The celebrated Kay Jamison - author of An Unquiet Mind and other books - was brought up to keep one’s problems to herself. Addressing an overflow crowd at the Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress in San Diego last week, she talked about what it was like to disclose her illness.
As most of us are aware, Dr Jamison was (and still is) a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins when in 1995 she went public with her memoir of madness. But the story begins earlier when she confided about her illness to the head of her department.
“I kept my fears hidden,” she related. “People I admired most adhered to these values.” But there was a catch: “My innocence decayed along with my sanity.”
She was also afraid that she would be labeled as a manic-depressive psychologist rather than a psychologist with manic-depression. “I risked newly vigilant eyes,” she said. “I would also be giving ammunition to competitors and people I had displeased.”
The head of the department reminded her of William Stewart Halsted, the legendary Johns Hopkins surgeon who was also a cocaine user. His colleagues had protected him and rallied around him. “If Hopkins can’t do that for you,” the department head told her, “it shouldn’t be in business.”
The publication of her book, preceded by a feature article in the Washington Post changed things forever. “My private life was exposed to all and sundry.”
Most of her colleagues were supportive, but some she encountered at a psychiatric meeting in Miami greeted her with an awkward silence, as if she should be embarrassed by her revelations. In any case, they took it upon themselves to be embarrassed for her.
She also received hate mail from Christian fundamentalists, one who wrote that she shouldn’t have children and bring another mental person into the world.
But the acts of cruelty, she noted, were far outweighed by warmth and support. She gives her late husband, Richard Wyatt a great deal of credit for standing by her. “It takes a lot of nerve,” she said, “to go out with a person with a track record of psychosis.”
And even more nerve to disclose such an illness to the world, one might add. In the final analysis, “it felt good to be honest. I could talk to my own madness, my own fears.”