Fighting a Beast
One would be hard-pressed to find a more incisive candid autobiography of mental illness than Kay Redfield Jamison’s book An Unquiet Mind. The author is a professor of psychiatry who tells the story of her unending battle with the “beast” that is bipolar disorder.
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Jamison opens the book with a metaphor for her illness: an airplane overcoming the pull of gravity in order to disappear into the endless serenity of the sky. In a similar vein, her struggle against bipolar disorder can be described as a defiant fight against the suffocating obstruction of a glass jar that prevents her from enjoying a beautiful and fully functional life. The beast of manic depression living within the professor is a duplicitous creature whose cravings result in the bifurcation of the woman’s moods and actions, thereby pushing her to either the farthest extremes of sexual energy or to complete withdrawal from society.
Even though Jamison’s soul-wrenching swings between the glorious highs of productivity and the dreadful lows of depression severely disrupted her youthful years, the neurochemical dysfunction has proven less daunting in the face of the light exuded by her husband, Alain. As the writer grows in her understanding of the intellectual steadiness provided by her husband, her irrational fears give way to energy and enthusiasm. By turning to the light, Jamison manages to escape the strangulating hold of the beast; nonetheless, however, she needs to rely on medication in order to control her psychotic episodes. The evocative and poignant chronicle of the writer’s illness suggests that even though it is not possible to completely overcome bipolar disorder, one can learn how to make the rollercoaster ride of extreme, mercurial moods more bearable, thereby opening oneself to the wonderful gifts that life has to offer.
How Does Mental Illness Define a Person?
William Styron’s Darkness Visible Monday Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind are both books that allow their readers to experience the horrific stages of their characters’ undoing and shame management, as seen through the eyes of people struggling to take hold of the shadows of their sanity. These two autobiographies of mental illness outline the contours of personal anguish in such exquisite detail that, at times, they are hardly distinguishable from the quasi-mechanistic case studies of mental illnesses that one would expect to find in psychiatric research reports. Nonetheless, these intense and poignant chronicles of madness are filled with the passionate language of desire as well as the elements of classical comedy. By infusing their writings with the Edenic bliss and tortuous anguish of bipolar disorder, as well as the endless cycles of mental suffering caused by depression, the authors turn their books into acts of tragicomedy that can be appreciated by both mental health professionals and those who are interested in the impact of mental illness on the human mind. Similar to slave narratives, these incisive accounts of grave mental illnesses pit the personal experiences of suffering individuals against the oppressive nature of social structures.
The aim of this paper is to explore how mental illness defines a person. The paper will analyze Styron’s Darkness Visible and Jamison’s An Unquiet Mindin order to better understand how afflicted individuals construct a sense of self within the illness.
Before starting the exploration of the dark palette of mental illness, it is first necessary to mention that the writers do not have trouble establishing themselves as trustworthy narrators. Even though Styron, unlike Jamison, lacks professorial credentials to add to his case, his unwaveringly honest account of severe depression is presented and organized in such a manner that it can be read by professional audiences.
An Unquiet Mind tells the story of a young woman who slowly comes to realize that bipolar disorder is a deadly beast. The story takes place in Washington D.C., where an intensely emotional Kay Redfield gets touched by the burning fire of this illness in her later teen years. A witty and enormously expansive girl, she falls into the abyss of rage and despair for the first time and discovers that she has inherited her father’s temperament along with the mercurial moods that are characteristic of manic depression. The first severe attack of the illness completely shatters the girl’s self-concept. Not only do her attitudes, feelings, and evaluations of herself—which took from over seventeen years of building complex interpersonal relationships with her peers and parents—undergo reorganization, but her perception of her own brain does as well. Jamison realizes that prior to the onset of the illness, she had thought of her mind as the best friend she had ever had. The girl viewed the intellectual space of her head as a safe haven to enter when the external environment became too boring or painful; however, the loss of control over her own mind revealed that an emotional and psychological disturbance could make it impossible to find refuge there as she did before.
The torment of Jamison’s state becomes even more evident when the girl makes a suicide attempt. The intent to die convinces Jamison that she is no longer able to handle her own problems and that a painful dichotomy between the manic and depressive phases could replace everything she holds dear; therefore, she is forced to take lithium in an attempt to treat the disease.
It is clear that the writer’s desire to keep her bipolar disorder secret stems from the endorsement of stigmatizing ideas that associate psychiatric disability with stereotypes that include, but are not limited to, dangerousness, incompetence, and irresponsibility. Unfortunately, the public is still prejudiced against people with mental disorders, which is quickly learned by people with aberrant cognitive responses, who then start perceiving themselves as less valuable members of society. People with mental disorders are afraid of being relegated to an inferior social standing; therefore, it is no surprise that they internalize negative ideas about their states and start self-stigmatizing.
Jamison was able to escape the deadly pull of social pressure and reject the skewed perceptions of society regarding her illness. Indeed, she learned to view her manic-depressive illness as a fascinating friend, and lifelong companionship with the illness played a key role in the woman’s identity-building process. Instead of treating her energized actions as behaviors of a deviant identity, Jamison accepted her mania as an extension of herself.
In a similar way, an astonishingly candid story of a descent into depression and a courageous fight with the illness is presented in Styron’s book Darkness Visible. The book is an autobiographical rendering of the experience of a depressed person who goes through life while being bombarded with catastrophizing thoughts. The author informs his readers that it is impossible to comprehend the depths of despair without being truly depressed.
Styron uses linguistic ammunition of the highest caliber in order to convince his audience that the demons of depressing thoughts can completely distort one’s self-labeling process, thereby making him or her extremely perceptive to any violations of the normative expectations of society. The author, who unwillingly shares the cultural perspectives of his peers, discovers that it is extremely hard to conform to general cultural themes and expectations while struggling to preserve internal coherence. Styron understands that there is something inherently malevolent about the darkness of his thoughts and that the darkness of clinical depression is so intense that it is almost palpable. Perhaps, for this reason, he encapsulates the anguish of his plunge into depression in the telling title of the book—Darkness Visible.
The vicarious experience of wearing depression-tinted lenses allows the readers of Darkness Visible to understand that Styron perceives his illness as an antagonist. The writer’s fight with the antagonist and his eventual recovery become a turning point in his identity presentation. Unlike Jamison, Styron views himself as a victim of his illness; therefore, his book is structured as a classic tragicomedy. The story is framed as the journey of a person who has completely surrendered to the forces of fate and is unwilling to take charge of his life. Styron bows to clinical depression and does not treat it as an extension of his personality as Jamison did. It is clear that the illness devoured the man’s determination, thereby making him open to the idea of a resigned surrender.
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This paper analyzed Styron’s Darkness Visible and Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and showed that afflicted individuals are driven by internal self-labeling processes and by the normative expectations of society while constructing a sense of self within the illness. The discussion of the influence of mental illness on a person suggested that individuals are affected to a great degree by changes in their psychological states introduced by both the psychophysiological and social realities of their conditions.