A Brooklyn public defender, moonlighting as a comedian, was taken to the notorious Bellevue Hospital psychiatric ward after losing his grasp on reality and suffering a Truman Show-style psychotic break.
Zack McDermott is a guy who watches ESPN, practises yoga, loves his mum and has an intense desire for social justice. This is a guy just like you or me, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when a traumatic episode left him suffering intense delusions after which he wound up half-naked on a train platform.
You can watch Zack relive his first ordeal, during which he paraded around New York in the belief he was filming a television show, in the clip below:
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Zack, who grew up in Wichita alongside his schizophrenic Uncle Eddie, told UNILAD:
I stepped out of my apartment in the East Village in Manhattan and I was convinced I was the star of my own reality TV show.
All the passersby on the street were extras in my production. Even the homeless people were a little too attractive and when I looked closely I could tell their facial tattoos were actually professional makeup jobs.
I wandered through the streets of New York for 12 hours, searching for clues, trying to find the cameras, my next scene partner.
I ran through traffic; I ran across a soccer pitch with my bare buttocks showing; I unilaterally engaged a group of young African-American men standing on a street corner in a rap battle.
Eventually, two NYPD officers stopped me on a subway platform. It was a cold enough evening that I could see my breath but I was barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a pair of soccer shorts. I was crying.
The cops cuffed me ‘for safety purposes’, but I didn’t buy that they were real cops. As far as I was concerned, this was still all part of the show. They didn’t take me to jail but rather to the Bellevue psychiatric ward.
I spent the next 10 days on the locked psych ward and my mom, ‘the Bird’, flew in from Kansas and came to visit me for every minute of every visiting opportunity as my lucidity slowly returned.
The first time I saw her at the hospital, I was so far gone that I was not convinced she was even my mother until she called me ‘Gorilla’, her nickname for me.
Years – and other psychotic breaks – later, McDermott has channelled his creative energies into writing a book about his journey; Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love.
He narrates his titular role in his own psychotic breakdown with humour, guidance from his mother’s journals, and a rare firsthand insight into what goes on behind the facade of mental health.
Zack’s candid story helps to break down the walls of the American institutions charged with caring for the other 5.7 million patients diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in the US.
McDermott writes ‘regaining sanity in a mental hospital is like treating a migraine at a rave’, adding:
Patients scream and fight and get injected with antipsychotics. The food is horrible, the sleeping conditions are uncomfortable, and there is no privacy.
My bunkmate regularly masturbated throughout the night. Also, we take cues from each other.
There are very few opportunities to interact with doctors or social workers and we patients are left to try to piece our own realities together with countless nonsensical data points.
There is a real problem in this country in that the ‘treatment’ for severe mental illness so closely resembles incarceration. There’s barely any distinction between the two experiences.
Zack recalls his second psychotic break in this extract taken from his memoir:
My second psychotic break was ignited and burning white-hot — a wildfire of madness feeding on itself, torching every corner of my brain.
After breakfast, we were escorted like a group of preschoolers to the ward’s main corridor. There was an alcove on the left side of the hall with a recliner and a TV. I walked down the hall, surveying the people and my surroundings. When I got to the end, I pivoted and began to run wind sprints down the ward’s corridor, dodging the zombies along the way. I had Olympic speed; maybe it had always been there and I was just now learning to tap into it. The orderlies told me to stop sprinting, but I couldn’t. I ran the length of the hall two or three times and then pretended like I was going to quit so they’d leave me alone. But it felt too incredible to be that fast; I was flying and I couldn’t stop. The staff overlooked it for the time being.
Later in the morning I was called into a room where five or six doctors and nurses sat around a conference table in a semicircle. I offered to take off my clothes and drew some things on a dry-erase board. Then I started to chant in a vaguely Gregorian style, only I pushed the air out of my lungs as violently as possible, the result sounding more like an elephant seal in heat. “Sorry if that smells like halitosis,” I said. “I haven’t brushed my teeth in eighteen hours.” One of the doctors snickered. The rest stared at me with What have we here? expressions. They are in awe of me, I thought.
