Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD. is a Professor of Psychiatry at the John Hopkins School of Medicine and the author of the best-selling memoir "An Unquiet Mind." In her memoir, Dr. Jamison explicitly details her personal experience of the highs, lows, and psychoses of Bipolar I Disorder. Bipolar Disorder , also known as Manic-Depressive Illness, as classified in the DSM-5, is a chronic mood disorder characterized by severe fluctuations in mood, sleep, energy and activity levels, and ability to function. A person with bipolar mood disorder alternates between depression and mania and is said to travel from one “pole” of the depression-elation continuum to the other and back again. A person with mixed episodes experiences both extremes simultaneously or in rapid sequence. These intense emotional states occur in distinct mood episodes which, depending on the severity, can reach a level of psychosis and/or delusion.
During a manic episode, an individual will experience an abnormally and persistently elevated, expansive or irritable mood, lasting at least one week. Manic symptoms include an inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, rapid speech, racing thoughts or flight of ideas, distractibility, an increase in goal-directed activity, an excessive involvement in risky behaviors. During a depressive episode, an individual will experience a markedly low mood or anhedonia, a loss of interest or pleasure, lasting at least two weeks. Depressive symptoms include feelings of worthlessness, guilt and/or shame, insomnia or hypersomnia, fatigue, diminished ability to concentrate or indecisiveness, significant weight change and recurrent suicidal ideation. Although there are four basic types of bipolar disorder, bipolar disorder-II differs from bipolar-I in which major depressive episodes alternate with hypomanic episodes rather than full manic episodes. Etiologically, many factors, such as genetics, stress and brain structure, likely act together to produce the illness or increase risk. Genetically, bipolar disorder tends to run in families. Although bipolar disorder can at any point in life, the average onset is adolescence. About 5.7 million American adults or about 2.6 percent of the population age 18 and older in any given year have bipolar disorder.
Despite the risk of personal and professional reprisals and consequences, I admire her open transparency of her personal experience with bipolar disorder that contrasts “the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree." Her confidence in sharing her story combined with the positive recognition and feedback she has received from her colleagues and academic professionals demonstrates the likelihood of professional success for aspiring and practicing health professional, despite the disadvantages bipolar disorder may cause. Most importantly, Dr. Jamison is my hero because she has given me hope. Undeterred by the prevalent stigma of mental illness in the U.S., she has inspired me to continue pursuing my goals of becoming a doctor with a strong belief that it is possible to triumph both professionally and personally.
Dr. Jamison's descriptions of her struggles with the highs and lows of this disorder are very relatable to anyone who suffers from bipolar disorder. Dr. Jamison often describes her mania as “giddy, intoxicating highs." She explained how her mind would race from subject to subject filled with exuberant cosmic thoughts that were often combined with restless, angry and agitated energy which caused her to pace back and forth like a raving lunatic. She lamented the long suicidal depressions that soon followed after her manic episodes. She captured the essence of the depressive episodes that follow mania when she stated that is almost an “arterial level of agony...unrelenting pain that affords...no respite from the cold undercurrents of thought and feeling that dominate the horribly restless nights of despair."
In light of the severity and chronicity of bipolar disorder, Dr. Jamison highlights the importance for the ongoing need of medical and psychological treatment that helps make this disorder manageable. Dr. Jamison’s memoir continues to inspire positive change and hope in others as it has in me.