Light in the Darkest of Times: An Unquiet Mind and Ideal Love

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Hey all! In light of my transfer I want to share an essay I wrote in my Honors Meaning of Madness class. I got a 100(???) on it and I think it’s relevant. Take it with a grain of salt, sometimes I write out of my ass, but maybe it’s good.

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“Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail,” said John Donne, writing on love. However, says Kay Jamison on love, “if [it] is not the cure, it certainly can act as a very strong medicine.” Some may see external love as a petty, even dangerous, distraction from the self love necessary to heal from mental illness; others see love as a paragon of health and functioning, to be sought in conjunction with, if not as the basis of, treatment. Such treatment is not singular, in that it is achieved through a formula of medication, talk therapy, and grit, among other things. Love is as good a basis of recovery as any, for it stresses compassion and vitality. With just the right recipe of self love, romance, and worldly wonder, a riveting equilibrium can be reached. Though this may be more difficult for the mentally ill, the journey to achieve it creates a very special form of self knowledge that is the basis of healing.

First, a brief summary of Kay Jamison’s experience of love in An Unquiet Mind. She at one point claims that “no amount of love can cure madness or unblacken one’s dark moods,” (Jamison 174). Yet, she spends much of the book discussing how love did exactly that. She bounces from lover to lover, each experience pristinely unique in its ability to extract a different side of her. Love was indeed something of a cure for her in her first relationship, but she rejected it and her partner, eventually separating from and divorcing the French artist with whom she could not have children. He was the stable and kind sort, but not appropriate for her at that point. I will later explore exactly why this kind of love that she had with her first husband was not quite right, and will do so for every subsequent love of her life, romantic or otherwise. Next, we met David Laurie, a British psychiatrist, and they fell madly for each other. He was ripped from her in an unexpected and fatal manner and the bliss and poetry of it all died with him. We finally met Richard Wyatt, as handsome as the previous two, who was not alike to Jamison in almost any way. He was steady, strict, and pragmatic: a safe choice. Before any of her partners, though, we were thoroughly introduced to her parents and siblings, and their own triumphs and failings. Her father loved the skies, and explored them thoroughly as a military pilot. Her mother was genteel, sociable, and “the highest card [she] was dealt” (Jamison 17). Jamison’s brother was a consistent savior in her lowest moments. Overall, her life was decorated with many loving support systems. Yet, Jamison had frequent manic and depressive episodes and attempted suicide before she ever got consistently better. It may at first seem a mystery as to how such a beloved person could suffer so much, but it’s much more commonplace than common sense might imply.

Her first marriage says about love what many of our first loves say. Love is fickle and seeks exploration and explosion, and the commitment that initially is so appealing to it fades in the face of challenge. In the case of her first husband, her challenge was her mental wellness, and her first husband was a pale color, ill suited to mixing with Jamison’s ever blackening moods. There likely wasn’t a love that Jamison could meet at that time in her life that would have lasted. While it may not be proven to be true that you must wholly love yourself to love another, it must be said of you that you have the skills to know yourself in order to know another person, and you can’t love that which you don’t know. Kay Jamison had barely started her journey through her mania and moods when she married this man. She didn’t know herself hardly at all. Perhaps, if the ultimate goal of healing is self knowledge in order to find love and live well, then self-knowledge should be viewed as “the product of an existential and affective relation between a loving self and the self [she] loves to be,” (Bransen). Knowing of the kind of person you want to be, loving the person you already are, and seeking the former while maintaining the latter, compose self knowledge. Understanding yourself and loving another are much of what can be done for the self in pursuit of mental wellness. Jamison wasn’t ready to love someone else yet, not because there was a deficiency in self love, but because of the deficiency in self understanding.

