Grief and Mood Disorders: My Interview with Kay Redfield Jamison

Merely Me Health Guide
  • (Author Kay Redfield Jamison)

     

    When I was asked to speak with author and advocate, Kay Jamison about her new book, "Nothing was the Same" I was especially honored and humbled.  This is a woman who wrote the highly acclaimed, "An Unquiet Mind" which gave the world a flesh and blood account of what it is like to have Bipolar Disorder.  During my most troubled times I would scour the library to search for anything which could provide insight into my own turbulent moods.  I was frequently led to Jamison's books.   I would read sections of her books while pacing up and down the library aisles, digesting her words for emotional sustenance.    Just as Jamison gave a voice to Bipolar Disorder with "An Unquiet Mind," she gives a voice to those who experience the grief of losing a loved one with "Nothing was the Same."  Jamison, in what she describes as "the best book she has ever written" shares her story of what it was like to lose her husband and best friend, Richard Wyatt, after spending nearly twenty years together. Jamison wants us to know that this is not an academic or clinical book about grief despite the fact that she is a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  She tells us, "This is a love story."

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    Anyone who wishes to understand grief from the personal perspective of someone who also battles a mood disorder will find much inspiration from Jamison's story.  The topic of grief can be a mystery to many people.  I am hoping that the following interview with Kay Jamison will shed some light on the grieving process and how it can be a very different experience than a depressive episode.  


    Health Central and all the people from My Depression Connection wish to thank you, Doctor Jamison, for agreeing to grant us this interview.  I know that your insights will help those who are attempting to understand grief and/or survive it.

     
    Q and A with Kay Redfield Jamison


    What was the overriding purpose to writing your book, "Nothing was the Same?"  Was it more of a self healing measure or was it a way to educate the reader?  


    It was not for self healing.  Writing the book actually prolonged the process of grief.  This was an elegy.  It is a way to keep the memory of my husband alive.  I wanted to also explore the differences between grief and depression.


    What are those differences between grief and depression?  You say in your prologue that there is  a "sanity to grief."  Can you elaborate?


    Grief is the normal human response to the loss of emotional involvement.  This is part of the human condition.  These ancient emotions are described in literature over the ages.  Grief is a healthy process.  I am in awe of the power of grief to redefine your loss and the relationship with the person you lost.  


    One of the differences between depression and grief is time does help with grief.   Depression is unrelenting.


    Doctor Jamison has agreed to share an excerpt from "Nothing was the Same" to add both depth and detail to her answer.


  • In a chapter entitled, Mourning and Melancholia, Jamison explores both the differences and similarities in depression and grief:


    "I did not get depressed after Richard died.  Nor did I go mad. I was distraught, but it was not the desperation of clinical depression.  I was restless, but it was not the agitation of mania.  My mind was not right, but it was not deranged.  I was able to reason and to imagine that the future held better things for me than the present.  I did not think of suicide.  Yet Richard's death stirred up such a darkness in me that I was forced to examine things depression and grief hold in common and those they do not.  The differences were essential, the similarities confounding.

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    I did not, after Richard died, lose my sense of who I was as a person, or how to navigate the basics of life, as one does in depression.  I lost a man who had been the most important person in my life and around whom my future spun.  I lost many of my dreams, but not the ability to dream.  The loss of Richard was devastating, but it was not deadly."


    In your prologue you speak about a personal history, in some ways, of "avoiding love."  So was it worth the risk to allow yourself to fall in love with Richard only to lose him years later?  What would you say to others who avoid love to avoid the pain of loss?


    It is absolutely worth the risk.  Love is what life is about.  Of course it hurts.  But I wouldn't trade my relationship with my late husband for anything in the world.


    I have my own personal story to tell.  My mother and father met in a mental hospital.  My mother has schizophrenia and my father was depressed, suffered from alcohol addiction, and was suicidal.  They fell in love but my father died due to his addiction when I was but four years old, leaving my mother and me to fend for ourselves.  I can tell you that my mother never got over her grief of losing my father.  I lived in the shadow of her overwhelming grief for many years.  How does one become unstuck from grief?


    Grief can become pathological.  You want to treat the grief which is not allowing the person to keep going.  Depression from grief is quite treatable.

     
    Note:  At this point in our interview Kay Jamison became less of an interviewee and more of a mentor.  She wanted to know what supports my mother had during this time and also how I fared as a young girl dealing with grief.  Doctor Jamison also recommended a book for me to read about schizophrenia called, "The Center Cannot Hold:  My Journey through Madness" by Elyn R. Saks.


    Did you go through the textbook stages of grief?


    No, I did not go through the text book stages of grief.  I did not feel anger for example.  It is hard to work up anger for someone who has lung cancer.  Emotions come and go and not in any orderly fashion.  There are some common elements to grief such as being swept off your feet by waves of despair and longing and being knocked down flat.  Some of what is experienced depends upon the type of loss experienced.  Losing someone to suicide is a very different experience than the type of experience I had with losing Richard.  I feel lucky to have had time with him before his death.


  • What people may not know about grief is that it takes a lot longer than you think.  Some people set a time limit of six months but there is no set time for grief.  Grief is complicated and unpredictable.  

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    What helped you to go through the grieving process?


    The typical treatment for grief is time.  There are many human rituals which can aid in the process.  Some of these rituals can be found in religion.  I was struck by how much experience priests have with grief and understanding grief as a part of being human.  Even as a therapist, I did not have as full of an understanding of grief as a priest does.


    The topic of disclosure comes up a lot in your books.  Some people in your life have advised you not to disclose your mental illness.  But your husband, Richard, was one of your staunch supporters to be honest in talking about this.  How has this worked for you to disclose to the world that you have Bipolar Disorder?  Was it worth the risk?


    Disclosure was the right thing to do.  I had lots of support from my husband and from colleagues.   The last 5-10 years has been better for people to disclose mental illness.  We are much more aware of how common mental illnesses are.  It is nothing like it was decades ago.  The fact that there are web sites like Health Central gives us the power of information and support.  Advocacy groups have also helped.  Research has been critical.


    How are you doing now?  Is there hope after loss?


    I did not go out and did not date for five years.  But now I am happy and in love.  I am very happy in my new relationship.


    What is the main message that you want the reader to take away from reading your book?

    My message is that this love is remarkable.  Life is transient.  Grief is terrible but also instructive.  There is much we can learn from grief.  Grief and depression are very different and it is essential to make the distinction between them.  I hope that "Nothing was the Same" helps with this.

Published On: February 01, 2010