Clinical Privileges

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

Reading Challenge: An autobiography.

When you read blurbs about this book, you read that it’s a book about manic depression (a term preferred by the author, but more commonly known these days as bipolar disorder). But that’s not strictly accurate. To be accurate, this book is about Kay Redfield Jamison, who has manic depression. There is a focus on that aspect of her life but it’s still about her, the whole person, and as with any autobiography, that’s both the strength and the weakness of what is overall a very good book.

As a newly-minted mental health professional, the biggest thing I came away with from this book was a reminder of what an enormous difference power and privilege make in outcomes of health and mental health. Yes, I know, I’m boring. But I don’t think Jamison would disagree with me. She is a psychologist, extremely successful and well-credentialed, and she and her family are financially well-off. She’s surrounded by loving and supportive people, which of course is vital to anyone and a privilege that crosses cultures, class, and continents, but these are also people who can fly across the country at the drop of a hat to support her. In the prologue, Jamison recounts an incident in which the police take notice of her wild behavior, and are apparently reassured by a flashing of professional credentials. That seems almost quaint from a 21st-century perspective (p.s. she’s white). Also quaint, maybe, definitely on the disturbing side, is the number of close friends/lovers she possesses who are able to prescribe her lithium. That both tells you how many doctors surround her and that they have no problem prescribing for friends and family, which is a little…right? Is it just me?

Jamison is highly credentialed, and she lets us know it. But I never found it gratuitous. Considering the tremendous stigma and stereotyping surrounding mental illness, it took a lot of courage for her to be open about her own struggles while also remaining on the professional side of the mental health equation. She’s a realist, too: I appreciated reading about her professional safeguards and what a strong proponent of medication she is throughout. Her descriptions of moods, mania, and all the other states of being were immediate and vital and quite beautiful. I got a strong sense of both her experience and her mixed feelings towards manic depression.

This is a very good book overall, but I thought it kind of petered out towards the end. Jamison has been supported by a great number of people throughout her life and I can understand why she would want to give credit where it is due, but the repetition of “and there was also Dr. So-and-So who is full of grace and humor and who was so very kind to me” just does not make good reading. It reminded me a little of Lit, Mary Karr’s memoir of alcoholism and religion, which went way overboard in that direction and which was a book I just plain did not like. That was at its worst. At its best, this book reminded me of Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold, which is a book everyone should read. And that, honestly, was the problem. I suspect if I’d read this one first, I would have loved it and raved about it. But I’ve read The Center Cannot Hold, and found it overall a stronger book, illuminating and honest and possibly life-changing, depending on who you are and where you’re coming from. I could not avoid the comparison, and this book had to suffer for it. Tell you what: read them both, because they’re both worth reading, and then decide for yourself.

Suggested pairing: Anything in moderation, people. Please. But she seems to be a wine drinker, and it’s warm, so maybe a nice chilled white. A dry Riesling, anyone?




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