A memoir of madness and a mother’s love

When Zack McDermott woke up one morning convinced he was being filmed as part of an audition for a TV pilot, a manic spree around Manhattan ensued, culminating in his arrest half-naked on a subway platform. So begins the story of Zack’s freefall into madness and the steadfast love from his mother that helped him rebuild his life.

gorilla and the bird

 

In the cab from LaGuardia to my new apartment inWilliamsburg, I remembered the familiar and uniquely New York sensation that with every second you are alive, money is rapidly draining from your pocket. Twenty minutes and $50 later, I arrived at my latest Craigslist find on the corner of Manhattan and Metropolitan Boulevard. It looked like an old warehouse from the outside.

 

For the sixty days I’d hid out in Wichita, I was incapable of confronting the full weight and force of the fallout. Before the psych ward, I was pretty sure I was the best damn trial lawyer in the office, the next Dave Chappelle, and the coolest dude in the Village to boot.

 

But now that I was back in New York without the benefit of a manic episode to boost my self-esteem, I had no choice but to confront the facts. And they were bleak. A madman had raided my bank account, committed malpractice on my behalf in the courtroom, and alienated anyone who had been paying attention. Didn’t much matter that the madman was me. Corporate America wasn’t too sympathetic to my plight: there is no overdraft protection plan that covers I was extremely manic and purchased $800 worth of novelty T-shirts from Urban Outfitters—can you let this one slide? You can’t accuse yourself of fraud. And it’s not like I had money to begin with. I made $1,400 every two weeks. My rent was $1,200 and student loans were $700 a month. An unlimited metro card ran me another hundo. By the time I shelled out for utilities, internet and cell phone, I was left with about $18 a day to make it through the month. It was always fingers crossed that the rent check didn’t come out before my pay heck went in. Most of the planet has it worse, including anyone in need of a Legal Aid lawyer, but I did think it over before I bought Chap Stick.

 

That first week back, I swung by my old apartment in the EastVillage (the one I’d covered in red Sharpie from floor to ceiling) to pick up a trash bag full of bills and delinquent student loan notices. Rather than risk a papercut, I took a page from the Bird’s pre-bankruptcy days and tossed the sack into the wire mesh can on the corner of St.Marks and Avenue A. When I was a kid, if bill collectors called the house, the Bird would hand the phone over to me to let me polish my British accent. “Don’t worry, they’ll call back,” she’d say. A model of financial responsibility she was not, but when you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it. And I ain’t got it. I assumed my cockney rhyming slang would get a bit of practice in the weeks ahead.

 

I had to reacquaint myself with adult life, but I still didn’t much feel like moving. Without Granny there to cook for me, breakfast became $1coffee from the bodega across the street. Lunch was a ham sandwich from the bodega across the street. Dinner was a frozen burrito from the bodega across the street. Dessert was my one daily indulgence, in the form of six Budweisers from the bodega across the street.

 

The bodega guy became my primary source of sustenance and 90 percent of my social life. Which was tough because his English wasn’t great and my enthusiasm for idle chitchat was low. I don’t know if he nicknamed me “Budweiser!” or if that was just his way of saying “The usual, boss?” but that was his standard greeting. My standard contribution was Yup.

 

Or, if I was feeling particularly gregarious, Yup, how’s it going? I had a few weeks left on my medical leave of absence from work, so I spent my days in bed.

 

It wasn’t hard for me to admit I was depressed – sixteen hours of sleep nightly is conclusive on that issue – but it was hard for me to give myself permission to be depressed. Sure, I had just experienced a psychotic break that had resulted in involuntary confinement in a mental institution, lost what I believed was a read shot in comedy, lost an apartment, and lost the confidence that comes from knowing my mind wasn’t going to walk out on me at any moment. But I couldn’t help thinking about what Bodega Guy’s life looks like when he takes his apron off after an eighteen-hour shift at Best Price Grocery. I had to assume ringing up No & Laters hadn’t been his idea of the American Dream. To him – or, really, to me when I imagined the world from his eyeballs – my life probably looked pretty decent: $1,200 for a room in a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood with a TV and a Wii. I wasn’t making weekly trips to Western Union to send remittances to Islamabad, wasn’t worried about my family’s physical safety, wasn’t worried about my legal status. Long-distance calling cards weren’t a part of my life’s necessities. Sleep and beer – that was the cross I bore. What right did I have?

 

And what about my clients? What about all the poor brothers and sisters across the city and the shit they had to deal with? Fuck, what about all the poor brothers and sisters in Syria for that matter? They sure had their hands full. What do you even call depression in a refugee camp?

 

Depression felt as much a luxury as veganism and fair trade coffee. Shut the fuck up, you whiny, ungrateful bitch constantly pinged around in my head. No matter how many doctors or Birds say it’s okay to be depressed, that Wichita boy in me says No. He says fight. Fight through it, fight through your self-pity and your tears. Fight through the daddy-sized hole in your heart. At least you’ve met him. Fight through it literally if you have to. Punch someone, drink something, drink something then punch someone.

 

I needed a psychiatrist.

 

* * *

So I got one. Standing on the 2 train platform on my way to meet Dr. Singh, I watched a rat zipping through the puddles in between the tracks and discarded bags of Cheetos, empty Snapple bottles, old gum, and other delicious rubbish. He was a busy boy. Trying to get a few crumbs here and there, looking for Mrs. Rat, or at least Mrs. Rat Now. Dodging poison, ripping it up in the dark tunnels. Taking small delight in the terror he inflicted in the hearts of children and grown men alike. Being a rat didn’t look half bad.