And then I broke it all down for them:
“The best way for me to explain my mind to you is like this: Think of yourself as a robot. Think of all the functions your body is performing simultaneously and successfully. Think how incredible it is that you are even able to stand upright and walk with an even gait, that at the same time, your eyes are taking in and processing thousands of stimuli and your brain is attaching a label to every single one: puddle, crack, dog, woman, bald man, car, shitty car, asshole in a suit, mother, father, doctor. Think about how remarkable it is that you can walk by a brick wall and estimate within a margin of 10 that there are probably about 540 bricks in 18 rows of 30 – you count, you’re off by 8, not bad. Is it wrong to conclude that, maybe, you are superhuman? After all, who else can do that? Who’s to say you aren’t plugged into the universe a little bit deeper than everyone else? That you can almost see the subatomic particles and energy fields encircling the pretty brunette walking down the street. ‘Look at me,’ your mind commands. She does. If that ain’t power…
“Now, most people can probably tap into this on a certain level – you are more plugged in than a homeless guy, for example. So why can’t I be on a higher mental plane than you, in the same way that you’re above the homeless guy? Where you see two steps ahead, I see six.
“But here’s the kicker: That homeless guy on the bench muttering to himself – the one with the dreads and the army surplus coat that looks like it’s been dragged through a filthy gutter then rubbed in shit – he feels this shit more than you do. It’s the main reason he’s homeless—he’s consumed by it. I know because I stop to talk to these people. These guys are on my level, and you dismiss them outright. Before the internet existed, someone had to babble some crazy shit about a connected inter web of computers talking to each other. Explain it to an alien; you can’t. It makes no sense. Neither did cells at some point in history, but now we can see them. You really don’t think we’ll ever be able to see atomic molecules the same way? Can I go? That’s all I’ve got for now.”
One of the male doctors told me to go back to the common room. I understood. I had blown their minds and now they needed to discuss.
After being released from Bellevue, Zack described sinking into an unbearable depression which nearly lead him to suicide on the many nights he cried himself to sleep.
Zack returned to Wichita to recoup, but ‘spent most of my time drinking cheap beers and smoking cigarettes in the garage’ wondering ‘when or if my mind would betray me again’.
Zack told UNILAD about the devastating physical and emotional consequences:
I had lost friends, what I thought was a promising stand up career, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to be an attorney again.
It was a lot to process and on top of that I was overmedicated – drooling, barely there. I was losing my hair, gaining weight, and I was impotent, which very much bothered me as a 26-year-old.
Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love has just been optioned by Channing Tatum for TV series development, according to Deadline, after it was met with glowing literary reviews.
Zack and his mother, who he calls ‘an absolute rock’, have also set up the Gorilla Bird Foundation, which ‘is still in its infancy’ but aims to ‘raise mental health awareness, advocate for criminal justice and psych ward reform, and also found a world class private school that is open to the public.’
‘The Bird’, Cindy Cisneros-McGilvrey, told of her heartbreak in this video:
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Of mental illness, and the long process of accepting his own instability, Zack said:
Mental illness is embarrassing in many ways – there is the stigma but also the fact that our symptoms are our erratic behaviour.
I’ve never come out of a manic episode without something to be embarrassed about on the other side.
You have to learn to forgive yourself though. Beyond that, you have to learn that there is nothing to forgive. It’s not my fault that I’m mentally ill, no more than it’s a diabetic’s fault that his insulin levels are off.
Zack had an episode two months ago after ‘tempting fate’ and writing for 44 hours straight the night before the final draft of his book was due.
The subsequent ’embarrassment followed by PTSD, paranoia and then a mild depressive period’ confirmed what the funny, charismatic public defender-turned-author already knew: Bipolar ‘is a thing that will always be there and it must be respected.’
Today, on World Mental Health Day, Zack summised: “It was a good reminder that Bipolar is something I have, not something I had, and that it is to be maintained, not cured.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with the effects of Bipolar disorder, please don’t suffer in silence. Contact Mind for advice and emotional support on 0300 123 3393.
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.