Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir is difficult to read. It is riddled with pain and paranoia, self-doubt, and uncertainty. It begs the reader to reexamine the meaning of words like "insane" or "crazy," to challenge the stereotypes of those with psychological disorders. The writing reflects a troubled mind, revealing often shocking thoughts and strange notions about life.
But her memoir is also extremely powerful. It is an insight into the reality of the illness that is now known as Bipolar I Disorder, a window into the soul of someone who has spent a lifetime trying to understand and integrate that reality into everyday life. And it is empowering to those who live with mood disorders all over the world. Sometimes knowing that the illness can be overcome, hearing and reading about how it has been done, can be the most strengthening source of inspiration for someone fighting a similar battle.
A unique aspect of this memoir is the role of the author in the story. Jamison is at once a patient and a doctor, the healer and the healed. She is able to provide an emotional, social view of the disease, from her perspective of a patient, able to describe her inner confusion and her most personal feelings. But she also gains credibility as a professional in the field, with education and experience in the area of her own illness. Her Ph.D and tenure stature are proof of Jamison’s competence and brilliance in the domain of psychiatry and particularly, mood disorders. This dual role that Jamison assumes provides a compelling source for the testimony she delivers in her memoir. It lends a certain authority, with insight from both sides of the hospital door.
And it is while she is playing her role as a professional, attending conferences, researching, and publishing for scientific journals, that her strength of will is highlighted. It is in this dualism that the reader hears Jamison’s self-doubt and consequent self-analysis and introspection, and recognizes her courage when she is able to take a virtual step back, and reexamine her own illness through strictly scientific eyes. She explains: “having to stand back from my own feelings and past in order to write in a more cerebral, scholarly way was refreshing, and it forced me to structure and put into a more objective perspective the turmoil I have been through” (Jamison, 166). Her strength is so clear, her determination so inspirational.
But besides her strengths, Jamison also describes her weaknesses. She explains the ease with which one can be drawn towards the mania of Bipolar I Disorder. And she is painfully honest in expressing the life-long struggle of acknowledging the danger of her disorder. “The seductiveness of these unbridled and intense moods is powerful” she admits, “the ancient dialogue between reason and the senses is almost always more interestingly and passionately resolved in favor of the senses” (Jamison, 212). Her willingness to expose this weakness, this constant effort to choose to stay well, only makes her writing stronger and more convincing. It leaves room for people to be less than perfect. By admitting, she allows others to see the flaw in themselves as well.
The other aspect that pulls the reader’s attention is Jamison’s focus on the tremendous power of friendship, love, and relationships, and their importance in battling mental illnesses. “If love is not the cure, it certainly can act as a very strong medicine” (Jamison, 175). In describing her illness, Jamison shies away from detailing every doctor’s appointment, manic episode, and depressed thought. Instead she describes the different relationships she had over the years, with her parents, her friends, and her lovers. She emphasizes the importance of human relationship as a central theme in her memoir.
Perhaps the most impactful feature of this book is the very fact that it was written, further, that it was on the New York Times best-seller list for several months. There is a very blunt message sent to the world that people can live relatively "normal" lives with mental disorders, that we should accept them into society as we accept all others. The publication of this memoir urges those who suffer from psychological illnesses to achieve not despite their illness, but because of their illness, using their difficulties to climb the ladder of success. It tells them that it is safe to seek help, and to find comfort in the love of others. Such a message is a crucial one to be heard in a judgmental society like the one in which we live.
There is nothing more powerful than a first-hand account of a painful experience. It is humiliating and distressing to write. It is an indelible record of a “broken mind” and torn life (Jamison, 171). It is a testimony of human limitation and failure. But it is also a testimony of a person’s ability to overcome, to grow, reach higher than he or she ever thought possible. And that proof of life, that evidence that hardship can be used as a tool to build a stronger and more passionate reality, is an invaluable gift to be treasured by those with similar struggles.