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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Mania and Medication, or "Raiding the symptoms"

Now I had no choice but to live in the broken world that my mind had forced upon me.

(An Unquiet Mind, p. 97)

Kay Redfield Jamison is one of our leading researchers on mood disorders and manic-depressive illnesses. I regularly refer to her study of artists, Touched with Fire: Manic-depressive illness and the Artistic Temperament. It’s the memoir of her own struggles with bipolar disorder and suicide, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness which I’m now rereading. Picking up from where I left off my own mental health memoir, here are some thoughts on treating mania, lithium and its ups and downs. Or we could call it, "Reading plays, from Sophocles to Ireland to Pittsburgh..."

While reading about her own challenges in treatment with lithium, a highly effective medicine for many patients, and a toxic one for some, I had one of those “moved to tears” moments reading the epigraph above. “Yes,” I internally cried as I resonated with the shared experience. Mental slowing and a diminished reading capacity accompany side effects like twitching and slurred speech. “It (lithium) can also impair concentration and attention span and affect memory,” Jamison informs us.

Is this why teaching has become more effortful since the start of this year, the succinct, erudite phrases harder to toss about? Compared to last summer and before I started the new (to me) treatment, the differences were striking in at least two areas: finances & flights (of fancy).

I’ve written about mania, but not elaborated upon one its more challenging symptoms, “spending a lot of money that you don’t have,” as Jamison says, before quoting a diagnostic criteria: “engaging in unrestrained buying sprees.”

I did just that last summer and bought c. $1,000 in books (I was unemployed at the time) along with receiving an equivalent value in desk copies. I was preparing to teach Music History, and since historical research is something I do on a project-based basis, it was easy to justify 6 new Beethoven biographies and special 3-vol. editions of 2 of his sketchbooks (it was his 250th!); 6 Medieval and Renaissance studies; 4 Africana cultural books, and 2 each of Queer theory and Feminist studies. New opera and musical theatre surveys joined biographies and new translations of medieval artists from Hildegard of Bingen to Machaut and Marie of France. I read over two-dozen books in two months. I wrote over a hundred pages of notes, a dozen poems, helped launch and lead another venture, and was riding a seemingly-endless energetic wave until it/I crashed.

One of the reasons many patients resist medication or stop taking it is because they miss such euphoric-seeming periods of brain-racing bliss. Since adjusting to lithium in early 2021 I have watched mostly sports and action movies starring Jason Statham or Idris Elba. I sometimes just feel pathetic as I cry at Liam Neeson films like Taken. By my usual standards, I've hardly read at all.

Jamison describes her rediscovery of poetry and children’s literature when reading academic studies or book-length prose proved difficult to impossible. As lithium has decelerated the mania, I am hopeful it will also continue to have a dampening effect on the retail therapy. I certainly have less interest in buying dense academic studies and cultural theory monographs since I now find them maddeningly opaque. I suppose that’s how a not insignificant percentage of college students feel for much of their education, mine included.

What I have enjoyed reading recently are plays. Seamus Heaney’s eminently digestible version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, The Cure At Troy is most famous for a memorable motivational-type quote, apparently it was recently used by a President during an inauguration speech:

History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme.

The opening of this chorus in the play’s final scene balances the slogan-like “hope,” with the harsher realities we associate with Greek tragedy:

Human beings suffer, / They torture one another,

They get hurt and get hard. / No poem or play or song

Can fully right a wrong / Inflicted and endured.

What I find inspiring in Heaney’s version is the language on healing. Philoctetes loses a foot after a snake-bite festers, and he is literally cast-away, abandoned on an island by his fellow Greeks in the middle of the Trojan War. Understandably bitter, the play builds towards his reengagement with life and community (or, returning to war so the Greeks can again use his god-blessed bow, a dying gift from Hercules).


Your wound is what you feed on, Philoctetes.

I say it again in friendship and say this:

Stop eating yourself up with hate and come with us.


I can feel your sympathy, / And did feel it all along.

But now leave me alone. / Once bitten is hard bitten. / Stop this torturing me.

Achilles’ son Neoptolemus becomes the title character’s friend over the course of the drama, and helps lead the embittered disabled veteran to new light:

… You know / Human beings have to bear up and face

Whatever’s meant to be. There’s a courage

And dignity in ordinary people / That can be breathtaking. But you’re like the opposite.

Your courage has gone wild, you’re like brute / That can only foam at the mouth. You aren’t

Bearing up, you are bearing down. Anybody / That ever tries to help you just gets savaged.

… You’re a sick man. / The snake bite at the shrine was from a god,

But the gods send remedies…

And when blunt honesty doesn’t work, there’s always the dangled carrot of reward. Neoptolemus mentions both the healer, Asclepius and the promise of fame, “It’ll be talked about for ever and you’re to be / The hero that was healed and then went on / To heal the wound of the war itself…”

The conclusion of the chorus speech with the famous quote is inspiring:

So hope for a great sea-change / On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles / And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing: / The utter, self-revealing / Double-take of feeling.

(from The Cure at Troy, A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Seamus Heaney. FSG, 1961, 1991)

(Romare Bearden: Pittsburgh)

What I’m into more than anything else right now is August Wilson’s Century Cycle (or Pittsburgh cycle), a 10-play epic chronicling and reimagining the African American experience across the 20th-century. Each play is set in the playwright’s hometown, during a different decade. Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom may be most familiar today from their recent film adaptations.

I may devote another essay to one of my favorite playwrights, but for now I’ll end with an "aria" from a favorite speech in the cycle. Wilson was one of the theatre’s most lyrical, musical voices. He was an authentic “poet of the stage.” Songs, instruments and dance appear across his plays, in between visionary speeches and dramatic exchanges. All of which becomes tinged by a magical realism that adds an aura of mystery to the myth-indebted drama.

Here’s one of the rhapsodies from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Bynum is talking to Loomis, the angry, unsettled wanderer who has been searching for his wife for the last 7 years. Bynum’s monologue is self-revealing in its evocation of “the song in search of itself:”

The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied. Something wasn’t making my heart smooth and easy. Then one day my daddy gave me a song. That song had a weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn’t want to accept that song. I tried to find my daddy to give him back the song. But I found out it wasn’t his song. It was my song. It had come from way deep inside me. I looked long back in memory and gathered up pieces and snatches of things to make that song. I was making it up out of myself. And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn’t bite back at me. All the time that song getting bigger and bigger. That song growing with each step of the road. It got so I used all of myself up in the making of that song. Then I was the song in search of itself… See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it…till he found out he’s got it with him all the time.

(from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, II.ii; Bynum, by August Wilson.)

(Another chronicle of 20th c. African-Amer. life, in musical form)

(*Follow my "Mental Health Memoir" in the blog here below, and through my FB page)

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