An Unquiet Mind: Why I wouldn’t recommend it

275mg – I’m too scared to touch it at this point (I will fill you in soon).

It’s always a little frightening to present a view that others are very likely to vehemently disagree with.  But what you will learn about me, if you keep on reading, is that I am incredibly opinionated. You will also learn that I am very accepting of other people’s perspectives. My opinion is based entirely on my perception of the world, by the very essence of me. So, I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, and I don’t expect to agree with everyone. I do, however, value and make a definite effort to seek others perspectives. I feel strongly that we as human beings have a responsibility to at least try and understand and appreciate where others are coming from. With that in mind, this is my opinion on Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind.  Please share yours with me in the comments.

I first read this book in 2008 when I was at my worst. Several months after my diagnosis, my therapist recommended it to me. How I actually managed to read the book, I do not know. Whether I liked it, I can’t remember. For that reason, I decided to read it again.

In short, An Unquiet Mind terrified me. It wasn’t the severity of Jamison’s episodes, the dangerousness, the drama. It was the distinct impression I got that when you have Bipolar Disorder:

You Will Never Be Normal

Your Illness is Serious



You Will Always Experience Episodes

 It Will Never End

I’m not an idiot. I know those things. But I’m not one for drama, I’m not one for running around like a headless chicken. I do on occasion catastrophise but generally only in relation to potential physical illnesses I may have (seriously, I’m a hypochondriac…in a sub-clinical sense). I tend to downplay my struggles, downplay my bipolar disorder and quite frankly, this works well for me. If I readily thought about the dangerousness of the condition, about the seriousness, and the fact my life will never be free of it, I would be one seriously unhappy, and consequently, obese woman (I eat when I’m depressed). I take Bipolar seriously, which is why I am so anal about self-care. But I’m not dramatic about it, and I struggle to identify with those who are.

When I finished the book sometime last week, I put it down and turned to my Mum who was reading on the couch opposite me. I could feel the fear on my face, and she most certainly saw it. “I’m scared” I said. “Will I ever be able to be a clinical psychologist?” She listened while I questioned my capability to live a “normal” life, to pursue my passions, my desired career, and my wish to be medication free. She replied by saying when she read it, she was pretty freaked out too.

Aside from the doom and gloom, I found it difficult to connect with Jamison. An Unquiet Mind was cold, clinical and detached. For me, a memoir is about being welcomed into the life of another. In an Unquiet Mind I felt I was always kept at arms length. I was told a story, but never included. I didn’t feel her in there. I didn’t see her in there. I saw words on a page, and a story in my mind, but not in my heart.

Maybe my difficulty in connecting with Jamison rests on the fact that her and I are very different people. Her entirely medical approach to Bipolar Disorder left a bad taste in my mouth (sort of like Quetiapine dissolving on my tongue before I’ve swallowed it – ew!), and her focus on the negative aspects of her illness weighed me down in a way depression only could.

Jamison’s narrative also raised some ethical concerns for me regarding her clinical practice. At one point she stated she crawled across her room in the mornings, and wore the same clothes to bed she had worn that day. Evidently, she was severely depressed. Ethically, I believe that in such a severe depression, one should neither be responsible for supervising other clinician’s, nor should one actually be working with clients. The best interests of the client must always be put first. If you cannot care for yourself, should you be entrusted to care for others?

I thought (mistakenly) because of Jamison’s success professionally, that hers would be a story of hope, recovery and inspiration. In reality, it seemed Jamison was intent on letting the world know just how serious Bipolar Disorder is, while down-playing the positives and successes in her life. I agree we need the world to know just how serious Bipolar is. But I wanted to know more about how she managed to get through.

I feel an unbalanced and dramatic approach is unhelpful for those who are in a fragile mental and physical state.

 I want to feel, and help others to feel hope and inspiration and a sense that in spite of all of this, life can be good. That there is hope! 

For those reasons, and the fact this book totally freaked me out, I would not recommend An Unquiet Mind to someone recently diagnosed, or to already-frightened family members. In such instances, I am concerned it would do more harm than good.


32 thoughts on “An Unquiet Mind: Why I wouldn’t recommend it

  1. I remember being told to read that very book and I have it around here somewhere.. I never finished it.. I’m not sure I remember why but I remember it was hard to read for me. That’s all I remember. Yes its all true we are stuck with this illness and it will affect our lives forever but we can be in control to a great degree and deal with life. Hope keeps you going and inspires you to touch others lives. You can develop the kindness in yourself and not live the illness. We are who we develop ourselves to be. It is important to learn about our illness so we can be who we truly are.. control what we can and Live happily! My best to you!!

