Health & Wellness

Mental Notes

A famous Hopkins psychologist gets personal when it comes to talking about bipolar disorder.

At first glance, the works of art in Kay Redfield Jamison’s sparsely decorated office don’t seem to have much in common. There’s a charcoal drawing of composer Gustav Mahler; a delicate print of Romantic poet Lord Byron; a black-and-white photograph of one of Jamison’s many muses, “confessional” poet Robert Lowell. But beyond their extraordinary contributions to the world of music and poetry, the thread that binds these men—and what particularly interests Jamison, the co-director of The Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center and a professor of psychiatry of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine—is their struggle with bipolar illness (also known as manic-depression), a mood disorder characterized by episodes of severe depression and mania.

Although this enigmatic illness (suffered by more than 10 million people in the United States alone, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness) was first classified dating back to the time of Hippocrates, it has lately found its way into the mainstream, thanks to the success of the feature film Silver Linings Playbook and Showtime’s wildly popular Homeland, whose producer once contacted Jamison to advise on an episode.

Of course, to Jamison, the disease is nothing new: She is one of the most widely regarded experts on mood disorders in the world and has spent the greater part of her 66 years not only studying bipolar illness, but living it. After years as a clinical psychologist first at UCLA and then at Johns Hopkins, she “outed” herself in her 1995 bestselling memoir An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.

“There were many concerns in writing the book,” admits Jamison, who gave up her clinical practice after An Unquiet Mind came out, but continues to teach Hopkins medical students and residents. She feared that she might lose her license. (She didn’t.) And beyond that, there was a fear of “how one’s work would be perceived once you have this diagnosis on your forehead. . . . it’s very easy to be defined by that.”

There were more personal concerns as well. “In my own WASP military family, you didn’t talk about mental illness,” says Jamison, with a smile. “You are brought up to be private. The first time I got up and spoke publically about this, all I could think about was my grandmother and her white gloves and her hat and her D.A.R. meetings, and what on earth she would be thinking?”

Even in Hopkins’s hallowed halls, Jamison is considered a luminary—known for her ability to offer acute insight on the disease as clinician and patient, as well as for her eloquent writings on mood disorders (among them: the bestselling Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, Exuberance, and a 1,262-page tome that is considered the definitive textbook on bipolar disorder).

Associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine Thomas Styron, whose father, the late literary titan William Styron, was a close friend of Jamison’s, has high praise for her.

“She is an absolute giant in the field of psychiatry as someone who has been able to combine top-notch academic work with this incredible personal story, which has been such a huge service to people who suffer from mental illness,” he says.

Her students are starry-eyed, too. “When medical residents come to look at Hopkins, they say, ‘If I’m here, do I actually get to work with Dr. Jamison?'” says Dr. Karen Swartz, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Hopkins. “Ray DePaulo [co-director of the Mood Disorders Center] once said, ‘She may be the most famous person with bipolar disorder in the world.'”

She lives the more low-key life of a scholar, though, as she shuttles between the charming circa-1800’s renovated barn in Sparks she shares with her husband, Hopkins cardiologist and professor of medicine Thomas Traill, and their stately 1920s home in Washington, D.C., where Jamison spends most of her time immersed in the life of Lowell, who is the subject of her next book.

“He’s someone I read after my first breakdown when I was 17,” says Jamison, who obtained access to Lowell’s hospital records to write her book. “He has just stuck with me. I am writing about him because I admire him as an artist and a great, great original poet. He was hospitalized 20 times for mania, but he had depressions after each one of them. He was a remarkable man; a remarkable human being.”

Jamison’s husband can’t help but to gush a bit when he discusses his wife’s work. “She’s a major-league scientist,” weighs in Traill, who laughs that their obvious mutual affection for each other can be “nauseating.” “You have to set that against the fact that not only is she someone who wrote a memoir, but she’s also passionate about language and writing. These books come from a prodigious love of words and literature and serious, worked-over writing.”

