Kay Redfield Jamison’s latest read offers a haunting yet transformative look at the depths of ‘madness’
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s new memoir “Nothing Was the Same” is a love story like no other: Two exceptional people, each doctors, each contending with a life-threatening illness.
Jamison is a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a researcher, a writer of books, a well-known authority in her field of psychology. At 17, Jamison was diagnosed with manic-depressive illness. She lived through mania, paralyzing depressions, and a mercifully failed suicide attempt; she wrote about this illness and its impact on her life in her moving memoir “An Unquiet Mind.” In her prologue to her new memoir “Nothing Was the Same” she tells us that manic depression is a kind of madness, that she was determined to “avoid perturbance” (such as falling in love). She believed she needed to “coddle” her brain and modify her life and thus her dreams. The renowned and charming scientist, Dr. Richard Wyatt fell in love with her and she with him; thus, a modified life and abandoned dreams were not in the cards for her. He became her husband and she enjoyed nearly 20 years with him until his sorrowful, inevitable death of Hodgkin’s disease.
This stunningly well-written memoir is about grief—grief and the beauty and complexity of their relationship; a relationship that was doubly fraught with the common misunderstandings of two human beings due to the debilitating and ever-threatening illnesses they each suffered. I recall one incident in particular (and there were many) that serves as a good example of what they went through: Realizing that Wyatt’s medical bag was at home instead of his office, Jamison had a premonition and looked through its contents. In the bottom of the bag, hidden in its recesses she found what she was afraid she would find: a syringe and a vial of antipsychotic medication. She was angered that he believed this was necessary.
The incident is described beautifully. The last thing Wyatt intended was to hurt her and his reaction to her distress is heartfelt and painful. It is a difficult moment for him. He is tired and sad. “Medicine is imperfect.” he tells her, quietly. “I am imperfect. You are imperfect. Love is imperfect.” His patience, kindness and wisdom in the way he deals with her erratic moods seem boundless and, in time, she changes; she learns to trust him.
This brilliant scientist and beautiful human being had the added burden of dyslexia, which required that he work four or five extra hours each day as he made his way through college, medical school, internship, residency, and his subsequent scientific career.
“Nothing Was the Same” contains the distinctive qualities that emerge from a beautifully talented writer who has the soul of a poet and the knowledge of a psychologist. Jamison writes about her grief with the clear-thinking mind of a physician and the lyrical and sensitive nature of an artist’s sensibilities. She combines a powerful love story with her intimate understanding, both private and professional, of the nature of grief.
Her grief, she tells us, plunged her into a dangerous darkness. Grief “… has its own territory .. a minute of sweetness and belief, and then the blackness comes again. … this illness will always bring me to my knees. I accumulate sorrow and grief inside, which only wait until the next time to go out again, to remind me how always tides go out once in.” Her lyrical passages are supplemented with lines by Robert Frost and other poets.
She writes of the sometimes difficult-to-distinguish differences between the closely allied emotions of depression and grief. Their emotions overlap, she tells us. They are related like cousins, yet they are distinct: “… grief,” she writes, “compelled solitude. Time alone in grief proved restorative. Time alone when depressed was dangerous. The thoughts I had of death after Richard’s death were necessary and proportionate. They were of his death, not my own. When depressed, however, it was my own death I thought about and desired. It was my own death I sought out. In grief, death occasions the pain. In depression, death is the solution to the pain.”
“Nothing Was the Same” is intense because it is personal and honest; Jamison reveals her inner life without restraint. It grabbed my attention and held my interest from the first page to the last. Although about grief and depression, I did not find it depressing. Rather, it shares a magnificent love story and is a kind of eulogy to the sacred experience of grief and depression. We are made to realize we can grow from these challenging emotions and learn from them; they are necessary. “Nothing Was the Same” is written with Dr. Jamison’s uniquely exuberant and joyful spirit. It inspired in me waves of empathy, admiration, and affection for this sensitive and superb author.