    • Thanks for your comment Shauna. I agree with you entirely – it is great we are on the same wave length. I feel very strongly that hope is incredibly important, it is when we lose hope that we lose ourselves to illness. My best to you too 🙂

  2. I agree with your assessment of the book. I initially read it to find hope, but then felt hopeless afterward. I see no reason why you can’t be a successful clinician. The disorder doesn’t have to cripple us. I won’t allow it to.

    • Thanks for your comment Sheri. I know the book is very popular, and so was wondering if I were the only one who didn’t feel uplifted by it! And I am with you on not allowing it to cripple us – I won’t allow it either. That’s my normal stance. So to have a book lead me to question that was quite astonishing for me.

  3. “I feel an unbalanced and dramatic approach is unhelpful for those who are in a fragile mental and physical state.

    I want to feel, and help others to feel hope and inspiration and a sense that in spite of all of this, life can be good. That there is hope!”

    I agree with these statements completely Sara. They are what I live by, a big part of what keeps me on the road to recovery, and also what I want to bring to others. And though I have never experienced bipolar, I do have experience with mental illness that has left me with effects that I will have for the rest of my life. That is a fact but not my focus. My focus is living my life now. I have walked through the valley of the dead and have taken my life back and it is good and I am grateful.

    You are doing what you love. You are doing what makes you feel happy. Your life matters right now. You are helping people right now. You are helping me articulate my thoughts.

    Okay, maybe I got off on a tangent there. I just felt really strongly about your post. Hope I didn’t get preachy 😛

    • Hi Trish. Thanks for your comment – not at all preachy – and I am happy you felt strongly about it and were willing to share your thoughts. I love the fact that despite how severe and disabling mental illness has been for you, you have a fighting spirit, and you live your life in a way that is meaningful and has purpose. Even though it is, can and will be incredibly hard at times, I know your attitude and your mind set will enable you to live a very fulfilling and satisfying life that you are happy with. I am with you on focus on living. That is what we are here to do!

      I have not read the book you mentioned and will definitely do so. I will let you know what I think about it 🙂 I like to say I’m on the search for the perfect memoir. My favourite is by Kathryn Soper “The Year My Son & I Were Born”. It’s an incredibly sad, moving and brilliant story of how her life changed when she gave birth to a son with Down’s Syndrome. If you are into memoir’s I would highly recommend it!

  4. I forgot to ask this in my previous comment… have you ever read “Changing my Mind” by Margret Trudeau? She experiences bipolar and did so very publicly as she was married to our Prime Minister (Pierre Trudeau) when she was in the height of it and later when her son and Pierre died. Her book is about her life with bipolar and ends with her life today which is about self-care, advocacy, helping others, and almost medication free (If I recall, she takes a mild mood stabilizer).

  5. Very insightful post Sara! I am looking at the book right now. I too was re-reading it for the second time. But I have been on the same page now for months. It just sits there now in the bathroom with the page marked where I stopped. I wasn’t enjoying the experience. It’s funny, my recollection of the book from the first read was that it was great. I’ve been recommending it to newly diagnosed folks for years. But now I’m not so sure this is the best first bipolar book for them. I think I feel comfort in her focusing mostly on the negative as that is the way my depressed mind works. But you are right, the best strategy is to focus on things that bring us hope and encouragement. — Jeff

    • Thanks for your comment Jeff. Apparently (my Mum told me), I liked the book the first time. But then again, I was completely nuts at the time (haha!). My MUm also said that when she read it, she thought my life was going to be horrible from there on out. Not the best for a Mum wanting the best for her kid! Regardless, I do think there is a place for stories like An Unquiet Mind – after all, we all approach our lives and our writing differently. It does provide valuable information about Bipolar Disorder from Jamison’s perspective, although I did feel the information about her experience could be more in-depth. I am yet to read a memoir about bipolar that I love. Do you know of any?

      • I don’t know of any good memoir’s either. A quick google for bipolar+memoir turned up this: It’s a list of recommended personal memoirs with brief descriptions. Do you have any bipolar books you recommend?

        Yeah, I think I recommended Jamison’s book to my mother and perhaps sister too. I don’t recall if either read it though – maybe for the better.

      • Thanks for the list – looks like some good books to read. I have read Stephen Hinshaw’s “The Years of Silence are Past” and found it was similar to Jamison’s – i.e., very clinical, cold and detached. I think perhaps that academics spend so much time writing objectively and in a detached manner that it is difficult to move beyond that, even when conveying personal experiences.

        I am yet to come across the perfect bipolar memoir, and so cannot really make any recommendations. Honestly, I haven’t read that many about people with bipolar…I am currently rectifying that!

