Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
I was obsessed with Evanescence in middle school. Although I never wore eyeliner or set foot in a Hot Topic, the goth-rock band’s platinum Fallen album spoke to me in a way no other music could. When my mom was out and I had the house to myself, I’d put on my headphones, press play on my Philips Jogproof player, and sing-shout at the top of my lungs through all 48 minutes and 45 seconds of my favorite CD.
I resonated deeply with the songs about being “woken up inside” by love (or was it by God?), imagining a dream world to hide from the pain of life, and fighting to stay alive through overwhelming sorrow. I knew every instrumental interlude, every harmony and guitar solo, every breath the iconic Amy Lee took between lyrics.
When my long-awaited copy of Evanescence’s second album, The Open Door, arrived and made its way into my CD player, my favorite song was called “Lithium.”
Aside from its use in batteries and an ill-fated run as a 1940s table salt substitute and 7UP additive, lithium is most known for being a mental health treatment, mainly for bipolar disorder.
Lithium was one of the first successful drugs used to treat mental health symptoms, and its history is surprisingly interesting. As early as the 1870s, European and American physicians recommended lithium for treatment of inflammation caused by gout. At the time, depression and so-called “mania” were thought to also be the result of inflammation and referred to as “brain gout”; this incorrect assumption, however, led to successful use of lithium to treat them.
By the end of the nineteenth century, lithium treatment had fallen out of favor, and it disappeared from scientific consciousness until 1949. John Cade, an Australian psychiatrist whose patient observation skills were honed in the psych ward of a Japanese POW camp, began experimenting with lithium treatment using backyard guinea pigs and urine samples kept in his fridge. Cade further refined his treatments on patients at the Melbourne psychiatric hospital where he worked, watching many get better and leave the hospital. A safe dose of lithium is not far from being a toxic dose, however, and a few patients got sick and died from lithium toxicity.
Cade’s papers on Lithium went largely unnoticed. Years later, Danish psychiatrist Mogens Schou picked up where Cade left off, conducting the first clinical trials and publishing his findings in 1970, proving the success of lithium treatment. Today, the fourth element remains a cheap, easy-to-manufacture treatment, never patented by any pharmaceutical company.
Lithium, don’t wanna lock me up inside
Lithium, don’t wanna forget how it feels without
Lithium, I wanna stay in love with my sorrows
Oh, but God, I want to let it go
I learned in researching for this article that Amy Lee never actually took lithium. She merely used the drug as a symbol for happiness in her song that grapples with staying “in love with my sorrow.” Kurt Cobain never took it either, yet he still penned Nirvana’s song “Lithium” about his feelings of highs and lows and seeking comfort from religion to keep from thinking about death.
I’m so happy ’cause today I found my friends, they’re in my head
I’m so ugly, that’s okay, ’cause so are you, we broke our mirrors
Sunday mornin’ is every day for all I care, and I’m not scared
Light my candles in a daze ’cause I’ve found God
Lithium might have been a symbol of comfort and release to these artists, but it’s not without its drawbacks. Though some people with bipolar disorder take lithium for life, others take it for only a few years, and many dislike that it numbs not only the low feelings but the high ones as well (“don’t wanna lock me up inside”).
I felt a little odd writing about lithium when I don’t have bipolar disorder, but these singers open the door for discussing it as a symbol. And I’ve certainly done my own juggling between mental health medications. Escitalopram for anxiety, trazodone for deeper sleep, buspirone for improved results, bupropion and adderall for better focus. Rotating side effects of poor sleep, strange dreams, night sweats, sexual dysfunction.
Medication switches over the past six years were accompanied by the ongoing questions of “Do I have ADD. or just bad discipline? Depression or just bad luck with relationships? Anxiety or just childhood trauma? All of the above? Should I take this medicine forever, or try and manage my emotions on a reduced dose? Am I wallowing in something I should just get over, or is depression preventing me from moving on? Are people judging me for ‘staying in love with my sorrows’? Is some of this just a faith problem?” The search for the right therapist; the misery of finding the right time to quit a medication or reduce a dose, as if any time is a good time to feel renewed chemical waves of anxiety you no longer remember how to deal with.
I’ve found my own comforts over the years, like what metaphorical lithium is to Lee and Cobain. Books and television, long nights with friends talking about everything or nothing. Romance, or the pursuit of it. Clothes shopping and Chipotle delivery. Turning to God (maybe not enough), or turning to alcohol (maybe a little too much).
I suppose the takeaway is that it’s always a dance when you’re trying to become more healthy, highs and lows and twists and turns, changes and sacrifices to make when trying to find a better, or at least less sad, version of yourself. Parts of you to lock up and parts to put in order. Wounds to excavate, grief to hold on to, and sorrow to let go of once healed.
“The history of lithium therapy.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3712976/
“Lithium: the gripping history of a psychiatric success story.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3712976/ “Lithium prevention of depression 100 years ago: an ingenious misconception.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3110039/#:~:text=This%20conception%20of%20depression%20as,been%20set%20up%20by%20Garrod.
“Lithium (Evanescence song).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium_(Evanescence_song)
“Lithium (Nirvana song).” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium_(Nirvana_song)
“The Pursuit of Happiness.” https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2001/jun/03/life1.lifemagazine5
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband Josh and dog Rainy. She works as an IT support analyst and enjoys painting, rock climbing, and exploring the city.