Hey - Lighten up! Have some Lithium
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
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.
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.
He was very good at what he did. Even if the treatment was, at times, barbaric, he was still respected by all. You see, the place was kind of - well - crazy! Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT), for example, was dished out now and then to punish anyone who got too stroppy, such as refusing to take their drugs (Yes, I witnessed ECT being used in this way). ECT was routinely used for punishment and control. In my opinion, the main purpose of most of the treatment at Cherry Farm, including drugs and ECT, was to keep the patients compliant, quiet and manageable, not so much to help anyone get better so they could leave and be good contributors to society once again. Few people ever got to leave. Once a patient was admitted it could be assumed that they were there for life.
I most vividly remember one case where a young man was being prepared for ECT. I was told that he had been getting too stroppy. He was first strapped down to the bed and as he was rendered unconscious by injected drugs, he looked into my eyes with a look of terror and desperation. I knew at that moment that this was wrong but, like him I was powerless. We could do nothing but submit to the process. A bite block was inserted and a varnished wooden box of electrics, that could have come from a B- Grade Frankenstein movie, was attached to his temples by way of a couple of large electrodes. The juice was applied and he was expertly zapped. His body convulsed, while his head looked like it was going to explode. Then it was all over. To me, ECT is the process of rendering a concussion to the brain, minus the bruising and bleeding. It erases the short term memory and causes a kind of blank confusion that can last for a long time. I guess that calms a stroppy person down but what is the real cost?
To this day, I vividly recall the desperation of that man as he looked me in the eye. My guilt about not doing anything to prevent what was about to be inflicted on him causes my heart to quicken.
Several years later and then later again, during the investigations into abuse including the misuse of ECT at Lake Alice Hospital, I wrote to the Minister of Health, twice, offering to give a sworn affidavit about how I witnessed ECT being used at Cherry Farm. Unusually, there was not even an acknowledgement of receipt of my letter. I concluded that the Government did not want the inquiry to go beyond the abuses that happened at Lake Alice. Such abuses were probably widespread. Officials knew that and they did not want this to become public. It would become a large and very smelly can of worms.
At no fault of their own, most of the patients (I'll call them patients from now) were unfortunate souls who were condemned to live the remainder of their lives within the confines of Cherry Farm. Few who entered ever left. For example, there were many adults born with Down's Syndrome. They should never have been sent there, but what choice did their ageing parents have back in those days? Everyone, including a good number of the staff, became institutionalised, including being addicted to a combination of nicotine (cigarettes) and various mind-altering drugs, including lithium (lithium carbonate).
I began to understand that life in Cherry Farm could quickly become a comfortable, non-threatening and predictable place to pass one's days. It would be preferable to the uncertainty and chaos of the outside world. A wise Cherry Farm worker advised me that the best thing I ever did while working there was to do the long commute to and from my flat in Dunedin every day. If I did not, he warned that I'd start talking and behaving like I was a part of the institution: I'd become too familiar and comfortable with where I worked and might not want to leave! In retrospect, this was one piece of advice I appreciate to this day.
Here's a concise history of Cherry Farm and Seacliff which was a little way down the coast.
So, what has all of this got to do with lithium?
I'm fascinated with understanding how the Elements of the Universe, including lithium, influence health and behaviour. Lithium was the first element to come to my attention for its mind-altering properties and widespread use and abuse at Cherry Farm.
When we look at the Elements of the Universe, there is a fascinating pattern: The elements that are light give life and levity; whereas those that are heavy are, dark and foreboding. They hasten death. They are - well - heavy!
Lithium is very light: it is number three on the table for atomic weight. Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Sodium, Magnesium, Potassium and Calcium, the elements of Life, are all among the lightest elements of the Universe.
The elements of Death, such as lead, mercury and uranium are the heavy, heavy Dudes! Look At where they sit on the Periodic Table. They are heavy!
Some heavy elements, such as iron and copper, are both beneficial when in trace amounts while deadly harmful when in excess.
Take Iron for example. Excess Iron produces a heavy and angry person who is quick to rage and violence. Excess iron shortens one's life and brings on all kinds of disease by clipping away your DNA's telomere. Think of Thor and his iron hammer: when confronted by a problem he will whack it on the head without hesitation. Iron excess may present in the Clinic as a characteristic redness on the side of the face and down the neck, hence the term "Red Neck". You do not mess with a Red Neck!
Copper is like iron: Like iron it is heavy but it is more malleable, whereas iron is unforgiving and it has a lower melting point. A person who is copper toxic is easily driven to rage and tears (a low melting point) while also easily led and manipulated by others. A person with copper toxicity will often present as an emotional wreck, lost in life, easily bruised, emotionally and physically, and very tired (thyroid).
Lead is heavy, heavy and has a very low melting point. A person with lead toxicity is often a heavy dude, low melting point, hard to predict, angry, dark and foreboding. Depressed. Did Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights have lead poisoning?
Mercury is heavy but it is a liquid at room temperature. A person with mercury toxicity may be crazy-as and be emotionally all over the place. Think of the term "Mad as a Hatter". Hatters were people who made felt hats that were stiffened using mercury. The rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, wearing a top hat, presumably had mercury poisoning.
With all of these elements, the heavy ones make people very tired, emotionally volatile, lost and depressed, whereas the light ones tend to give energy and levity.
So the next time someone says to me, "Gary, lighten up", I guess I should reach for the lithium and some of the other light elements of the Universe such as magnesium and take few deep breaths of life-giving oxygen!
Handy Tip for protection against the "Heavies":
I love Algotene. Algotene is a safe source of trace amounts of bioavailable Lithium and other light trace nutrients such as Iodine. This is because it is grown on the surface of toxic brine ponds under intense UV radiation and the baking heat of Australia's Nothern Territory. Like Iodine, light-weight Lithium accumulates on the surface of the brine pools, whereas the heavier and toxic elements sit lower in the still brine pools. The single-celled algae, Algotene, (Dunaliella Salina) is perfectly adapted to thrive in this extremely hostile environment. It grows on the less toxic surface of the brine and accumulates the light elements which have a protective effect against the heavier, toxic elements found deeper in the brine. Algotene is red in colour because it produces a molecule called astaxanthin which protects its delicate cell contents from extreme oxidative stress that comes from exposure to toxins like intense heat, ionizing ultraviolet, toxic elements and more.