A common hindrance to love and self learning is childhood trauma. Kay Jamison was raised with great health, and this foundation created an avenue for love that was clear of such common hurdles. This is evidenced by her ability to succeed in school despite her deteriorating mental state; she made it, via high grades and deep involvement in sports and activities, to an elite university (UCLA) and persisted through several layers of higher education. Without a childhood cornerstone of success, she’d likely have crumbled under the pressure, for she wouldn’t have the remnants of that inner child to support her. Such a childhood lived on in both a literal sense of her brother and parents providing continual care, and the early childhood brain development that bolstered her just enough to keep her head above water during depressions and manias. Childhood trauma has been known to make manic-depressive illness more “frequent and severe,” and “probably affect the clinical expression of the disease in terms of suicidal behavior and age at onset, and also have an insidious influence on the affective functioning of patients between episodes,” (Etain et al.). Jamison’s loving childhood experiences softened her manic-depressive illness just enough to keep her alive and enrolled in school and teaching positions. She’s lucky, for many folks with her illness would recede from everything, lose everything, hurt themselves and others in the frenzy of their pain, and eventually kill themselves.  

David’s love was a very telling experience in Jamison’s life. It can be argued that their love was the most essential that Jamison ever experienced, far beyond her first and second husbands, beyond her family. He reminded her “how important a sense of life is to love, and love to life,” (Jamison 143). He did so directly after her suicide attempt and several manic depressive breakdowns. Love that involves someone who is mentally ill, to no fault of the mentally ill themselves, can become darkened and toxic. It is the very nature of darkness to drag others down with it, for “those who are down and out seek the same” (Perina) and things compound. Yet, no one is defined by their mental illness, which is an invasive species to the brain. Everyone has some sort of love and vigor to them, regardless of whether their moods blacken and frenzy due to circumstances beyond their control. David showed her what it meant to live fully and rigorously, and for someone who hadn’t seen that side of life in a long time, it meant the world to Jamison. The most indicative part of their relationship, though, was not strictly the relationship itself, but how Jamison dealt with the aftermath. She did not collapse or attempt suicide, rather she spent time celebrating David and the perspective he’d brought to her existence with his military brothers. David was perhaps the most important lesson Jamison described to readers; she was not really dependent on external love to survive. Instead, she had the grit within herself to keep going after immense, demoralizing tragedy. That grit came from surviving the near loss of herself, an inherently self exploratory event, but it also came from the sense of worldly wonder that had been instilled by her love with David. Their love unlocked in her the ability to know herself and her resilience, and allowed her to survive David’s death. 

Before meeting Richard Wyatt, Jamison believed that “intense and lasting love was possible only in a climate of somewhat tumultuous passions,” (Jamison 170), and I myself used to concur. It is tempting to fall victim to the idea that persistent love is a product of simply intellectual stimulation that, for those with blackened moods, can only come from others with similar bravado and brain blackening. Richard was living proof to Jamison and readers of the alternative to such a high riding life. He was “low-key” and moderate, to Jamison’s impassioned and intense. They shared many similarities, mainly intellectual in nature, but their temperaments could not have been more different. As Jamison points out, though, love is “far more complicated” than just finding parallels. Love can be so healing, and loving healing can take many forms, but a common one- one found in Jamison’s relationship with Richard- is a balancing act, one that coerces tumult and steadiness together, rather than pits them against each other. In this way, her love of Richard became a sort of glue between Jamison and the world of mental normality, in a way that her love with David did, too. 

Through her love of her first husband, David, and Richard, Kay Jamison was able to create a strong sense of self that persisted through her manias and depressions. It is through experimenting with our outside world that we get a lasting picture of who we are, and what better way to test the soul than through loving another? Though they are undoubtedly important, medicine may come and go, therapists weave in and out of your life, but you can always know what you’ve been through and what you’ve yet to conquer. Love of many sorts is a hearty solution to a very dark problem in mental illness that is often faced alone. Mental illness can, and should be, endured with an abundance of love and an ongoing development of self understanding, though those two things may not be so very different.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bransen, J. Self-Knowledge and Self-Love. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 18, 309–321 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-015-9578-4

Etain, Bruno, et al. “Beyond Genetics: Childhood Affective Trauma in Bipolar Disorder.” Bipolar Disorders, vol. 10, no. 8, 2008, pp. 867–876., doi:10.1111/j.1399-5618.2008.00635.x.

Jamison, Kay R. An Unquiet Mind. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Perina, Kaja. “Misery Loves Company.” Psychology Today, 1 Jan. 2003, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200301/misery-loves-company. 

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