When public defender Zack McDermott emerged from his apartment, he knew he was being filmed in a pilot for a comedy show. It was the perfect New York street scene. All the people were actors. It was up to him to improvise the plot. He ran through the streets, shedding clothing, dropped into a soccer game, shot a few hoops and was taken to a mental hospital. The mental hospital was also perfect. Days passed before Zack was convinced that he wasn’t being filmed. It was Zack’s first real experience with bipolar disorder.
Luckily, Zack had unconditional support from his mother. He was “Gorilla” — his nickname because he was so big and hairy. She was “Bird.” His memoir, “Gorilla and the Bird,” is a complex look at the experience of being bipolar and how family support can make a difference. It also covers his experience growing up working-class in Wichita, Kansas, and the stresses of mounting criminal defense for the poor and mentally ill people in New York City.
Real Change interviewed Zack in advance of his appearance in Seattle on April 7 at First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave, 7 p.m.
Mike Wold: What is bipolar disorder like?
Zack McDermott: You’re mainlining the universe in the manic phase. You’re making all these connections that aren’t there. It can magnify your worst and best qualities. While you’re in it, you think it’s magnifying your best qualities.
The crash, the depression period, is worse than being sad, not in degree, in kind. The whole world looks like it’s in black and white. You don’t even care enough to lift your head and look at it. You would almost welcome sadness, because you would at least be feeling something acute, because it means you’re still alive. With sadness, you have a cry and you’re usually all right. You can go to the gym and hit the heavy bag. You can usually make some order of this and say, “This is going to be OK.” In depression, it’s very hard to find the “This is going to be OK.”
MW: Besides the help from your mother, what saved you from long-term institutionalization?
ZM: I had too big of a support group, [I was] too well connected and smart enough, working as a public servant with incredible health insurance. I’m going to get care, even if it’s in a nightmarish place. I’m going to get prescription drugs, and once you stabilize me, I’m going to take stock of what happened and go, “OK, I just thought I was on TV for 10 days. Nope! We need to recalibrate.”
I was lucky that it was so bad and intense and severe, because it makes it nigh impossible to deny that you got something that you’ve got to handle.
MW: Would you call it a wake-up call?
ZM: I’d shy away from “wake-up call.” It conflates mental illness with bad behavior. That suggests you were doing something that you shouldn’t have been doing and that’s what you get. [With] bipolar disorder, you can’t know that you have that until you have it. You can look back, say, “Now I know that these are triggers, and I have to dodge those.” But before you have a manic episode, you don’t know what your triggers are because you don’t know what triggers are.
Smoking copious amounts of marijuana did me no favors. Sleeping as little as I did did me no favors. Drinking as much as I was drinking did me no favors. [But] who among us in our mid-20s is not smoking a little pot, drinking a little beer and living as wild as they like? They don’t end up in the psych ward.
MW: Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that!
ZM: You were just saying it casually, but it’s indicative of our default position as a society. That’s what makes it hard for parents. A lot of parents will look at it as a “Well, last chance mister” thing, but don’t understand that it’s the illness that’s creating the behavior.
MW: It’s the influence of that “tough love” philosophy.
ZM: In this situation, it’s nothing to be tough on. You can’t get angry at a medical condition and have it walk away. It’s just not how it works. It doesn’t even work with most bad behaviors. If someone’s a teenager and being an idiot, yeah, all right, tough love a little bit and consequences, but having a manic episode shouldn’t have any consequences other than the inevitable ones. I have this joke in the book that there’s no overdraft protection for “Sorry, I had a psychotic episode and spent $800 on novelty T-shirts at Urban Outfitters. Can you let this one slide?” They can’t, but they should.
I’m lucky that I didn’t hurt myself physically more than I did. I could have thought at some point that “this glass right here is made for me to be punched, and I won’t cut my hand.” On my second major hospitalization I would drop down from a complete standing position and free fall until I was an inch above the floor. I’d catch myself with my hands. Several years later I started having all this carpal tunnel. I got X-rays and MRI and I had many hairline fractures in my hands.
MW: That would hurt!
ZM: Oh, it hurt like hell. That’s only one piece of intense physical pain that I’ve experienced as a result of this. A question that a lot of people have: “Have you been bipolar your whole life?” I don’t know, but I got in tons of fights. Something was messed up with my brain chemistry. I don’t think I ever won a fight. I have a bulging herniated disc on every one of my lower back from getting piledrived on my head when I was 20. You don’t get punched that many times if you’re not too intense. “Twenty-two times, hmm.” You want to get in the wake-up call category, I can give you that.
MW: But you grew up, went to law school and became a public defender, where you were trying to help people, some with similar issues. What do you think needs to change in the justice system?
