• Gary Moller

Hey - Lighten up! Have some Lithium

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

Lithium: the third lightest element of the Universe
"Lighten up, Gary!" Lithium: a light element of the Universe

I worked at Cherry FarmPsychiatric Hospital part-time for a year during the mid-1970s (Didn't they give these rather depressing institutions lovely names?). That was a very interesting time for me. It has had a lasting influence on my outlook on life.

My time at Cherry Farm was kind of surreal and bordering on crazy, but it never really occurred to me that it was like that at the time, although I thought it was a really strange place to be working. I was a confused and very naive young man, back then, almost blindly groping my way through life (Parents of young men will understand what I am saying here!). Nothing was "normal" at Cherry Farm but what is normal anyway? What we would say today is clearly inhuman or even outright abuse, was normal to everyone in Cherry Farm and I naively slotted right into the "system". At the same time, I was a Fly on the Wall, observing from a short distance away, thankfully, due to my decision not to be living on the premises (more about that later). Living and working on the premises of a large and isolated institution like Cherry Farm risks becoming institutionalised such that "crazy" becomes the norm.

Cherry Farm, North of Dunedin, was established in the 1950s, located in the middle of nowhere to house the insane, the retarded and the demented, including some of the nation's nastiest psychopathic criminals. Yes, it was a Lunatic Asylum where the shame of society was hidden away, out of sight, out of mind. While some were securely locked up, even straight-jacketed, it was really a prison without walls. The actual walls were the mind-addling drugs and, if a "runner" made a break for freedom, the frigid, bleak and inhospitable North Otago terrain quickly put paid to any desperate hopes. The only town nearby, Waikouiti, was the main residence for the hospital's staff, so it was never a good option for a tired and hungry escapee! Wet, cold and starving, they were quietly and quickly scooped up and returned to the farm for not just a welcome feed but an extra dose of dumbing-down drugs and perhaps the comfort of a warm straight jacket.

While we can quietly chuckle about this now, as if it is a scene from a very bad movie, the reality is actually, very, very sad. I chuckle but I am also sad as I write and re-read this, but that is what society was like back then and it was not all that long ago when you come to think about it.

Cherry Farm closed in 1992 and is now largely derelict apart from a small cheese factory. "Smile everyone, have some cheese from the Funny Farm!" I love it! So appropriate. But kind of sad as well because of the history of the place and what a "Funny Farm" really was for those who were condemned by us "Normal People" to live out the rest of their lives in isolated confinement. Out of sight and not able to bother us with our comfortable lives in Utopian New Zealand.

Cherry Farm: sited in the middle of nowhere
Cherry Farm: sited in the middle of nowhere

I spent most of my days while at Cherry Farm trying to figure out who was the crazier: the inmates (yes - inmates, it was more a prison than a hospital) or my boss? My boss was clearly manic-depressive and like those poor souls who he "treated" he was on lithium carbonate, a potent drug that was laced with nasty side-effects, including constipation and very bad skin (everyone, staff included seemed to have bad skin and all smoked away like manic coal-fired trains). He was comfortable working in the confines of the hospital, he related well to those he was caring for and they liked him. I liked him a lot as well.