  6. Thanks for taking time for sharing this page, it was excellent and very informative. It’s my first time that I visit here. I found a lot of informative stuff in your article. Keep it up. Thank you.

  7. I felt the same way about this book, despite constant suggestions from my bipolar peers that it is wonderful. Honestly if the book didn’t involve bipolar disorder, I don’t believe the writing would be worthwhile to the general population. Just because it includes a subject that I’m all too familiar with doesn’t make it suddenly worthwhile to me.

    In my opinion, good books have good writing!

  8. Made me instantantly think of “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” –Mark Twain

  9. I have had depression/anxiety but have no experience of bi polar, but I thought this was a really interesting book review. In the past and in other areas of my life, being a book lover, I have clung to information I’ve read in books and kind of ignored my own gut feeling on things, and I think sometimes it is important to listen to your gut feelings and inner voice and have faith in your own abilities. One time I thought I would never get myself off Lustral/Prozac, ever, and would always be plagued by depression/anxiety, I’ve managed to prove that was wrong. It’s the same with childcare issues, sometimes I’ve listened to the “professionals” and books rather than trusting my own instincts on something. Boos like this can maybe do more harm than good.

    • Thanks for your insightful comment Sheila. I agree that blindly following what has gone before and what professionals, books and other people think is right for us is not always the best option. We cannot improve if we only do what was done before. We know ourselves, we know what we are comfortable with and and for many people it is incredibly important to listen to one’s intuition. This is a bit of a hairy topic too when it comes to mental illnesses that affect our moods, emotions, and thoughts. Sometimes it is difficult for me to determine whether my intuition is reflective of my own feelings and ideas, or more reflective of my illness. This is usually only an issue with major mood episodes, as I seem to be more able to sense my intuition with the more milder relapses.

      I think Kay Jamison’s book might be helpful for some individuals – perhaps those who refuse to accept the severity of their illness. However, I do believe that we need support, encouragement, inspiration and hope when we are at our worst, and for me, this book did not provide that.

      I do not believe in impossibilities – it sounds like you don’t either 🙂

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  11. Sara,
    I too am bipolar. In fact, I have lived with a very severe form of bipolar for around 20 years and have been thankfully stable on medications. I have to disagree with you and many of the posts here though. In the United States Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison is one of the leading figures on bipolar disorder not only because of her personal experience with it, but because of her extensive research in the field.
    It is quite clear that your opinions are based largely on judgement that not everyone shares. I for one (and I happen to know a lot of people who share my opinion) that Dr. Jamison’s book, An Unquiet Mind is an extremely inspiring memoir into how hard she worked to manage her illness and become successful. The is no drama in it, as you claim. Dr. Jamison does, in fact, have a very severe case of bipolar disorder which she treats with Lithium. In case you are not aware, medications like Lithium and Depakote are usually the first line treatments in more severe cases.
    You cited examples from the book, in which you insinuated that Jamison slept in the same clothes that she wore during the day (hey, I have been doing this for the past few days and I have been home sick with the flu, but not depression). But, you failed to provide specific quotes to back this up
    I guess my point in writing this is: of course you are allowed to dislike the book and have your own opinions about it.
    But, please present it as a review not as a judgement on the book or the author. You go as far as to say that her work raised ethical concerns for you. Please. She is one of the leading experts in her field. Although I do not know her personally, I’m sure that during periods when she was ill she was not practicing. I’m a teacher and myself have taken short term medical leaves when I was ill.
    My suggestion–try re-reading the book again. Perhaps when you are in a more positive and accepting frame of mind. You might find as I did that the book is filled with a message of hope. Yes, it’s a very intense and raw book in that she shares literally how her mind unravels. Maybe that scared you and that’s okay. But, in the end it really shows how she works through it.

    • The review of the book is based on my opinion and I made that very clear. All reviews are based on judgments and opinions etc. I am well aware that Dr Jamison is well-respected in her field, but that doesn’t change how I felt when I read her book or the fact that IF she were to practice while unwell it would be unethical. As “insinuating”, I actually paraphrased what she said. I don’t see how quotes are necessary. It just wasn’t clear from her book whether she was or not, hence why I raised the issue. And it’s an important issue to talk about don’t you think?

      I do know what medications are used to treat severe forms of Bipolar Disorder. However, clinical practice in New Zealand is somewhat different to the USA, particularly the USA of the days when Dr Jamison was initially diagnosed.
      Lithium is not recommended as first line treatment for young women due to the difficulties in coming off Lithium and issues surrounding pregnancy, and other available options that can be tried. I’m lucky I have a decent psychiatrist (who doesn’t over medicate) and was being cared for by my parents (one of whom is a clinical psychologist) when I was diagnosed. It really bugs me when people with bipolar or any mental illness dismiss other people’s opinions and experiences because they don’t think they are ‘severe’. It’s like some morbid battle where people think they are better or more informed or know more because they believe their illness is worse. It’s really quite offensive to people who have lost years of their life to an illness.

