In Gorilla and the Bird, Zack McDermott Challenges the Stigma Surrounding Bipolar DisorderAuthor photo by Aurélie Hagen Books Features Zack Mcdermott
Zack McDermott had his first major manic episode in over five years at a Taco Shop in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas. As the psychosis took hold, he laughed at patrons to their faces, inquired about purchasing his order via Apple Pay—something he knew, even in his semi-lucid state, they would not have—and, eventually, screamed obscenities at an employee while lying flat on his back in the rain-soaked parking lot.
Which is when his producers stepped in.
The cinéma vérité camera crew filming him at the moment (for a documentary and a series of mental health and criminal justice reform PSAs) must have added an absurd element that McDermott, a former lawyer turned comedian-cum-memoirist-cum-mental health advocate, can surely appreciate. His psychotic breaks tend to make him believe he is being filmed for a TV show, a delusion known as the Truman Show delusion. His request to use Apple Pay was a literal reality check; if the Taco Shop cashier said yes, then McDermott would have known the scene was fake. All this took place while the real film crew kept rolling.
“I got to see myself shouting at the wind,” McDermott tells Paste in a phone interview.
A few years before that manic episode, a more severe break earned McDermott his bipolar diagnosis.
As McDermott describes it at the beginning of his new memoir, Gorilla and the Bird, he had gone on a tear for the delusive cameras throughout Manhattan’s East Village, careening through traffic, replacing a soccer goalie and encouraging his teammates to shoot on him—in a Scottish brogue—before jogging around the field bare-assed. His manic trek ended on a subway platform—stripped down to his underwear, tears streaming down his face—from where two NYPD officers took him to Bellevue Hospital.
“I was really grateful for it, actually,” McDermott says about the more recent Taco Shop break. “It was like, ‘Okay, chin check, buddy. Got a little too close to the sun again.’” The event was a reminder that bipolar disorder is chronic, but also that it can be managed. He had been pushing himself too hard, working 15-hour days and showing some light signs of what could devolve into mania.
McDermott had lasted so long between manic episodes, because when he finds himself in a “Danger Zone” spot, he knows what to do: “Ativan, ice your neck, take a Risperdal, go to sleep, clear your calendar the next day.”
But before he had the playbook down pat, it was a long and savage process of extremes, of manic episodes that burnt through his brain like “wildfire.” The support of those around him, including his mother—the titular bird to his gorilla—and a regiment of psychiatric medications and social strictures—sleep, no weed, don’t get fucked up every night—have helped him to manage his illness as well as he does. Now, he can see the ambush looming.
It’s this basic understanding of the signaling symptoms and preemptive treatments of the disease—something taken for granted with most maladies—that McDermott hopes he can engender in the greater population. His memoir, which combines the brutal realities of his experiences with gallows-dwelling white trash humor, will hopefully be followed by his current projects, a documentary and public service announcements.
“We need to embrace that there’s this thing called bipolar disorder,” McDermott says. “And in that embrace, what we need to do is be able to identify the symptoms. You need 80-90% of the population, if not higher, to just be familiar with and identify these symptoms.”
Such recognition could lead to people quickly getting the treatment they need and without stigma, preventing costs both emotional and economic. The emotional toll of a severe episode is immense; so is the cost of hospitalizing or incarcerating the individual, compared to making sure they get their medication.
“If we just eliminated that $7 a month medication, you’re gonna have some expensive problems from Zack McDermott. Cause he’s gonna come up in here and raise a ruckus, you know?” McDermott explains, laughing.
Using humor to drive home a crucial point—that a destigmatized society where people get the treatment they need would be a more cost-effective and humane one—is McDermott’s signature. He believes that speaking frankly about mental illness is crucial to improving how we treat it, and he is seizing the opportunity that interviews like this one have given him.
“I own the hell out of it,” he says of his disease. Having someone as affable, macho—a star soccer player in high school, a son of crimson Kansas, with a voice like a beer keg being dropped into a sloshy tub—and, yes, funny, as McDermott be a proud bearer of mental illness puts an important new face on the topic. Even when writing about the abject conditions in psychiatric hospitals from New York to Kansas, McDermott knows the value of his voice in making the story human.
“I do consider myself as a comedian,” McDermott says. “And as a comedian—like the brain of a stand up, you’re always thinking, ‘How can I turn this screw a little tighter, make it funnier?’ And even in a lot of the dramatic moments … the question is almost always which one’s funnier.”
McDermott understands that when he tells you about how he stuffed his fingers up his own ass in the middle of frigid cornfield during a manic episode, you may—and should!—laugh. But he also realizes that, like a political cartoonist or jester, it’s the ability to use humor to highlight true issues that can set a message apart.
“I do think it helps further the message,” McDermott says. “It allows people in, to go ‘oh, haha! You know what? Let me tell you one!’”
That inclusive spirit is crucial to destigmatizing the attitudes around mental health, a necessary step if the dizzying array of woes facing our current state of mental health care is ever to be contained and, hopefully, managed.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.