“It’s the Disease, Not the Individual”: A Talk with Zack McDermott




AFTER YEARS working as a public defender, 26-year-old Zack McDermott found himself on a subway platform half-naked and crying, overtaken by the delusion that he was the star of his own reality TV show. McDermott, now 34, has written a poignant memoir about his experience of mental illness, Gorilla and the Bird, the TV rights for which have been sold to Channing Tatum. Yet for McDermott, success is measured by his own sense of personal balance. His book asks us to de-stigmatize mental illness by familiarizing us intimately with the issue. 

After the incident on the subway platform, McDermott checked himself into Bellevue Hospital, where he was diagnosed as bipolar and heavily medicated. After two subsequent hospitalizations and a visit to his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, McDermott came to realize that practicing law was not conducive to healthy self-care. McDermott writes about all this in an irreverent yet candid style. His title refers to his mother, Cindy, who called him a hairy gorilla and whom he nicknamed The Bird “because of her nervous habit of poking her head.” Yet it’s her deep concern for her son’s well-being that makes McDermott’s story so emotionally charged.

McDermott spoke to me from his home in New York City.

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JENNIFER PARKER: Do you believe that, as a society, we ignore the mentally ill?

ZACK MCDERMOTT: Yes, I do. I walked by a guy on the street yesterday and he was taking bits of newspaper, ripping them into small pieces, and putting them in a sack. He clearly had been doing this for hours. The sack was all filled up, and there was nothing I could do for that guy. I just walked by. I don’t understand how society can neglect people to that extent. I wish I could have helped him, but I couldn’t write him a prescription or give him reliable housing. The social blindness necessary to live, in New York especially, is outrageous. We have this whole subset of people we have basically written off. We’ve accepted that it’s okay for some people to just live on the street, not get any treatment or housing or enough food.

When people walk down the street and see a schizophrenic person like that man, I don’t believe their first thought is, “That person has a treatable condition they’re suffering from.” Instead, they usually just think, “That guy’s crazy.” For some reason it’s okay to put someone in that box and then say, “We don’t need to worry about them anymore because they’re crazy.” I don’t get it. The solution to these problems isn’t as simple as giving someone a dollar when they ask. That can’t be our social safety net. Our government has to make it a priority. One of the biggest aims of my book is to show people what mental illness is and why you should have empathy for people going through it.

Was it hard for you to relive the experiences while you were writing about them?

No. It was hard living through them in the first place. That said, there were a few places where writing this book was tough emotionally. For example, writing the prologue about my grandma watching her son being beaten by a group of cops on her front lawn — I cried when I wrote that, imagining how she must have felt that day. Reading my mom’s journals was difficult. She handed over to me every journal she’s ever kept. Discovering what her life was like at 28 years old was really upsetting. I was 33 when I read it, and her 28 looked nothing like my 28. I felt like I was a few years older than my mom for a moment. I knew my dad wasn’t a great dad or husband, but I didn’t know the full extent of how difficult her life was, how depressed she was, how he did literally nothing to make her life easier. She had drug dealers breaking into the house, three kids, no money, no hope. I wept reading her journals.

Your book starts with you having the delusion that you are in the middle of a reality TV show. How does it feel now to know that your book may actually be a TV show?

It feels awesome. I couldn’t be happier with who we’re working with either. I totally trust them with the book.

You write about patients in the hospitals looking like zombies and how you had some horrific side effects from the medication you were given. Do you think people go off their meds because they feel better or because they don’t like the way the drugs make them feel?

It’s smart to stay on your meds, even if you’re having horrible side effects. I’ve gone off my medication because I just couldn’t take what it was doing to me. My hair was falling out. I was gaining weight. I became impotent — zero sex drive. I felt completely like a zombie. I would catch myself just staring out into space and drooling. But you have to remember what happens if you’re not on your meds. I’m very lucky now in that I take one medication that has no side effects and totally works for me. Some people have a more difficult time getting the correct drug cocktail.

When you worked as a public defender, you tried to stop your clients, particularly your mentally ill defendants, from falling through the cracks. How difficult was it seeing their struggles?

I had health insurance, I’m well educated, I have a well-educated family who love me a lot, as do my friends. I was never going to wind up on the streets. But if you remove the health insurance, the medications, the family, the friends — yeah, I could have been ripping up paper on the sidewalk. Easily. The homeless are largely invisible and if they become visible, it’s just for a fleeting second. There’s nobody keeping track of them. Poverty is a motherfucker. That’s what my time as a public defender taught me.

Do you think we have a mental health crisis in our criminal justice system? 

We live in a “revengy” culture in a lot of ways, especially in the criminal justice realm. We should approach criminal justice more like we do medicine, viewing the defendants as patients. When a young man comes before the court, instead of asking, “What should we do to you?” We should ask, “What can we do for you?” Meaning, how can we make you better? What is wrong in your life that has led you to this juncture? Society has failed most “criminals” more than they have failed society. So many people who come through the system are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. The group with health insurance goes to the hospital, the uninsured go to jail. Rikers Island is the biggest psych ward in the country. It’s disgusting.

Is there a difference between being incarcerated and being institutionalized?

The consequence of losing your mind is that you go to this hellhole that is a locked psychiatric ward and the treatment is similar to the punishment for illegal conduct. You are incarcerated. In many ways, it’s the same thing. The living conditions are slightly more comfortable. You’re treated with a bit more humanity and you’re a little bit less scared of violence. That said, there is a fear of violence. There are many employees who are indifferent, if not downright mean to the patients. The main thing is the loss of liberty and autonomy. We didn’t get to go outside. Even if you’re on lockdown Supermax solitary confinement, you get 30 minutes of yard time a couple of times a week. It makes a huge difference.

What advice would you give someone who has a loved one suffering from mental illness?

The Bird has a great quote in my book: “When someone is at their absolute worst, when your instinct is to be repelled by them, what you really need to do is go toward them.” It’s really difficult to give practical advice for these scenarios. You have to be patient with the sick person. You need to realize they are sick, not behaving poorly. It’s the disease, not the individual. In an ideal world, we would be more familiar with the symptoms of mental illness. When a human being is running a fever and has a cough, we strongly suspect it’s a cold or the flu. If more people knew the symptoms of bipolar disorder, it would probably be easier to convince someone who is going through it that they are indeed suffering from a medical condition.

That might have made a difference in my situation — if I’d known the symptoms, I might have acknowledged and accepted that I was going through a manic episode. But at the time I had no idea what that even meant. It can be extremely difficult to talk someone into seeing a doctor when they are in the throes of an episode, but it’s still worth trying. I’d recommend doing this at the first sign of trouble. Find someone whom the sick individual loves and trusts and have that person speak to them. Be there for them. I’d try to avoid the psych ward at all costs, but if the person must go, then they must go. Go visit them. Let the people who are suffering know you love them. When they get out, make sure they know that your respect and love is unwavering, that you will do everything in your power to help them recover. I wish I had a better answer. We have to become more knowledgeable about these diseases as a society.

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Jennifer Parker is the editor in chief of StatoRec. Her film criticism and author profiles have appeared in Fjords Review.


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