      I think you’ve taken some of these things personally, and it’s not meant to be attack on her (or people who like the book) at all. I’m not judging her as a person. I’m just saying “I didn’t like it, here’s why,” and raising a relevant issue regarding ethics at the same time.

      I’m really pleased that you and your friends/acquaintances/whatever found the book hopeful and that you enjoyed it! That is what it was intended for, after all.

      Thanks for leaving a comment, I appreciate you taking the time to share your opinion.

  12. I completely agree! I’m a licensed therapist and my Psychiatrist recommended the book. It left me afraid for my future, rather than empowered. I also agree about the ethical decision she made to continue practicing. I admire her resilience (especially back in the day when atypicals didn’t exist) and bravery to “come out” to colleagues as well as the public but did not directly identify with her as I had expected to. I wouldn’t consider it to be harmful – although it can be a trigger for those of us (most of us?) who are sensitive about our own struggles. Thank you for your honesty!

    • Thank you 🙂 I appreciate your comment. I definitely admire her bravery and resilience as you say. It’s not something that I am comfortable doing as of yet, but the fact that she has and still has a fantastic career is definitely encouraging.

  13. I appreciate this blog post very much because frankly I’m shocked there isn’t more criticism of Dr. Jamison’s preposterous memoir on the Internet, aside from some bitter customer reviews on Amazon.

    Her complete refusal to address the role of her own psychodynamics, like her flagrant egoism, ruthless drive to succeed, and her obvious sexual issues, not to mention her obscene romanticization of bipolar illness (despite her claims she isn’t doing so) are the sorest thumbs in this bizarre book. She’s insulting and dismissive of people with anxiety disorders, considering them merely psychologically weak, but ironically she says a lot more about herself with these comments than neurotics. “My issues must be totally biological, because I’m such a strong, successful person.” Buh.

    The funny thing is, she’s very candid about her upbringing and inner life, so her psychopathology comes out on every page, so that any armchair Freud can come up with a rough sketch of her as a repressed, high-strung personality who’s forever locked in the persona of the precocious child, struggling to impress some ambivalent, phantom father figure for whom nothing is ever enough. Combine this desperation with a genetic risk for bipolar and you’re basically throwing two gallons of gasoline on an already burning fire.

    The fact that she doesn’t acknowledge this possibility really at all in the book–and even when she gets close to doing so it’s really only to dismiss the idea–is mind-boggling. She seems to use her “purely biological” illness as an excuse to avoid any kind of serious self-questioning. Needless to say, this is a terrible example to set for the large portion of her audience who are fellow bipolar sufferers.

    Did anyone else do a double-take at the part where she marries the military psychiatrist who then tragically–but seemingly for her, conveniently–dies, and the only thing she can think about at his funeral is what a good lay he was? WTF???

    I could go on…

  14. I hated that book
    It just seems to reinforce the idea my family keeps drilling into me – yoy will never get better you will forever be broken and th rest of my life will be a constant cycle of new pills when the old ones stopped working

  15. I liked the documentary by BBC health, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, by Stephen Fry. It seemed to provide a balanced view. I tried to kill myself last year.. Then spent a year covering in my parents’ house.. Returned back to normal life and I see myself going down that same road again. Scared as shit.

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  17. Respectfully, I disagree, I thought it was an excellent memoir. Yes, it was a little on the dramatic side, but I believe that Americans (forgive me if she isn’t American, I just got that distinct impression) are inclined to enjoy a bit of drama. The truth is, bipolar disorder is serious, it is life threatening, and it is cyclical. If you have a mild form of mental illness or a mental health problem that doesn’t seem to disturb your life, then it is not serious. An episode of severe mania or severe depression IS dramatic and can ruin your life – she is simply amplifying the seriousness of it because the emotional turmoil that bipolar upheaval can create is massive. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this. What I don’t fully get (and I’m not implying you’re one of these people as I haven’t read your blog and I don’t know you) is that people will insist their illness is serious and life threatening, to the point of demanding and seeking help at every available opportunity, wreaking havoc in their every day life, disturbing everyone around them, and then declaring that the illness itself is temporary and curable with a case of mind over matter. Believe me, I have been there. I have a long history of mental illness, and I tried my best to believe that mental illness was NOT an intractable problem and eating healthily/being positive/staying medication free was the way forward. IMO and from what I have seen in others with serious long term mental illness, this is not the case. It requires constant fixing, people are often in a state of relapse.. because mental illness is so inextricably tied up with personality, it fluctuates, ebbs, flows, and explodes. It is not possible to keep such a thing under perfect control. Sometimes it is useful to use tranquillisers, hospitalise people, and declare the horrors of this affliction, because it is not the common cold and it is not something you can trust to easily go away.

