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A Student of Moods--by Necessity : Books: Kay Redfield Jamison, an expert in manic depression, has firsthand experience with the disease--she's battled it for years. She details the fight in her new memoir.


WASHINGTON — She bought three wristwatches, all within an hour, and all in the Rolex category, not Timex. In one wild literary shopping spree, she scooped up 20 Penguin books, chosen not for subject matter but in hopes that the penguins might form a colony. She purchased costly jewels, impractical furniture and provocative clothes of the sort seen never before (or since) among faculty members at UCLA's department of psychiatry.

And there were the snakebite kits, an even dozen of them, the entire inventory of a pharmacy in the San Fernando Valley. Kay Redfield Jamison had inside information, direct from God, or so she believed, that an infestation of killer rattlesnakes was imminent. No one else may have known it, least of all the pharmacist who gave Jamison an indulgent smile as he filled her lithium prescription and rang up her snakebite kits, but much of Los Angeles stood to perish from the reptiles' wrath.

Jamison, then in her early 20s, was in the grip of manic depression, a disease that first surfaced in her senior year at Pacific Palisades High. The affliction put her in the company of at least 2 million Americans, one in 10 families. It also numbered her among remarkably creative individuals--Vincent Van Gogh, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Lord Byron and Virginia Woolf, to name a few.

But Jamison stands out. Researcher, teacher, clinician and author, she is internationally known as an expert in manic depression.

"I became, both by necessity and intellectual inclination, a student of moods," she writes in "An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness" (Knopf), her riveting, just-published account of a lifetime of jousting with the disease she studies and treats. "It has been the only way I know to understand, indeed to accept, the illness that I have."

Pursuing a field in which one has personal stakes is not unusual, least of all in medicine. But mental illness has a darker stigma. And with garish symptoms such as sensational mood swings, grandiosity, buying binges and inappropriateness in dress, manic depression in particular puts many people off. It connotes a kind of dervish, someone who is "bouncing off the walls," Jamison said. "Which you are sometimes. But not all the time."

At home here, Jamison projects a portrait of steadiness, hardly the woman who sang "Fly Me to the Moons" in her days and nights of effervescent intoxication. Now she writes in a wood-paneled study where the books overflow off the shelves. She is married to a fellow scientist, schizophrenia researcher Dr. Richard Wyatt. Jamison is slender and blond, with an easy laugh that often bounces in her own direction. In her weekend attire of denim skirt and baggy Johns Hopkins University sweat shirt, Jamison, 49, looks more like a teaching assistant than a tenured professor.

Her decision to strip bare a rugged history, which included at least one nearly successful suicide attempt, flew in the face of the distance mental-health specialists tend to place between themselves, their students and, especially, their patients. The chairman of her psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins was only one of those who warned Jamison about traversing that fragile wall of separation.

"Because she essentially shows herself warts and all, I was afraid that she would find it difficult working with patients--that they would worry about her, that they would wonder if she was OK," Dr. Paul McHugh said. But "to a man and a woman," McHugh said, the opposite has proved true: "They find her book a source of great hopefulness."

With good reason she worried that her peers would view her as a patient, not a professional, or what Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author of "How We Die" (Knopf, 1994), called "the wounded healer."

Unaware when he hired her 21 years ago that she was slipping toward a psychotic breakdown, Dr. L.J. West, former head of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute, said those concerns were not unwarranted. But he said Jamison's stellar reputation would offset most criticism, as would her "courage and generosity" in coming forward with a story that would help destigmatize her disease.

Even her own brother, Dean Jamison, director of the Center for Pacific Rim Studies at UCLA, had doubts about "An Unquiet Mind." He had "concerns for her career, concerns that the profession itself was not ready for this," he said. "Had I been asked to make the choice for her, I would have said let it go, protect yourself with some sense of privacy."


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