Zack McDermott wrote the first words of his new memoir during his first stint in the psychiatric ward at New York City’s notorious Bellevue Hospital. “It was quite a blessing for material,” he says drily. Though he’s joking, he’s not exactly wrong. His new memoir, Gorilla and the Bird, chronicles McDermott’s bipolar disorder and the extraordinary ways his sharp, stalwart mother (aka “the Bird,” who once dubbed him “Gorilla” because of his hulky chest and excessive body hair) helped him live through it. But McDermott is at his most fascinating when he’s describing the odious routines and everyday indignities experienced during his handful of stints in locked psychiatric hospitals. As he writes, “Regaining sanity at a mental hospital is like treating a migraine at a rave.”
At the time of his first descent into mania-induced psychosis, the then-26-year-old McDermott was in his first year as a public defender at the Legal Aid Society in New York City. An ambitious, do-gooding Midwestern transplant, he’d wanted to be a lawyer since childhood, in part to help folks like “the dregs, the castoffs, the addicts, and the Uncle Eddies” he’d grown up among in “lower-middle-class” Wichita, Kansas. (“Uncle Eddie” was McDermott’s mother’s brother, who spent the final 15 years of his life institutionalized for schizophrenia.) McDermott’s mother, teacher Cindy Cisneros-McGilvrey, has no doubt that her son’s upbringing helped fuel his passion for social justice. “We’re all pretty much bleeding hearts,” she tells me from Wichita.
A sometimes-single mom who raised three kids on her own while working full-time at a grocery store, Cisneros-McGilvrey eventually got her PhD in urban education. She became a beloved local fixture in the Wichita school system and regularly worked with disadvantaged kids in her home after school. “The fact that I wouldn’t turn kids that other people called ‘bad’ away helped expose [Zack] to the philosophy that everyone deserves equitable treatment,” she says.
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In his job at Legal Aid, McDermott worked with some of New York’s most disenfranchised populations, and many of the people he represented were severely mentally ill. Despite his commitment to the organization’s mission, “I was dying there,” he says. The systemic injustices McDermott witnessed each day were soul-crushing, and his grip on reality became tenuous as his job-related anxieties compounded. “This is not a fucking game, you know?” he says. “These are people’s lives.”
One day, McDermott woke up convinced that he was being filmed for a Truman Show-style TV pilot audition, with his entire East Village neighborhood – indeed, the entirety of New York City – in on the joke. “I walked out of my apartment on the corner of St. Marks and Avenue A… and I knew we were rolling,” he writes in Gorilla and the Bird‘s opening chapter. “I knew the people on the sidewalk were actors…. Even the homeless people were a little too attractive.”
After narrowly avoiding getting hit by more than one non-actor-driven cab; disrupting a soccer game by shrieking in a Scottish accent and sprinting across the field; and challenging a group of men to an impromptu corner rap battle, McDermott found himself barefoot, shirtless, and sobbing on a train platform. Two NYPD officers handcuffed him and hauled him to Bellevue, where his delusions persisted. “Is it possible that we’ve secured permission to shoot in an actual psych ward?” he recalls wondering in the book.
His mother, whom he’s referred to as “the Bird” since adolescence due to “her tendency to move her head in these choppy semicircles when her feathers were ruffled,” as he writes, flew in from Wichita to help. “He did not recognize me,” she says. “He was so emaciated, and he was wearing a mohawk. The hardest part was looking through that locked psychiatric ward door… and [seeing] a man who resembled my son, who reminds me of my son, but was so different in the throes of his episode.”
Things were never quite the same for McDermott or the Bird after that. “The pain that mental illness inflicts on the person diagnosed and [the people who] care about them – it’s extremely costly, both financially and psychically, ” he says. McDermott lost his apartment, moved home to Wichita, gained 30 pounds from the Depakote he’d been prescribed, and slipped into a months-long suicidal depression in which he did little but sleep, smoke cigarettes and pound Miller Lite as a means of escape. “I’d been flying high, and then it all [collapsed] into nothing,” he remembers. “I was in the garage smoking a pack of cigarettes and crushing six to 10 beers every night, not knowing what the fuck my life was supposed to look like.”
When asked whether it was difficult to revisit such dark days in the course of working on his memoir, McDermott demurs. “There were a million difficult things about writing this book, but recounting it wasn’t [one of them]. The hard part was living it.” Though he claims to remember most of what happened to him, even when he was drugged or psychotic (“just because you’re psychotic doesn’t mean you have amnesia,” he notes), he enlisted his mom’s help in remembering specific details from his manic episodes. “Every time I went to see him I took notes,” says Cisneros-McGilvrey. “So he used me a lot for dates, names, locations, things like that.”
After a period of months, McDermott stabilized and returned to his job in New York. (After experiencing two subsequent psychotic breaks and hospitalizations, he eventually left Legal Aid to pursue writing.) He found ways to manage his bipolar with the help of a compassionate psychiatrist who altered McDermott’s meds and convinced him to give up marijuana, which had exacerbated his mania. “This disease, my condition, it’s not a mystery to me,” McDermott says. “It’s actually pretty simple. My maintenance procedure is to get enough sleep; don’t party too hard. If you feel like you’re going to an unsafe or dangerous place, take the proper medication and get some rest.”
But it took him years of trial, error and painfully lived experience to fully absorb that knowledge, and he accepts that his illness isn’t going anywhere: “Bipolar is something I have, not something I had,” he says. Though he’s thrilled at his writing success and says he feels “great” most days, he acknowledges the uncomfortable truth that there’s no absolute remission with a condition like his. And that lesson hit home again recently when McDermott experienced his first manic episode in six years. At the time, he was in Wichita with family, shooting footage for a forthcoming documentary project to complement the book. “A great deal of [my manic episode] was caught on tape,” he says. “I thought I was auditioning for the role of myself, in the TV series based on the book. That’s psychosis. It took me a couple of months until I felt totally safe, sane and straight again.”
But the episode also served to remind him how critical mental health care really is – and how woefully misunderstood most mental illnesses are by the bulk of the population. “I think it’s absolutely insane, so to speak, that we are not as familiar with the symptoms of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia as we are with the common cold,” McDermott says. “We too easily look past or step around homeless people who have severe untreated mental illness. For some reason, that’s [considered] OK, it’s just kind of what we do.”
To help counter that, McDermott is in the preliminary stages of launching a nonprofit called the Gorilla Bird Foundation. “It’s going to be a mental health reform and advocacy organization with a huge educational component,” he explains. “My grandma sold her farm and has pledged $99,000 to be our first donor.”
McDermott’s ultimate aim, with both the book and the foundation, is to help normalize the conditions that a whopping 18 percent of Americans grapple with every day. “I hope we can erase the distinction between normal and crazy,” he explains. “I’m normal in some ways. I have friends, I have a really cool job. But I’m also quite literally a raving lunatic sometimes. And that’s kind of okay.”