What It Takes

A psychologist's career-altering mental illness

By Avis Thomas-Lester

Kay Redfield Jamison's "lucky, tumultuous, intense" journey has taken her from attempted suicide as a young psychology professor to the pinnacle of the medical profession as the co-director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Jamison, who's 63 and lives in Northwest Washington, is considered the nation's pre-eminent writer on manic-depressive illness -- a disease she suffers from herself. She is the winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship and the author of several acclaimed books. Her most recent book, "Nothing Was the Same," tells the story of losing her husband, renowned scientist and physician Richard Wyatt, to lung cancer.

Why she's succeeded: A no-nonsense military childhood. "My dad was in the Air Force, and I thought his friends were wonderful. They had a strong sense of duty and obligation, but there was also lots of laughter. He was pilot as well as a scientist. There is a certain solidness to that lifestyle. People aren't long on making excuses. You are expected to do your best. High school was difficult, moving from base to base. But living in different conditions in different places forced a certain amount of adaptiveness."

What she had to overcome: An intense struggle with manic-depression. "Early in my career, I had days when I couldn't get out of bed, when I wanted to die, couldn't read, couldn't concentrate." She eventually tried to kill herself at 30 by taking a massive overdose of lithium. "I'm doing well now and I have for a long time, but I study the disease, and I know the potential difficulties."

How her illness shaped her career: "Having a very bad disease made me committed to doing something about it ... People who have the disease really have a lot to deal with -- not only the devastating [effects] but the public reaction, as well."

Worst job: Working as a clerk in a Santa Monica, Calif., dress shop during high school. "People were just unbelievably rude ... I don't think I ever seriously questioned getting an education, but that experience was a very motivating factor. I knew I would ultimately have the option of not working there. The others knew they didn't have that option, and it was tough."

Smartest move: Writing "An Unquiet Mind," the 1995 bestseller that chronicled her personal struggle with manic-depression. Going public with her disease allowed her to reach out in a very personal way to other sufferers, including her father. "He was an alcoholic, had a terrible problem with moods. When I completed 'An Unquiet Mind,' I sent him the manuscript to make sure he was okay with it. He put together the pattern of his own mood swings and started treatment."

Biggest misstep: "Let me count the ways! On a personal level, for the first couple of years that I was being treated, I went on and off my meds. That almost led to my death ... And I feel, at times, I have frittered away time."

What inspires her: "I find that I come back to Robert Lowell time and time again. He's a difficult poet, but his life inspires me. He was hospitalized 20 times for mania, but he came back each time and wrote brilliantly about his experiences."

What lies ahead: Writing more books and focusing on her relationship with Tom Trail, a Hopkins medical school professor and cardiologist. "I fell in love. I'm spending as much time as I can with him."

Advice to the aspiring: Ignore arbitrary borders between intellectual and professional fields. Assume you will be criticized for independent thinking and accept it as a cost of a lively intellectual life. Follow your curiosity and passion. Seek out mentors and friends who are independent, ferociously curious and love what they do."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  December 16, 2009; 10:35 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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