When I was first diagnosed with bipolar, the portrait painted for me of my future was bleak. I was told that I would never work again as a pastor, that I would likely get divorced, and that I would spend the rest of my life in and out of mental hospitals. After sharing the bad news, the staff tried to encourage me by handing me a crayon and telling me I could draw whatever I liked.
Fortunately, my psychiatrist was more hopeful. He encouraged me to read a book that had just come out called An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. Jamison is considered by many to be the world’s leading expert on bipolar disorder. She also has the illness.
Unquiet Mind details her rise and fall and rise again. It’s not a how-to book, but a simple and profound testimony that bipolar is not a death sentence or a diagnosis that necessarily leads directly to disability. The book is vivid in its depictions of reality from a manic-depressive (the term Jamison prefers) point of view. One (somewhat lengthy) quote captures this well:
There is a particular kind of pain, elation, loneliness, and terror involved in this kind of madness. When you’re high it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars, and you follow them until you find better and brighter ones. Shyness goes, the right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt certainty. There are interests found in uninteresting people. Sensuality is pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced irresistible. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow. But, somewhere, this changes. The fast ideas are far too fast, and there are far too many; overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Memory goes. Humor and absorption on friends’ faces are replaced by fear and concern. Everything previously moving with the grain is now against– you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable, and enmeshed totally in the blackest caves of the mind. You never knew those caves were there. It will never end, for madness carves its own reality.
After reading Jamison’s inspiring story, I saw no reason why I couldn’t return to work and family life and enjoy my best years in spite of my diagnosis. For over a decade, I was able to do just this.
Jamison’s gift for encouragement has touched the lives of so many people struggling with bipolar. She has also likely contributed to the existence of future generations. She served as a consultant on the Human Genome project, advocating for the value of life even with bipolar. It is not just a genetic mutation that needs to be “therapeutically removed” from the human population. People with bipolar have served the world through artistic expression, scientific exploration, governmental leadership, and educational advancement.
As Jamison reflects on the question of whether bipolar has contributed anything positive to her life, she writes this:
I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply had more experiences, more intensely; loved more and been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs for all the winters; worn death “as close as dungarees,” appreciated it — and life, more; seen the finest and most terrible in people, and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty, and seeing things through…
Sometimes I find it difficult to separate myself from my illness. But I agree with Jamison that our unquiet minds stir us to discover more about the world and express it with greater clarity than if we were somehow cured.