Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-26537-1.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 10/11/2009
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.
At age seventeen Dr. Jamison was diagnosed with manic-depressive illness. She lived through mania, paralyzing depressions, and a mercifully failed suicide attempt. In her Prologue she writes that manic depression is a kind of madness, such 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; they married and enjoyed nearly twenty years together until his sorrowful death from Hodgkin's disease. 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.
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, threatening illnesses they each suffered. One incident in particular serves as an example. Realizing that Dr. Wyatt's medical bag was at home, Dr. Jamison had a premonition and looked through its contents, finding in the bottom of the bag; hidden in its recesses what she feared: a syringe and a vial of antipsychotic medication. She was angered that he believed this was necessary. The last thing he intended was to hurt her and his reaction to her distress was heartfelt and painful. It was a difficult moment for him. "Medicine is imperfect." Wyatt tells her, quietly. "I am imperfect."..."You are imperfect."..."Love is imperfect." His patience, kindness and wisdom in the way he dealt with her erratic moods seem boundless and, in time, she changed; she learned to trust him.
Nothing Was the Same has distinctive qualities that emerge from a talented writer who has the soul of a poet and the knowledge of an internationally esteemed psychiatrist. Dr. Jamison writes about her grief with the clear-thinking mind of a physician and the lyrical and sensitive nature of an artist's sensibilities, combining her love story with her intimate understanding, both private and professional, of the nature of grief. This grief, she relates, 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."
Discussing the sometimes difficult-to-distinguish differences between the closely allied emotions of depression and grief, she writes that their emotions overlap, and 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; Dr. Jamison reveals her inner life without restraint. It grabbed my attention and held my interest from first page to last. Although about grief and depression, I did not find it depressing. Rather, it shares a magnificent love story, a eulogy to the sacred experience of grief and depression. We are made to realize we can grow and learn from these challenging emotions; they are necessary. It inspired in me waves of empathy, admiration, and affection for this sensitive author.
Kay Redfield Jamison is Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center. She is the author of the national best sellers An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast, as well as Exuberance and Touched with Fire, and the coauthor of the standard medical text on manic-depressive (bipolar) illness. She is the recipient of numerous national and international scientific awards and of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship.
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