A Journey Back From MADNESS 'An Unquiet Mind': Kay Jamison is one of the world's leading experts on manic-depressive illness

now she's gone public with her own terrifying struggles with the disease.

October 29, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- She has lived her life dangerously close to the edge, soaring at times to the heights of creativity and pleasure, then crashing precipitously into the depths of despair and madness. More than most, Kay Redfield Jamison, a woman of great accomplishment, knows what it's like to teeter on cliffs of violent, terrifying, uncontrollable emotion.

And, more than most, she knows what it feels like to lose your footing and fall.

"Losing your mind is far and away the most terrifying thing you can experience," Kay Jamison says now, recalling a particularly bad episode of "madness" that occurred in her late 20s. "You are your mind. You are your emotions. And when your emotions are out of control and your mind is gone, there's nothing of you left. And I felt absolutely terrified.

"I knew who I was, but nothing had meaning for me. My thoughts were going so fast I couldn't keep up with them. I would be a few words into a thought and then I couldn't remember anything. When you see hallucinations, things that are not there, that's terrifying but for me, this was even worse."

Six months ago, Kay Jamison would not have been so open about her feelings of "going mad."

Six months ago, the 49-year-old psychologist and psychiatry professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine had not yet revealed a secret she had kept hidden for decades: her own lifelong battle against manic-depressive illness, the very disease that she has for years researched, studied and treated in her patients. Indeed, Dr. Jamison's work on manic-depressive illness -- she co-authored the definitive medical text on the subject -- has earned her an international reputation and something approaching celebrity status in the field.

But now Dr. Jamison has "come out" about her personal experience with the disease. In her riveting new book, "An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness," she boldly writes an insider's view of the extreme terrors ushered in on the arm of manic-depressive illness.

An honest, unflinching account of her struggle with this life-threatening disease -- which is believed to affect some 2.5 million Americans -- the book chronicles her journey from a "mild mania" stage in high school through her uncontrollable spending binges, promiscuity, mania and depression, her suicide attempt, her "war" with lithium treatment and the toll all this took on her personal life.

It also quietly notes how, even in the midst of all this turmoil, Kay Jamison somehow managed to earn her Ph.D in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and then rise through the ranks to tenured professor, director of UCLA's Affective Disorders Clinic, clinical therapist and now a full professorship in the Hopkins School of Medicine.

The decision to write a book revealing the secret she'd kept for so long from all but family and a few close colleagues was a risky one. For one thing, Dr. Jamison feared her work, both past and future, might now be perceived as "biased" because of her personal experience with the illness she was studying scientifically. And there was also the serious concern that revealing her illness, an illness that could interfere with her clinical judgments, might result in the loss of licensing and hospital privileges.

For those very reasons, family members and some colleagues cautioned her against writing the book. "I had many reservations, both for her personally and, even more, professionally," says her brother, Dean Jamison. "I thought it could affect her relations with Hopkins and her professional privileges. But I made it clear to her she had my complete support if she decided to write a book."

The chairman of her department at Johns Hopkins, who knew of Dr. Jamison's illness, was most concerned about what effect her revelations might have on her patients. "She's a very effective therapist," Paul McHugh says. "And I was particularly worried that if she revealed so much about herself and her illness, her patients might worry about her."

Others close to her, however, encouraged her to go public. "Kay's work has been the prime effort in this country to remove the stigma of mental illness," says Frances Lear, former publisher of Lear's magazine, who was diagnosed as manic-depressive in the early 1970s. "And I told her, 'You must remove it by erasing the stigma of your own perception of yourself.' When I came out, about 10 years ago, people knew very little about the illness. But Kay's work has opened that up."

In the end, Dr. Jamison decided it was not enough to devote just her professional life to the task of recognizing and treating manic-depressive illness. After years of promoting, through concerts, books and lectures, the connection between creativity and manic-depression and encouraging well-known professionals to speak publicly about their histories of manic-depressive illness, she was feeling "like a hypocrite." Then two years ago a chance remark by a friend set the book into motion.

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