Spinning Our Plates

David Burlet in his plate-spinning act. Plate spinners were among my favorite act on the old Ed Sullivan show. They defy the laws of nature, much as people do who battle mental illness.

Some people have such difficulty expressing their periodic chasms of vengeful depression, they take to the Internet looking for narratives they might adopt for their own. Now and then, reading through these portrayals of sub-flat-line despair, they shout, “That’s fantastic!”

This does not suggest any enthusiasm – not even for recovery. Part of depression is being willing to take on anything – even the misery of others – in an effort to fill the void with something other than deep, dull pain.

One of the passages that might qualify for, “That’s fantastic!” is by Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods of Madness.

Jamison is a psychiatrist who discovered three months into her first job as a Professor in UCLA’s Department of Psychology that she is not only a brilliant doctor, but that she also suffers from rampant bipolar disorder. She also discovered how unpredictable and crippling this not-too-uncommon disorder can be.

But instead of hiding everything – the most common response in the modern Western world – Jamison wrote about her experiences, sharing in her book An Unquiet Mind the details of her illness and the outbreaks that deform her life.

This is unusual. People in Jamison’s circumstances most often strive to keep everything hidden, private. They design stories to mask their disorder-related outbreaks behind less threatening, less permanent, less stigmatized maladies – ones that fit more comfortably into guarded North American culture – ones that might even engender open empathy from others.

People who are still drinking during these outbreaks can spend years explaining away the chaos of various courses of mania with stories about benders, large and small, because alcohol is a far more accepted influence that can produce the same sort of exuberance and loss of control that bipolar mania can.

These masking behaviors shift a person’s own focus from shame at being chronically dysfunctional to something more like the sheepish chagrin a frat boy might feel after a raucous party. And they shift everyone else’s focus to something more comfortable and more understandable than mental illness.

For years, people can explain away the various depths of depression by adopting as a mask the symptoms of such handy distractions as real-life migraine issues, because in our culture migraines are an easily accepted (though equally mysterious) influence that produces the same isolation, discomfort, pain as those produced by bipolar depression.

These masking behaviors provide convenient explanations as to why otherwise functional people simply disappear from view, why they avoid social interaction, why they drift off to hide – and the explanations do not even hint at mental illness.


Jamison’s book is as settling as it is disorienting. She addresses the parameters of her disorder in a confident, insistent, and yet still poetic voice. In fact, when she views her disordered life, she finds a beauty – partly in her campaign to navigate its complexity, but also deeply in her friends and family and their ability (and willingness) to see that her symptoms describe, but do not define, her personality – her own beauty.

“I long ago abandoned the notion of a life without storms,” she writes. “I am, by nature, too mercurial to be anything but deeply wary of the grave unnaturalness involved in any attempt to exert too much control over essentially uncontrollable forces. …  It is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one’s life, change the nature and direction of one’s work, and give final meaning and color to one’s loves and friendships.”


Not everyone is either as confident or as settled as Jamison is with this disorder – and the relentlessly public nature of the truth.

In a life marred by bipolar disorder – the disorienting highs, the debilitating lows, the raucous unpredictability, the crap shoot that each day is – many see something more brutal. In the chronic and catastrophic unbalance, some see a life of disruptive forces that arrive without welcome or appeal.

To close, then, here is a quote not from Jamison, but from Charles Bukowski.

Bukowski, of course.

“my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: “Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?”
and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw”

2 Replies to “Spinning Our Plates”

  1. Thank you for your courage in sharing your experience on this all-too-often shaming topic. Depression and mental illness wrack our nation – symptoms are shared or similar to many other illnesses. Sufferers are invisible to the naked eye – misdiagnosed (my mother was repeatedly told she was lazy or feeling sorry for herself), or disregarded, neglected, or denied resources (as we have done to our veterans until recently). Once identified, in our callous society, the stigma of mental illness is just as debilitating and can haunt one for life not only socially and professionally, but emotionally, too. (I have a friend who is autistic and desperately wants to be related to as “normal.”) Thank you again for sharing.

    1. It’s kind of you to call it courage, but I was driven by a mix of impatience and resentment – and thus it is not nearly as noble an undertaking.
      But it is the same story.
      Thank you.
      I have had plenty of students who qualify on “the spectrum.” They are all far more fascinating than the bland “normal” they strive for.

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