 

I’ve never stood on a subway platform and not thought about what it would be like to throw myself in front of what’s coming. But I found myself standing a few inches closer to the edge, listening a little more closely to the question that the train was asking of me. I knew I wasn’t going to stick my neck out on my own, but what would I do if a kid on a scooter bumped me from behind? I was pretty sure I would tighten my core and push back with the full force of my hamstrings at the first brush of contact. But I was less sure than I’d ever been. Si I guess I was approaching something like fairly suicidal. But do you get to claim that if you’d never cut, jump, or load the gun? Feels a bit dramatic.

 

I made it up to Harlem across the Columbia campus to Dr. Singh’s office. I thumbed through an old New Yorker as I waited. Dr. Singh opened the door at 11 a.m. sharp; he looked dapper in a charcoal-gray suit, blue shirt, and purple tie. “Zachary? Come in.”

 

I took a seat on his faux leather couch and surveyed the room: Don Quixote print on the wall, box of tissues to the left of the couch, and three shelves of scholarly tomes.

 

“So it’s nice to meet you. Your mother called me and made an appointment – you were just in, is it Wichita, Kansas?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you’re a public defender in Brooklyn.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“That sounds like a stressful job.”

 

“It can be.”

 

“So the limited information that I have on you is that you recently had a hospitalization at Bellevue. And the preliminary impressions are that you are possibly bipolar one with perhaps a dual diagnosis of marijuana and alcohol abuse.”

 

“That’s correct.”

 

“And the police found you on a subway with very little clothing on, you suffered a psychotic break, and for nearly a week were under the impression that you were on a TV show?”

 

“That is also correct.”

 

“Has anyone explained to you in detail what exactly bipolar one means?”

 

“I read the DSM-IV description and I read a little bit of An Unquiet Mind. I can probably describe what happened to me, but no, I don’t really know what it means. Before all this, I thought it just meant you had highs and lows.”

 

“It’s a bit more nuanced that a high high.” He told me bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression and then ran through the symptoms for me:

 

  1. Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity (ranges from uncritical self-confidence to a delusional sense of expertise)

I think operating under the presumption that Larry David is a far inferior  comedian than me suffices for this one.

 

  1. Decreased need for sleep

Four hours max per night for an entire summer. Sometimes none.

 

  1. Intensified speech (possible characteristics: loud, rapid, and difficult to interrupt; a focus on sounds, theatrics, and self-amusement; nonstop talking regardless of another person’s participation/interest; angry tirades)

How about writing said speech on one’s wall in red Sharpie when no one cares to listen any longer?

 

  1. Rapid jumping around of ideas or the feeling that thoughts are racing

See above.

 

  1. Distractibility (attention easily pulled away by irrelevant/unimportant things)

I spent entire Saturday afternoons filming passersby on the streets. I watched a Mike Tyson documentary six times in a week because I thought I could create a blog centred around commentary of this single film.

 

  1. Increased goal-directed activity (i.e., excessive planning and/or pursuit of a goal, whether social, work/school, or sexual) or psychomotor agitation (such as pacing, inability to sit still, pulling on skin or clothing)

Summer goals 2009: Ink deal for one-hour stand-up special. Sign contract to write in and star in TV series. Make contacts at New York Times. Help Producer get his record label off the ground. Get my own record deal on his label. Fifty pull-ups every morning, followed by two hours of soccer.

 

  1. Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high-risk consequence.

I think I got a bingo, Doc.

 

Dr. Singh is an expert on dual diagnosis – those of us who run around naked on the subway and like our devil juice and pot too much. He explained that some people, even those who aren’t bipolar, can have psychotic episodes triggered by marijuana. Or I could be in the category of people who might not otherwise have had a manic episode but have been the tipping point. Or it all could have just happened anyway. No way to tell really, except not smoke and see what happens.

 

“But,” he explained, “I am not telling you to never smoke pot again. I don’t like to tell people what they can’t do; I haven’t found it to be very effective over the years. What I would advise, though, is that we have you abstain for a relatively short period of time – a year – and then if you experience another episode, we can know for certain that you are not one of these borderline cases, perhaps just more vulnerable to marijuana. Would you be willing to try that?”

 

I told him that it sounded hard, but I’d try. We talked medication and he told me he wanted me on as little as possible – that Depakote and Risperdal were heavy drugs and he thought we could probably get away with a mood stabilizer for now. Lamictal. Most patients have no side effects. And those who do usually only get a mild skin rash. No impotence. No hair loss. No weight gain.

 

For the first time in my life, I was excited to try out some psych meds. When I was diagnosed as depressed in high school it felt like a moral failing and taking pills felt weak. Yeah, I was happier on my Zoloft, and I no longer wanted to drive my car into the river, but it wasn’t “real”. What I was feeling now was definitely “real” and it was definitely awful. My only qualm with the new regimen was that the new meds wouldn’t kick in for two or three weeks. That sounded like decades to me.

 

As we were wrapping up, Dr. Singh told me about the Truman Show delusion. There’d been some recent media attention to people who, like me, in the throes of psychosis, become convinced that they’re stars of their own reality TV shows. It’s not a separate diagnosis – it’s still BP1 or possibly schizophrenia. In any case, it’s a rare and distinctly modern phenomenon; folks in the 1800s couldn’t well imagine they were reality TV stars.

 

 

This article is extracted from Gorilla and the Bird by Zack McDermott. Zack is originally from Kansas and now lives in Brooklyn as a public defender. In 2014 he wrote a brief account of his first psychotic episode and hospitalization for Gawker that received more than 88,000 hits, was featured on Longreads, and Kansas Public Radio’s Morning Edition. The Morning Edition piece was named Best Complete News Feature of 2014 by the Kansas Association of Broadcasters.

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