February 18, 2016

By Ken Duckworth, M.D.

van-gogh.jpgKay Jamison a rock star in the mental health world. She may not have the same name recognition outside her area of expertise as Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen, but her work on bipolar disorder has helped change the way the world has come to view mental health. Often drawing on her own experience with bipolar disorder, Jamison has published over one hundred academic articles and written a New York Times bestselling memoir. She is also the author of Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which discusses how bipolar disorder can often be found in artistic individuals. A new film has just been released that borrows the title of her book. I had the opportunity to get the background story of her book Touched with Fire and how she felt about the new movie.

KD: I recently watched the movie inspired by your book. I felt that the characters and director really showcased what it’s like to live with a mood disorder. Do you agree?

KJ: Yes. The portrayals of the characters were quite real and sympathetic. The two main characters are intelligent, they have limitations and they want to love. The families are clearly kind and caring people who are just trying to learn. The filmmakers also got the point across that they keep learning as they go along, there are no short cuts. They didn’t demonize the treaters either, which is a common problem in films about mental health. The scene where the leads are under blankets undergoing a depressive cycle captured that state very well.

KD: One of the characters says he wants to be manic, which is something patients have said to me before. Can you comment on that?

KJ: Well, being manic can feel like it’s as good as it gets—ideas flow faster, invincible moods—but its unstable, it doesn’t last. But that feeling is addictive, and in some regard, so is mania. You can get addicted to your brain in that state. The film accurately conveys that you have to give up something when you give up manic states, just like an addiction.

KD: What was it like to be in the movie?

KJ: The director Paul Dalio just asked me to have a conversation, which was unscripted and casual. I felt like Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby really understood their characters and their mood states. They were great to work with. I really encourage NAMI members to see the film.

KD: What led you to write the book Touched with Fire?

KJ: I was always interested in this area—the states of normal and pathological states and imagination and creativity. I had my first experience of deep depression in high school, and I wondered about this connection more. My English teacher must have known something was happening for me, as he gave me poetry and said you might like these. They were books by Robert Lowell, which spoke to my heart and soul.

I later read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, which gave me more insight into how fiery and feverish moods can produce incredible creativity.

KD: You are a remarkably successful public figure living with bipolar disorder and a great inspiration to many. What was your process of coming out as living with bipolar disorder in the academic world?

KJ: It took me a long time. I felt more like a hypocrite over time talking with people who had mood disorders. I realized I that I had an obligation. If a professor at Johns Hopkins cannot come out, who can be expected to? My late husband Richard Jed Wyatt, who was a leader at NIMH, was very supportive of this, even though we both knew it could be embarrassing.

KD: What was the reaction like when you revealed your condition?

KJ: The most common response was overwhelming support. I did get some sharp criticism—along the lines of this is private don’t discuss it—and worse. Also people who cared about me were protective, for example my mother and brother felt like I was taking an unnecessary risk with my mental health and my job. They were just concerned about me, but now they see that it’s OK. Interestingly, medical professionals were very supportive—they framed it as a medical problem like diabetes. It seemed more ordinary to many of them. I found that refreshing.

KD: Do you think attitudes are getting better over time?

KJ: When I speak to students at college campuses, I see they have more access to information, they know more about where to go for help and they are more open. I see that as progress.

KD: Can you tell me about your relationship with NAMI?

KJ: NAMI members are the ultimate badgers who never give up. They are a truly resilient group. NAMI’s legislative outcomes have been profound to reduce discrimination. We need more of that and better science to truly change attitudes.

KD. You mentioned you are sending another book off to your editor. May I ask what it is?

KJ: It is a book about Robert Lowell and his incredible story of courage. He faced powerful mood states of both mania and depression. Imagine getting removed from your class at Harvard and having to keep coming back. The bravery that that it takes to re-enter your life after a manic state is remarkable.

KD: We hope you can come join us at the NAMI National Convention. We’d love to spend more time with you. 

KJ: I’d love to.

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