There is something about Mary Harris’ words that is incredibly soothing. I can’t yet decide if it’s her voice or her calm and collected tone, but whatever it is, it makes her an excellent interviewer. Specifically, it makes her very sensitive questions posed to people who are generally unwilling to answer exceptionally well-delivered.
This episode touches on one of the most sensitive topics that exist in the public health world, which is mental health. In this 22-minute podcast, Mary (she confirmed– we’re on a first-name basis now) interviews Jamie Lowe, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after an episode at age 17. She has written about her experiences in the New York Times Magazine. Now, nearly 20 years later, Jamie has taken lithium (a very commonly prescribed drug for bipolar disorder) almost every single day, save for a period in her life when she refused to take it. This episode offers a glimpse into one of the biggest medical dilemmas: what do we do about a drug that solves one issue but creates another?
In this specific instance, Jamie was told by a nephrologist (kidney doctor) that she needed to go off lithium in order to save her kidney. Her regular doctor emphasized that keeping the disorder ‘in check’ was something to prioritize. When she saw a doctor who specialized in the kidney impacts of lithium, the doctor made it quite clear: “you can stay on lithium and get dialysis and a transplant, or you can switch off lithium.”
It might be easy for some to think that the answer is clearly to go off lithium. But Jamie does an excellent job explaining the necessity of the drug. She said that, generally speaking, having bipolar disorder is like ‘a slightly hyperbolic’ episode of yourself. At one point, Jamie felt too dependent on the drug. She wanted to know that she could exist without being on lithium. She painted a picture of when she decided to go off lithium for a brief time in her adult life. She refused to accept job offers, wore many shiny necklaces, started an apartment fire, and had daily missions such as calling MTV to discuss politics. This experiment ended with her mother essentially watching her take her medication (which she evaded, for a time, until her mother knew to check all of the crevices in her mouth to ensure that she swallowed). As she emphasizes in the beginning of the episode, however, she is almost proud of her ability to do it—it was hard to hear any regret in her voice.
Jamie describes the thought of her actions in that time period as being completely surreal, almost like it didn’t happen. Mary asks, “Does it feel like you?” Jamie responds, “I mean, define you.”
The episode ended with Jamie announcing that she is going to be going off lithium. She is nervous, because she is living with a boyfriend whom she adores, but who has also never seen one of her episodes. Mary says that they will continue to check in with Jamie.
The episode is incredibly insightful. From the perspective of the conflicting impacts of a drug, Jamie’s story is completely relatable to many across the globe. Those never faced with this issue are able to get a glimpse of the difficult decision that a very real person has to make.
But this episode does more. It provides insight into the realm of mental health. It offers visibility of the unbelievably delicate nature of the chemicals in our brain and the impacts of a drug on our personalities, and on the essence of one’s sense of self. This podcast episode has prompted me to look up more about debates surrounding mental health, which has resulted in a reminder of the shocking past of mental health treatment which has shaped many people’s personal biases of those suffering mental diseases. I encourage people who listen to this episode to look into the history of the psychiatric ward (all too-often associated with fear, Halloween, or horror stories).
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