Prose from Poetry Magazine

The View From Here

Wild Unrest

by Kay Redfield Jamison
I have found a kind of solace in poetry that I cannot find elsewhere. Perhaps it is because poetry so astutely conjures moods; moods, in turn, have determined so much of my life. I have had manic-depressive illness since I was seventeen; others in my family, many of my friends and colleagues, and most of my patients, have suffered from mood disorders as well. Not surprisingly, much of my scientific and clinical writing has focused on trying to understand the psychology of normal and pathological moods—especially mania, depression, and “mixed states” (psychiatric conditions characterized by the simultaneous presence of both manic and depressive symptoms)—as well as attempting to elucidate the role of temperament and intense moods in artistic and scientific creativity. a

At a personal level, I have turned time and again to poetry for comfort and understanding. As a clinician and teacher, I have used poetry to provide young doctors and graduate students with a deeper sense of the subjective experience of extreme mood states such as depression and mania. Both psychotherapists and psychopharmacologists need a more profound understanding of mood disorders than that which is presented, in staggeringly desiccated prose, in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM, which is the foundation of clinical diagnosis in psychiatry and psychology.

It is essential that diagnosis be based on objective and rigorously researched criteria, of course. No patient is well served by subjectivity alone; empathy, while critical, will not in itself heal. Incorrect medication given on the basis of incorrect diagnosis is at best ineffective, and at worst dangerous. But a deeper understanding of psychological suffering must come from the experiences of those who have been there. Clearly, the most important sources for such knowledge are the words and clinical presentation of the patients themselves. But because patients may be too ill, disjointed, mute, or inarticulate to put into words experiences that are, under the best of circumstances, exceptionally difficult to describe, poetry can be an additional and powerful way to teach doctors (and, ultimately, the patients themselves) about disorders of mood.

Madness, and the agitation associated with madness, is nearly impossible to describe to those who have not experienced it. But poets do it remarkably well. I know of no better description of mania, for example, than Robert Lowell’s pithy phrase that, when manic, one is “tireless, madly sanguine, menaced, and menacing.” Likewise, Byron’s description of madness as “a whirling gulf of phantasy and flame” rings painfully true for anyone who has lost access to reason. The violent perturbance usually present in mixed states and mania is brilliantly conveyed by poets who have known it firsthand. Thus, Poe wrote of a “fearful agitation” which, left unchecked, would drive him “hopelessly mad,” and Plath described in herself a violence as “hot as death-blood.” Byron, who knew psychological and physical restlessness well, spoke of “the mind’s canker in its savage mood,” and Tennyson, in the wake of great grief, wrote brilliantly of “the wild unrest that lives in woe.”

Depression, which is bloodlessly, if accurately, described by the DSM as, “depressed mood or the loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities,” is more humanly conveyed by William Cowper, in lines he wrote after a suicide attempt:

encompass’d with a thousand dangers,
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors,
...........................................................................
I, fed with judgment, in a fleshy tomb am
Buried above ground.

Cowper catches the horror of depression, not just its symptoms. So too does Tennyson when he writes: “When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick / And tingle; and the heart is sick, / And all the wheels of Being slow.” His portrayal of the melancholy of mourning is as clinically accurate as it is unforgettable.

Exaltation and expansiveness are hallmarks of the early stages of mania, but, as with depression, clinical texts find these psychological states difficult to convey. The great ecstatic poems of Delmore Schwartz and George Herbert, however, and those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Walt Whitman, pulse with grandiosity and vitality. It may not be actual mania when Whitman writes,

O the joy of my spirit—it is uncaged—it darts like lightning!
It is not enough to have this globe or a certain time,
I will have thousands of globes and all time.

But his poetry breathes what mania is all about.

Poets who themselves have been touched by despair or madness bring wisdom from the edge, not only to healers who would otherwise be untouched and uninformed, but to their patients who would otherwise be bereft of solace. I, like so many others who have been sick in mind, owe an inexpressible debt to poetry.
Originally Published: January 18, 2006

COMMENTS (5)

On January 5, 2007 at 12:22pm Kim Robinson wrote:
Ms. Jamison, I am overwhelmed by your superb, elequent, heartbreaking essay about depression.

"When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick / and tingl / and all of the wheels of Being slow." Tennyson-------

How beautiful,--How heart-wrenching. Anyone who has ever been depressed can feel the blood creeping, the nerves prickling, and their being slowing. The body remembers--even if the mind does not.

Yes! I agree, Ms. Jamison, I owe a dept to poetry, as well! Poetry saves lives!

On April 11, 2007 at 6:42pm Heather Hills wrote:
I agree 100% with what you wrote here. Poetry has helped me to express myself many times, and only those who experience something are really capable of expressing what it's like.

On February 7, 2008 at 3:58pm Albert Barr wrote:
unfortunately the wild unrest here worded is pure fiction; Mrs Jamison can not understand the illness of being manic or depressed; here the key word is mood; the essencial of this illness is mood disturbances; Mrs jamison suffers none because she is not able to form emotions nor process mentalizing; only people have moods; genderblind people suffer from this illness as shizophrenics;

she is not one of these and gave us realm of insights about manic depressive illness in the book with Goodwin; having so much information unfortunately she does not understand this devastating illnessd

On April 17, 2009 at 1:20pm Darrah Welfare wrote:
Although I am not bipolar, both of my sons are. As a matter of fact, my husband and the rest of his siblings share this frustrating brain disease. I have found solace in poetry. I have read everything that Ms. Jamison has written and she has helped me survive a realm of misunderstanding and loss.
These individuals have beautiful souls.
I lost my oldest son to this illness. My youngest son writes and sings. He writes poetry in his darkest moods. Those are the moods I fear; yet, so much beauty comes from his despair.

On November 23, 2009 at 3:55pm Tracey wrote:
I too suffer with these disorders and have found that while I am in this state I become quite artistic.
I commend the writing of Jamison and have learned much about this disease through her books and writing.
I never thought myself a poet or a painter but I turn to this when I am feeling bad and turns out I am good at it. I always feel good when I finish something creative. When I read my poetry or look at the art work I have done it is a reminder as to why I need to continue with my medication and therapy weather I feel good that day or not. I encourage people to find their inner artist and see what comes of it!
Traceu

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This prose originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2005

Biography

Kay Redfield Jamison is a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Her most recent book is Exuberance: The Passion for Life. She was honored with a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 2001.

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