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Narrative: Kay Redfield Jamison - An Unquiet Mind - A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Kay Redfield Jamison has written a number of books that explore the ravages of mental illness. I found her book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness to not only reveal a courageous insight into her personal battle with manic depression, but also her own life as hero's journey. The first sentence in the book sets the stage for what becomes an amazing and compelling story of learning admist life-threatening circumstances...

Yet why not say what happened?

Within a month of signing my appointment papers to become assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, I was well on my way to madness; it was 1974, and I was twenty-eight years old.
- An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Dr. Jamison's lifelong learning was inspired by what she refers to as "a fascinating, albeit deadly, enemy and companion." Today we refer to this type of illness as bipolar disorder, a complicated and pervasive attack on an individual's mind, body and spirit. This attack can not only completely undermine a person's quality of life, but can also lead directly to suicide.

In Death and Lifelong Learning I briefly probed into the idea that: "If we are to promote lifelong learning, then the inevitability of death and dying need to be a primary consideration in learning." In the story told by Dr. Jamison the possibility of death and dying by suicide was her primary consideration for survival. What emerges in her words is an incredible sense of resilience - a quality that I believe is critical to learning in the confluence of everyday life.

Hospitals and professional organizations need to acknowledge the extent to which untreated doctors, nurses, and psychologists present risks to patients they treat.
- An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

To be a professional psychiatrist and yet to have the immense courage to publically reveal serious personal psychiatric problems clearly places us in the presence of heroism.

One is what one is, and the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner and collection of words, is still exactly that: dishonest. Necessary, perhaps, but dishonest.
- An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

It is a great loss to spend a life in hiding, or protecting a fragile facade that is, in a sense, dishonest. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this is not a sense of dishonesty being projected outward, but being dishonest with oneself. All too often, I suspect, we hear about the ravages of mental illness in the context of medicine. This is not to say that medications are a problem and as clearly pointed out by Dr. Jamison it was lithium that played an important role in her survival. At the same time, mental illness creates a total surround in a person's life in which all personal experiences are constantly and mercilessly filtered through it. Mental means it affects the mind or quite literally the way in which the brain works, but it also has a dramatic impact on the rest of the body and an even more mercurial but potent attack on the spirit.

I have no idea how I managed to pass as normal in school, except that other people are generally caught up in their own lives and seldom notice despair in others if those despairing make an effort to disguide the pain. I had made not just an effort, but an enormous effort not the be noticed. I knew something was dreadfully wrong, but I had no idea what, and I had been brought up to believe that you kept your problems to yourself.
- An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

At this point in her struggle, Dr. Jamison literally wished to die. This will to death, or contemplation of suicide, was a means to end the pain flowing through her mind, body and spirit. Joseph Campbell has aptly said,

It’s important to live life with the experience, and therefore the knowledge, of its mystery and your own mystery… The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.
- The Power of Myth

Dr. Jamison clearly had a rare form of courage to face her own mystery and said yes to her adventure (perhaps horror is a better word than adventure in this case). And she speaks about learning in a manner that elevates the idea to a much higher plane of thought:

My temperament, moods and illness clearly, and deeply, affected the relationships I had with others in the fabric of my work. But my moods were themselves powerfully shaped by the same relationships and work. The challenge was in learning to understand the complexity of this mutual beholdenness and in learning to distinguish the role of lithium, will and insight in getting well and leading a meaningful life.
- An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

This single paragraph completely reveals the incredible depths of triviality and shallowness that the word learning suffers from under the guise of education and training. The power of learning communicated through Dr. Jamison's self-portrait makes commercialized and politicized notions of lifelong learning pale in comparison.

I have, in my psychotic, seizurelike attacks - my black, agitated manias - destroyed things I cherish, pushed to the utter edge people I love, and survived to think I could never recover from the shame. I have been physically restrained by terrible, brute force; kicked and pushed to the floor; thrown on my stomach with my hands pinned to my back; and heavily medicated against my will.

I do not know how I have recovered from having done the things that necessitated such actions, any more than I know why my relationships with friends and lovers have survived the grinding wear and tear of such dark, fierce, and damaging energy.
- An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

There is an authenticity to her writing that is very striking. The entire book creates the feeling that we are in the presence of immense courage - and we are. In The Experience Designer I promoted the idea that "the pursuit of information and knowledge in the absence of authentic narrative is a powerful strategy for the mastery of ignorance." For me, at least, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness is a very clear reminder that our identity, our understanding of who we are and why we are here admist the circumstances and situations we each find ourselves in, lies at the nucleus of what learning means.

If we are to seek authenticity in our lives, then Kay Redfield Jamison's story is a primary example of precisely how that can be done in one particular set of circumstances. She reminds us that much of learning, as much as we would like to believe otherwise, lies beyond our control and that resilience is both a critical and creative capacity that needs to be fostered in everyone. Just as important, she reminds us that learning cannot and should not be reduced or subversed by commonplace notions of education and training. This is not to say, of course, that education and training, and their offspring - curriculum, instruction and evaluation, are in themselves a problem, but it is to say that they are both something decidedly less than learning itself. If we seek to embrace learning within these systems, then it is clear these systems are simply not vibrant or open enough to welcome it.

Dr. Jamison enbraced a deadly and misunderstood disease called manic-depression. Through her ability to embrace the inevitable veil of tears and say a hearty yes to her adventure she fought a desperate and life-threatening battle for her own identity:

So why would I want anything to do with this illness? Because 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 loved more; laughed more often for having cried more; appreciated more the springs, for all the winters; worn death "as close as dunagarees," - appreciated it - and life - more; seen the finest and the most terrible in people, and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty, and seeing things through.
- An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

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