Whitney Houston,  Amy Winehouse, Etta James.  Jimi Hendrix.  Janis  Joplin.

Vincent Van Gogh, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Gordon, Lord Byron.  Jean Rhys.

You see where I’m going with this.

It is a shame that chemistry is taught the way it is.   I never got  it until I read a book called The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness,  Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam  Kean.  Truth be told, the book would have benefited from more judicious editing.  Kean rambles (a lot) and loses the thread of the story in detours and blind alleys.  He writes  the way you might expect an absent-minded professor  to think, which is only charming  for so long, and which is inexplicable because Kean is a writer, not a professor.

That said, he made  me love the periodic table for what it could tell me about people.

Lithium (Li) sits near the top and to the left of the table, just below hydrogen (H) and to the left of beryllium (Be).  That it is an element means that is not the product of carefully managed chemical reactions in a pharmaceutical lab.  It’s been here just as long as we have (longer, in fact).  In the 1960’s it was approved to treat manic depression.

People who are not bipolar generally take their cues from sunlight. They wake up when the sun comes up and go to sleep when it does down.  Sunlight triggers the release of neurostimulants which allow us to feel energetic, focused, creative.

The problem for people with manic depression is that, for them, the sun  doesn’t go down.  Their brains simply do not run on the sun’s schedule, and so the stimulants keep going and going until eventually the brain and the body literally shut down and depression kicks in.

Now get this:  the body’s inner clock works because every morning certain proteins attach to strands of DNA found deep inside neurons in the brain.  When it gets dark the proteins decay and  fall off, and in a healthy brain this shuts off the flow of stimulants.   The proteins in a bipolar brain don’t die.  They cling to their spots and the brain’s engine revs up higher and higher.  Lithium literally breaks the bonds between these proteins and their DNA so the engine can rest.

In Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison argues that many of the “doomed geniuses” like Byron and Van Gogh suffered from  manic depression.  Jamison’s insights are uniquely poignant, as she is not only a Johns Hopkins-trained psychologist but also a person with bipolar disorder.  Jamison deals carefully with the problem of treatment because, for creative  people,  medication can feel like a choice between their art and their sanity.

The poet Robert Lowell, who was a diagnosed manic-depressive, began taking Lithium about halfway into his career.  He had made his name as a “mad poet,” nicknamed “Cal” for either Caliban in The Tempest or Caligula.  The poet who wrote lines like this:

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

From “Waking Early Sunday Morning,”
Near the Ocean (1967)

also once stood in the center of a busy highway, arms outstretched, believing he could stop traffic like Jesus.   Lithium changed that, but Lowell’s  poetry suffered.  He turned almost exclusively to sonnets which, for a writer of Lowell’s caliber, were not that good; he at one point cannibalized other people’s private letters in his work; and one of  his friends remarked that Lowell had become vacant, like a caged animal.   Lowell won a Pulitzer in 1974,  and he has almost certainly ascended to the American canon regardless of how well his “confessional” style of poetry is faring at any given moment.  But for many  readers of his work, it is the earlier, the “mad” writing that earned him his place there.