ZM: First off, it needs to be less retributive. I hate the phrase “belongs in jail,” like it’s someone’s natural state. It’s logically impossible, because jail is a thing we’ve invented. I can’t solve the serial child molester problem. [But] most of the people that come through the criminal justice system, more than the majority, are bullshit misdemeanors.
We would do ourselves a huge favor if we took a customer-service approach to incarceration and to where people violate the law. The question more often than not is, “What did we do to you that put you in this place?” It’s not always as noble as stealing a loaf of bread, but I don’t think it’s ignoble to smoke crack, really. I don’t think anyone sets out as an 11-year-old, 12-year-old, saying, “When I grow up, I want to be freebasing cocaine.” People that are freebasing cocaine have so much pain in their lives before they’re freebasing the cocaine.
We have to ask, “Is this effective?” Anyone with one eye open can tell you “absolutely not.” What to do after someone’s violated the law is just a wrong question to ask. The question that needs to be asked is what do we do to prevent that.
Very few people are born “bad.” Just look at Chicago. Why is the murder rate there whatever it is? It’s not like people want to kill each other. It’s because there’s no jobs, no money. You have to let people have enough money to survive. People have to have basic human rights. That includes good health care, affordable housing, employment opportunities — and don’t give me that “anyone can work at McDonald’s” bullshit.
Tell me, Harvard Law grad, what your career would look like if you were born in the Marcy projects instead of Fairfax, northern Virginia. That’s one thing that disgusts me about law school. Alumni, recruiters and stuff want to tell you how special you are with your LSAT score and GPA. No, you’re not. You had parents supportive enough to put a book in your hand. Or, in the very few occasions where you didn’t have that, you won a different lottery, which meant you were just bright enough to get there on your own.
I have a close friend that grew up with very little money and had a very unstable mother and no father and she made it to UBA Law, but she started reading books when she was 3 or 4. She won the IQ lottery and she won the I Love to Read lottery.
MW: What effect do you see your memoir having for people with this disorder?
ZM: I’ve had a lot of people email me saying “I’m a gorilla,” and a lot of people calling me and emailing saying, “I’m a bird that has a gorilla.” People are just coming to terms with their own bipolar disorder, self-diagnosed. It didn’t occur to me until I wrote the book that that is useful information. It’s so costly financially and emotionally for us not to know that and it’s such an easy thing to know.
What’s cool is that it’s a binary thing. A lot of times, the gorillas of the world will have an instinct to be a bird after they get themselves sorted. There’s no way you go through that and don’t care about other people who have been going through it.
MW: I was troubled by the scene with a good friend some weeks after he’d taken you to the hospital. As you put it, “I’d never been read ‘Terms and Conditions’ by a friend before.” What would be your advice to friends of people with bipolar disorder, about how they should relate?
ZM: Let me give you the Bird’s advice: “When people are at their worst, when your instinct is to be repelled by them, what you need to do is go toward them.” Visit your friend in the psych ward. When your friend comes out, accept him as still the person you liked, for all the reasons you liked him. Whether he inconvenienced you, scared you or jammed you up, think about how inconvenient, scary or jammed your friend or family member was. And “Jonas,” not his real name, if he could run that back now, he would probably do it differently.
Not all friends love you unconditionally. That’s kind of OK. The more we know about mental illness and bipolar disorder, you’ll have less friends cutting people off or stepping away, but you’re allowed to decide when someone’s too intense for you.
MW: Tell me about “the Bird,” both the way she’s supported you and in her work as a teacher.
ZM: She has just always been so there and so unconditionally loving, not only to me but to literally hundreds of people. She told me today, “I feel like I’m getting pulled by four different horses off every limb and maybe a fifth one on my head.”
I’m like, “Well, you’re only helping 250 people or so, including my grandma, me, my brother, my sister, their children, her grandchildren, every single person in the Wichita Public School District who has dropped out of school and wants to go back, and not only get GED, but their diploma.” She’s made a difference in countless people’s lives.
She had to protect the three of us, my brother and sister, from the time she was 20 on. She was the buffer between us and the world and me specifically. She was a helicopter mom in terms of “Oh, you just got suspended again? Well, to hell with them!” Some parents would say that’s too lenient, but I can tell you it wouldn’t have worked any other way. She couldn’t have grounded me. I just would have left.
She’s been totally unflappable in the face of my condition. That’s false — she hasn’t been unflappable, she’s been crushed by it, but she’s appeared to be, for me. She can’t have as big a heart as she does, as big an empathy zone as she does, and not feel people’s pain acutely. I can’t tell you how she does what she does. That’s a lottery she won.
WHAT: Gorilla and the Bird, live interview, reading and booksigning event with Zack McDermott
WHEN: April 7, 7:30 - 9:00 p.m.
WHERE: Seattle First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave, Seattle
Wait, there's more. Check out the full March 28 - April 3 issue.