Given her long list of accolades, it would be easy to assume that Jamison’s disease has scarcely hindered her. But Jamison’s accomplishments—from earning the MacArthur Award to an honorary degree from Brown University to being named Time magazine’s “Hero of Medicine” in 1997—are not the whole story, she is quick to point out.

“My life isn’t my C.V.,” says Jamison. “My professional accomplishments mean a huge amount to me, but it’s scarcely the only thing in my life. There are years lost to pain. When I would stop my medication, I would stop living. I would get manic and then depressed—I wouldn’t wish a day of that on anyone.”

As the youngest child of three, Jamison spent most of her formative years around Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., where her father, Marshall, was a meteorologist and pilot. “I had a great childhood,” she says. “I couldn’t have been any happier. My father was in love with life and with ideas. My mother was the best mother—if you had to put together a mother, you would say, ‘This was God on a good day.'”

Early on, a young Kay showed a passion for science, receiving her first copy of Gray’s Anatomy at 12 and touring St. Elizabeth’s, the federal psychiatric hospital, when she was 15. (“I found it fascinating and horrifying,” she recalls.) “I knew I wanted a life in science because the questions were always interesting to me.”

By age 17, while a senior in high school, Jamison experienced her first manic-depressive episode. “I wasn’t sleeping very much,” she recalls. “I was full of what I thought were fabulous ideas, which, in fact, were pretty terrible ones and, at the time, as with a lot of people who get manic, I didn’t see it as anything strange—it was pretty much an extension of my natural personality. Life was just too wonderful.”

Until it wasn’t. “At some point, I crashed,” she says. “I could scarcely get out of bed. I had never thought about suicide in my life, and I started thinking about ways to kill myself.”

In the ensuing decade, Jamison managed to convince herself that her violent mood swings were merely an extension of her passionate personality. It wasn’t until Jamison was already an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA in 1974, a full decade later, that it became clear to her that she needed help.

“I [had gone] floridly, psychotically manic,” recalls Jamison who, among other things, went on a wild shopping spree at the height of her mania and purchased a stuffed fox from a taxidermist in Virginia. “Buying that fox was absolutely characteristic of being manic. I knew I needed it; I couldn’t wait, and it took on a cosmic significance for me.”

By the time the fox arrived at her office, Jamison had long forgotten about her purchase. “I was sitting in my clinic one day, and there were lots of patients in the waiting room, and one of the secretaries said, ‘Dr. Jamison, there’s a big shipping crate out here,’ and it was this fox, which I had somehow felt the need to fly first class. It was just completely ridiculous,” she says, now able to laugh at the memory.

She began treatment with “a tremendously good psychiatrist,” she says. But even with excellent care, Jamison attempted suicide in 1976 after going off of her lithium, a mood stabilizer often used to control mania. “I think about it all the time,” she says quietly. “I think about the people who haven’t survived.”

Having been to the brink and back, these days, she has made it her mission to advocate and educate, particularly on college campuses across the country.

“The major age of onset for mood disorders is late teens, early 20s,” says Jamison, who also sits on the advisory board of the National Network of Depression Centers, a mental-health network working to transform the field of depressive illness and related mood disorders. “It’s a hard disease, but it’s a common disease. People consistently underestimate how serious these illnesses are. They also don’t understand how treatable they are.”

While Jamison chose to come clean, she advises others to think it through before coming forward. “You don’t know what the consequences are going to be,” she says. “In many instances, people find it has a freeing effect, but you don’t know how people are going to take it. I’ve had incredible support from my colleagues and friends, but there were also people who have said wicked things—there’s a lot of animosity out there. It’s not simple; it’s not straightforward.”

And yet, thanks to her breaking the silence, she is widely credited with helping to lift the stigma often associated with mental illness. “That she has been so accomplished has got to challenge people’s assumptions about bipolar disorder,” says Karen Swartz.

Despite her severe illness, Jamison is undaunted. “I’ve had a great life and would have no cause to complain at all,” says Jamison. “One of the things my mother believed is that you absolutely have to play the hand you’ve been dealt and not sit around wishing your cards were different. In life, you are dealt high cards and low cards, but it’s really about how you put them on the table and use them to help other people.”