An Unquiet Mind

Can simply reading another’s personal history significantly impact our own?

Kay Redfield Jamison’s book An Unquiet Mind was given to me by a friend when I confided that a member of my extended family was exhibiting extreme behaviors. I’d begun to wonder whether I was witnessing the normal range of craziness that accompanies the breakup of a marriage, or a serious mood disorder, perhaps of long standing.

Jamison, a psychologist on the faculty of Johns Hopkins Medical School, is an expert on manic-depressive illness. The remarkable twist in her story is that she has suffered with this disorder since her late teens, though not diagnosed or treated for many years thereafter.

Publication of this revealing memoir in 1995, was made by a woman who had previously gone to great lengths to conceal her condition, knowing exposure would likely sidetrack her career. Then, at some considerable cost, she surrendered her privacy. Although “outing” herself was less risky than it might have been, as she was by then a tenured professor, writing about being psychotic and delusional did cause some of her colleagues, although generally supportive, to treat her differently, question her motivation and objectivity. But not for long.

Her book, expected to draw a limited audience, remained on bestseller lists for five months and soon sold over 400,000 copies, proving what great hunger there is for understanding when a loved one goes off the rails, and the ripple effect of mental illness. Others sought insight to their own troubling behaviors.

Jamison describes a time when although medicated, she was within the throes of the dreadful agitation of a manic state. Her work required she back away from these feelings to focus on analyzing research data she was preparing for a publication deadline. She needed to gain control over her irrational distorted thoughts.

These words describing her effort had special meaning for me: “Much as I had done when frightened or upset as a child, I found that asking questions, tracking down answers as best I could, and then asking yet more questions was the best way to provide a distance from anxiety and a framework for understanding.”

Jamison’s method can be a prescription for us all. Even those spared the devastation of mental illness fall into periods of mild or moderate depression and anxiety. For me too, asking myself the right questions, and in this way becoming more self-aware, allays anxiety.

At this advanced stage of life, I’ve figured out which questions to ask, to manage those emotions which otherwise sweep away rational thought, when faced with anxiety or mild depression and awake and unable to regain sleep at 3:00am.

I take paper and pen in hand and write down the following questions and the answers that flow:

  • What are the recent troubling events now on my mind? (i.e. report of an adult child’s illness, rejection of a friendly overture, a professional misstep).
  • What emotions have been triggered (i.e. anxiety, sadness, anger, shame).
  • What thoughts about my life are generated by those events and emotions? (i.e. I’m helpless, unloved, irresponsible, unworthy)
  • In what way are these thoughts irrational or distorted (i.e. all or nothing reasoning, predicting the future without sufficient evidence, plagued by old scripts of “shoulds” and “oughts”), categories so well explained and defined for me after a thoughtful therapist suggested I read and become well versed in the study of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
  • What rational thoughts could replace those that are distorted and generate my anxiety or mild depression? (If having difficulty at this stage, I ask myself this question: if a dear friend brought this narrative to my door, what advice would I offer…..the ideas then flow.)

Then, my writings are set aside for review in the morning, and with thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison and CBT, I go back to sleep.


10 thoughts on “An Unquiet Mind

  1. Am in Vilnius now and will read your post tomorrow, while in transit home.

    Stay well!

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Hi Bea: Your post calls to mind the practice of “expressive writing”; the act of writing about thoughts and feelings that arise from a stressful experience may help reduce anxiety. Here is a link to a Harvard Health Publishing article on this topic: Perhaps we mediators should consider asking distressed parties to “write about how you are feeling”, instead of just asking parties to talk about their feelings…….

    1. Cathie, thank you for providing this link, and your interesting proposal. I am sure other mediators will be reading your comment and will follow up.

  3. Another winner! Thanks for sharing it.

    About to board plane for Helsinki, intermediate stop… Hope you’re sleeping well NOW!

    Sent from my iPad

  4. Thank you Bea – great thoughts and I am sending that book to my granddaughter who has anxiety and depression.


  5. I am enjoying your blog. You are wise and calm in a way I can only aspire to be. I just read An Unquiet Mind after reading your recent post. The book gave me a better perspective on interacting with others

    1. Judge, who I used to know as Kathy so many years ago, how pleased I am to receive this message. Your reputation in Clermont County is so fine.You are always spoken of with great respect. That comes as no surprise to me. After the death of my husband, I read Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, written about ten yers ago after the death of her husband of twenty years. It too is a wonderful story, of their amrriage and her living with and growing through grief. Quite beautiful. Thank you so much for your generous comment. Bea

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