Book Review: “An Unquiet Mind” By Kay Redfield Jamison

By Marisa Hildebrandt

Quite possibly the most influential book I’ve ever read, and certainly the most pertinent, An Unquiet Mind by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison details the author’s experiences with bipolar disorder. Even though she was suffering greatly in its throes, she managed to put herself through medical school. Her story was the most inspirational thing I found while dealing with my diagnosis.

I found this book in a search for books on bipolar disorder very early in my diagnosis. At the time, it was a quick read, but I lingered over paragraphs and phrases that seemed to echo my very existence. This book touched me in so many ways, giving me a glimpse of the experiences of another person with my disease, and showing me that it didn’t have to be the proverbial death sentence. One could have a real career–indeed, become a doctor–while living with a debilitating illness. It opened up possibilities I thought had long fled me.  

The book is subtitled “A memoir of moods and madness” and it holds nothing back, going deeply into her volatile moods and the madness they created. The honesty and truth ring through, and I could see myself in parts of it, making it very easy to relate to. At just over 200 pages, it’s not a marathon read, but there’s plenty to pore over. Despite the fact that I consider books sacred objects that house the truths of the world, I took a pencil and made margin notes for the first time. I recently requested that my boyfriend (who is amazingly supportive) read it, and he was surprised how much of it reminded him of me, particularly the alternating undergrad transcripts of failure to pass or complete classes with the occasional straight A’s and exemplary research.

A very apropos quote from the beginning reads: “For as long as I can remember I was frighteningly, although often wonderfully, beholden to moods. Intensely emotional as a child, mercurial as a young girl, first severely depressed as an adolescent, and then unrelentingly caught up in the cycles of manic-depressive illness by the time I began my professional life, I became, both by necessity and intellectual inclination, a student of moods. It has been the only way I know to understand, indeed to accept, the illness I have; it has also been the only way I know to try and make a difference in the lives of others who also suffer from mood disorders.”

This book immerses you for a while in what it is truly like to live with bipolar disorder (which, as she has stated in the book and in the lecture of hers that I attended, she feels should still be called manic-depression) and the struggles that it entails. It leads you on a journey from her early childhood to present day (circa 1995) and details the trials and tribulations therein. It is passionate, engaging, and a wonderful story of hope and success.  

As a side note: I was lucky enough to meet the author at a seminar put on by at the University of Michigan’s Prechter Bipolar Institute a few years ago, and I made the remark on how influential the book was for me as I was getting my dog-eared and much-loved copy autographed. She commented that it surprised her how often people said that and what a critical difference her opening up about her illness had made. No matter how far I go in life, this is one read that will stay with me. I hope you like it and find it as enlightening as I did.

Marisa (rhymes with Theresa) is a research lab manager at the University of Michigan. In her free time, she can be found studying languages, traveling, playing Dungeons & Dragons, judging and attending model horse shows, and spending time with her amazing and supportive boyfriend.

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