  18. To Whom this may concern.

    This was a Memoir, it’s her diary and way of seeing the world. There is no rules about how she has to present her issues but she choose to center it around the thing that has effected her life the most and I commend her for staying on topic. The most important aspect of the book was not how she presented herself but how she drilled the point home that yes this disorder can be dangerous and yes you do need to take your medication.

    That is how I see it, I have been fighting taking my medication for years and it’s been 2 and a half years since my last trip to the hospital as a result of yet another Manic episode. Depakote has kept me sane as long as I am taking it and there is absolutely a correlation between my stability and the medication. It wasn’t until I read this book that the thought was planted in my mind “yeah medication sucks but look how far we have come in the psycho pharmacological field and look how far Kay has come with this medications help. If she can do it then so can I.” It took me years to come to terms with the fact that I need the medication but this book was instrumental to that realization.

    That’s why the book is so highly recommended and that is why I recommend it to anyone struggling with the disorder or seeking to understand it a bit better.

  19. My feelings about the book at that it is an excellent read for folks who either have manic depression or are close to someone who does. Her method of explaining the extremes may be clinical or “dry” but that is because of both 1) who she is (a clinician with the mind of one, so capable of describing events without forcing a reader to endure their pain) and 2) she is effective at what she does: telling her life without revealing ever last thread of her soul. The book is meant to show the extremes and the method she chose to mediate them, as if to warn “Hello world” from the dark corners where bipolar/manic depression used to be kept .. and that even a brilliant soul with a great future can have a disorder that if not treated properly has outcomes to face.

    When I read it, I did feel there was a sense of hope, as if a hand was holding me while I read it saying “it’s ok, I’ve been through this too” and a sort of unspoken wish “may you have it better than this.” There is no great hymn of hope sung during it, but the comfort is that the events you read were hers and you can view those episodes without danger because of that: there is no risk to yourself to go through them with her.

    I’m fairly lucky. I didn’t fight taking my meds, even the ones that made me ill or my skin boil (for 20 years after taking it!) or had side effects I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I did my time. I had an aweful doctor and I learned from that what an awesome doctor is like. I dragged myself across the proverbial floor during college and graduate school and at times anchored myself to something heavy so I wouldn’t drift away like a kite. I learned to accept it for what it is and live both with and despite it. Wisdom comes through pain sometimes, and that’s something I had to learn and something that her book teaches too through her stories. I say I’m lucky because I haven’t needed meds for many years now, not because it was easy getting to that point. Still though, I watch and listen for it to know it were to creep back and I get help when it does and I’ve done a lot of work on my own to head off things when I feel symptoms may be coming, be prepared to act not hesitate. And I learned to live a life where a diagnosis was not the lead role.

    Let me address or redirect the listed points from the original post because I don’t see the book as doom and gloom, I view it as fact:

    You Will Never Be Normal: your history will never be like someone else’s
    Your Illness is Serious: it is, and if not treated, it can be lethal or destroy you
    Life-Threatening: mental health issues are very serious and manic
    depression/bipolar is if unchecked can take your life
    Dangerous: any fire when let loose is and if darkness overtook everything, it would
    kill us all even without a flame
    You Will Always Experience Episodes: you will always have the memories of them
    even if you’ve had your last bout
    It Will Never End: you will always be responsible for knowing if you need help and it is
    your duty to be aware when symptoms start

    I cannot tell anyone a magic key or answer. I cannot share a trick. What I can share is this: know yourself, be honest with yourself and your therapist/doctors even when you don’t want to be, trust good people not the easy ones, and always have some memory or item tied to a happy time when you loved life (use that memory when you need it!) If you’re stable enough for cognitive therapy, find a therapist/counselor who knows those techniques (those who practice NLP and hypnotherapy generally do, but I’ve not done true hypnosis and not all counselors will work with bipolar disorder patients). The hardest part though is trusting yourself enough to risk everything. Find who you are, your own normal state, and trust that you’re ok being that … learn to trust yourself to walk forward as that, despite words describing an illness or horrible things you have endured or are presently carrying. Walk forward as the person you know and are. And want to keep going forward.

    I hope you have found some of these things for yourself or a way that works for you.

    Wish I could share my name here, but not everyone is understanding.

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