Have you ever wondered why the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland was, well, a hatter instead of something cooler that kids could identify with, like a Mad YouTuber or Mad Yeeter? It’s because he was eccentric, wacky, and generally two bananas short of a split, and back then that sort of behavior was associated with one profession: hatters. In the olden days, hatters used mercury to make felt, and over time, the mercury vapors they inhaled caused them to develop neurological disorders like memory-loss, irritability, erratic behavior etc. The disease is known more professionally as erethism and what’s really strange about it is that it hasn’t been eradicated even today. Modern people still get exposed to mercury and come down with Mad Hatter syndrome, like what happened with Richard, who suffers from a moderate form of it. This is his story:
Research by Evan Symon.
It’s Not As Rare Today As You Might Think
Although we no longer use mercury to cure diseases or try to bestow immortality on feudal kings, the globulous silver Flubber still has many uses in various industries. Which is why erethism still pops up among chemical workers, fire gilders, florescent light makers, and others. But that’s not how Richard came down with it. He acquired the disease through art.
“I was taking some art classes and I fell in love with Hirst, Pollock, and Andy Warhol of course. Artists who did things differently and went to different mediums. I really liked metallic paint, but I never could make it seem like the paint I used could look like actual metal on the canvas. Our teacher, ‘Professor Tim’, encouraged us to be creative. A girl next to me would mix Kool-Aid powder to make gritty paint that would come in lots of cool colors. That kind of creative.”
“I wanted a different kind of metallic, and I was needing a deep shade of metallic red, and I thought of mercury. I went and got the cheapest kind from a home lab company, and I didn’t know what kind to get.”
In the end, Richard bought mercury and mercury nitrate, the latter of which has been the historic cause of erethism for centuries now. Now, to be clear, Richard knew about the risks of mercury and took all the necessary precautions: gloves, goggles… and a T-shirt tied around his face like a makeshift gas-bandana. And while that did make him the coolest guy in 1998, it unfortunately didn’t do anything to protect him from the mercury vapors.
“I tried the mercury nitrate,” Richard explains, while also repeating again and again that he now realizes he was an idiot. “I remember reading about how touching paper with fire gave it an older look, and since I wanted to give my canvas that look, I used a small blowtorch I used for other art I made. I used it on the paint that was still wet. When it dried, I lacquered it.” He ended up repeating this process for 5 months (though not every day.) And that’s how Richard came down with mercury nitrate poisoning.
The Symptoms Appear Slowly At First
Unfortunately, in the real world, mercury nitrate poisoning doesn’t end up with you having tea with a rabbit or fighting Batman inside his dreams. Down here in the non-Batman realm, inhaling mercury vapors causes nervousness, insomnia, tremors, bad memory, shyness, paranoia, depression, and irritability… eventually.
“Nothing happened at first. It’s not an instant change if that’s what you’re expecting.”
”I worked on my art a few times a week. I stopped using mercury and only used the mercury nitrate because it worked better with the paint. After a few months I remember getting up one morning and feeling a little depressed for no reason. The next day was a little more. And then the next day was more. I thought it was because I had trouble falling asleep, but it started hanging around for no good reason.”
Then, Richard started to get pissed off at little things. He slowly grew madder and madder (hence the name “MAD” Hatter [Imaginary Editor’s note: No. Also: lose some weight]) until the tiniest things could set him off.
“I had a collection of pens in a cup on my desk. They were from hotels I visited. I swipe them in the room and use them at work. Everyone does it and it’s nothing to be mad about you would think. But that day I noticed my Butlin’s pen was missing and I was seething. I was thinking ‘Who took it? Was it John? Did he?’ It made me in a worse mood. That didn’t help my depression, and in every conversation, I would gripe about the Butlin’s pen. It became an office joke, but I swear they were doing it to mess with me.”
This was the problem. All the early symptoms of erethism (irritability, acting kind of like a dick, obsessiveness, anti-social behaviors) look exactly like typical office behavior of anyone who’s had to work in a cubicle for more than a month. Another case in point:
“I used to be more outgoing. I went to movies at least once a month before the mercury. But after that I didn’t want to, because of the crowds.”
”I didn’t want to be around anyone more than I had to. At my office I took part of a cubicle to make a ‘door’ for my cubicle so no one would see me. Before mercury I wouldn’t have done it, but when I put it there, it felt right.”
There’s Really Not Much You Can Do About It
“More and more people suggested I go see a doctor,” Richard recalls. “A friend of mine suggested my brains chemistry changed, and another said that it could be a tumor.” Fortunately, <Arnold voice>It wasn’t a tumor</Arnold voice> but the blood test finally revealed high levels of mercury in Richard’s system, so his doctor recommend chelation therapy.
“Chelation is taking a chemical that attracts a certain metal (for example, mercury chelation uses Dimercaptosuccinic acid), grabs it and you pee it out. When they heard it had been 5 months they looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world. They couldn’t believe I got it from paint … They couldn’t do anything for all the permanent damage the mercury had done.”
Yes, unfortunately, erethism is a lot like a girl catching you in My Little Pony pajamas. There is just no fixing it. All you can do is try to minimize the damage.
“I was given Ritalin (a common drug for erethism). That’s it. The doctors were concerned, but there was nothing else to do … Any time I have a new doctor or specialist, you can bet on me hearing ‘You’re my first patient who had this’. My original doctor had seen a few patients who had it, but erethism is becoming more rare, and they don’t know much about it. They’ve been surprised I’m on Ritalin and a doctor I went to for a new prescription said that he thought the disease died out with hat making … erethism doesn’t happen every day, and when you call it ‘Mad Hatter’s Disease’, they’ll think of the Disney cartoon and assume it can’t be that bad. When my nephews learned I had it, they said they wanted it too because of the name.”
You Try To Make The Best Of It
Despite the challenges of his condition, Richard always tries to look at the bright side.
“If you want to call it a good side effect, I guess you can use my paranoia. I’ve built up a list of procedures for emergencies and general governmental functions.”
“My friends, who didn’t leave me after the mercury occasionally need help on what to do.”
For example, one of Richard’s friends had a problem with a neighbor who put up a concrete fence 6 feet into his yard. In a short time, Richard sent his friend a stack of forms he would need and people to call. “I even knew who the best property line surveyor in the city was. I also gave him a checklist on what to do. He had it fixed in weeks. Not months. Weeks.”
“I look at stars. [I’ve] taken up painting as a hobby, and I like to tell everyone that there’s no mercury involved. If I can’t sleep, I might as well do something, and I don’t want to spend it watching more conspiracy shows. I’ll look up in the sky and look at constellations. What I like doing is looking for satellites or the ISS, seeing what their coordinates are in the sky and marking the time, and then making sure it was them later on I want to make sure it isn’t something else.”
But let’s be clear on one thing. Richard deeply regrets fucking around with mercury. Erethism is something you 100% don’t want. In his own words: “I don’t have that severe a case, and it’s hard justifying why I even go on anymore.”
“Stay away from mercury.”