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 on related lives. 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 in order to focus on analyzing research data she was preparing for a publication deadline. She needed to gain control over her irrational distorted thoughts.

Her words describing this 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, a subject for another day.

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 Note: the commentary above was posted once before, several years ago. It recently came back to mind when a young man of my distant extended family began to display extreme and very troubling behaviors, refusing appropriate medication and treatment. The rippling effect of his mental illness on family members close to him are intense. I decided it is timely to describe my own questioning process when faced with anxiety or mild depression and wide awake at 3:00am.

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

——-   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 by my reading and 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.

 A further note: The Hamilton County Public Library (and no doubt other libraries around the country) offers free access to many Great Courses audiotapes, including one on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.