."

Karlee Stone Thanks, Tim! I agree that there are many creative aspects that enrich my life that I probably wouldn't posess or tap into or whatever without having bipolar disorder and in some ways, during the stable and happy times, I am thankful to my illness for being able to feel so creative and charismatic. It also has made me laugh at myself a lot, for my ideas and ventures have also gotten quite entertaining at times. But the thing is that my doctors support that side of me, too, and are only there to help me feel well and whole. I guess I am lucky to find the doctors that I have. I have had kind of a hard time trying to separate what is my personality from what is a symptom of bipolar disorder. That's been important to me and my doctor is helping me do that from an unbiased, objective, outside yet sincerely concerned viewpoint and I appreciate it. Good luck to you as well!

Belinda Psychiatry nowadays is all about the prescription pad, for the most part. But just for anyone reading this, when you're told how TOTALLY SAFE ECT treatments are? And that nothing ever goes wrong ever, really, honest to gosh, nowhere in recorded medicine especially not NOWADAYS? Please evaluate whether or not you are truly at the end of your rope before proceeding. I do believe that was the beginning of the end for my husband. He literally went in one way and came out another.

Belinda I don't really buy into the whole, "this creative genius was a creative genius because he/she had a mental illness" thing. Yes, there are MANY examples of phenomenally talented and great artists and innovators of all kinds who likely were. But there have been far more who exhibited no symptoms whatsoever. What I do find likely is that whatever trigger is lighting up that bipolar part of our brain (or any other mood disorder on the spectrum) could also light up something else. Ditto addiction--we've all heard musicians or artists of other kinds say some variation of, "I create better when I'm high/stoned." I myself am a highly creative person, and while depressions have spurred me to create MORE (because the creative process is therapeutic, cathartic, and almost necessary to me when going through something painful), I feel that my BEST work is produced when things are on an even keel.

It's a fine line, and the best doctors are the ones, IMO, who try to help you function at the highest level of "you-ness" possible with the lowest amount of medical intervention possible.

message 15: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Addison Thsnks guys it helps to hear other people's stories .my sister is escalating in a episode at the moment , hard to know what to do as my parents are caring for her but seem to go in to denial and don't try to slow her down . I know that can be hard as if I mention she needs to not get too stimulated she gets very nasty with me . It's very worrying and frustrating to see Someone you love so out of touch with reality and no one really doing what is best for her just wish she had more insight in to her own illness but that's just it isn't it ! They don't . It's a really really terrible illness that I feel not meany people understand unless they have had to deal with it . Then there is my own fear that one day I may experience it . It seems to date I just get the downs thanks again best of luck to you all

message 16: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Fierro As a family member of someone with BiPolar Disorder and a Psychiatric Nurse/Therapist for 24 years I highly recommend the Unquiet Mind. One's journey through BiPolar Disorder can vary significantly, depending on the type I.e. I or II, whether it is complicated by other psychiatric diagnoses, addiction (not uncommon), a person's personality, upbringing, support system, insight level etc... So while Kay Redfield Jamieson's journey may not speak to everyone's journey, I admire her for sharing hers and that of some of her patients.

I believe it is important for people with this illness to know that the majority of people who have it can be very successful people in their work life and their personal life; certainly there are some people who's illness becomes more refractory and doesn't respond fully to treatment. Another valuable lesson Kay so eloquently addresses is her journey to gaining full insight into her illness and taking control over managing her illness. Off the top of my head I believe it was Chapter 11 where she wrestles with the suicide death of one of her BiPolar clients and she questions why he didnt just take his meds as ordered and then it hits her, he didn't take his meds properly for the same reason she played around with her meds. She liked the energy and the creativity that came from being on the edge, being hypomanic but acknowledged the extreme negative consequences she experienced when the hypomanic then predictably became mania.

If nothing else Kay is a beautiful writer. Enjoy!

Jeanine PD Would you mind explain a little more on the last 2 paragraphs of your review...

William "Meh" is precisely the term I was looking for, thanks! To that I'd only add "nope".

message 19: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Brill One of the big problems with the vast majority of memoirs focused on mental illness is that such books follow the narrative arc of “the person got sick, and sicker, and sicker, and sicker – and then, with the help of family and fantastic access to the best mental health care available, a miraculous recovery occurred and the person went on to be famous, widely acclaimed, and had a wonderful life.” These stories are surely important and uplifting, but there is a downside to them too: they are the one in a million exception to how it goes down for nearly all who suffer serious mental illness and, as such, they send the wrong message about how devasting a serious mental illness almost always is. An important exception is Pruchno’s “Surrounded By Madness.” This book, told from the perspective of a daughter of a mother and the mother of a daughter with serious mental illness, tells it like it is for almost all who suffer serious mental illness and the family members who suffer right along with them. Beautifully written as a series of short vignettes sequenced in time, you will be hooked from the first page. It’s that good.

message 20: by Terri (new)

Terri Sinclair As the wife of a bi polar man I was disappointed to find your blog is no longer active. If you have another or if your link was possibly not working please write to me at

thank you. Terri

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