An Unquiet Mind

An Unquiet Mind Manic-depression and Creativity

Throughout her memoir, Jamison references famous authors and poets who also suffered from manic-depressive illness. She often discusses the connection between the illness and heightened levels of creativity in her memoir, but she discusses it extensively in Touched with Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. This book is considered the definitive work on the link between creativity and mood disorders and chronicles the connection both through her studies as a clinical psychologist and by discussing famous manic-depressives including William James, Robert Lowell, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Jamison mentions her love of William James' work twice in her memoir. She came upon the author in her undergraduate years. It was under James' influence in part that she decided to study for a Ph.D. James was an American philosopher and psychologist. He led the philosophical movement known as pragmatism, and founded the school of psychology known as functionalism.

Another manic-depressive writer that Jamison references often is Robert Lowell. Robert Lowell was an American poet known for his poetic range. Throughout her memoir, Jamison recalls certain lines from Lowell’s work in order to make sense of an emotionally complex situation. For example, it is partly under his guidance that she decides to publish this book and be publicly honest about her illness: “I find myself somewhat inevitably taking a certain solace in Robert Lowell’s essential question, Yet why not say what happened?” (8). Lowell offered Jamison wisdom for a life with manic-depression, as is demonstrated when Jamison learns that just because manic-depression has been a trial in her life, she isn’t protected from other hardships: “Robert Lowell, often crazy but rarely stupid, knew better than to assume a straight shot at happiness: If we see a light at the end of the tunnel, he said, it’s the light of an oncoming train.” (139)

In the height of Jamison’s most severe manic episode, she makes thirty to forty photocopies of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, which she distributes to everyone she can. The poem, “Renascence,” describes a girl going through a cycle of madness much like the one Jamison is about to depart on: “It started with normal perceptions of the world… and the continued through ecstatic and visionary states to unremitting despair and, finally, reemergence into the normal world, but with heightened awareness” (72), Jamison notes that Millay was nineteen years old when she wrote the poem, and “she later survived several breakdowns and hospitalizations” (72).

Many mental health professionals critique Jamison’s romanticization of the illness in this way. While critics of Jamison’s work might have a point, it is important to remember that those without manic-depression will never be able to experience the unique positive factors of the disease. To understand manic-depression is to accept that it cannot be so easily vilified. The fact of the advantages gained through the disease is part of what makes it such a complex illness to treat. But just because something is dangerous does not mean that it cannot be understood holistically, in all its complexity. Jamison eventually learns that sacrificing the positive aspects of the disease is the only decision she can make in order to help herself out of sickness, and she expects that readers with manic-depression would do the same.