How a 'madman' hopes to spark conversations about mental illness

Jessica Ravitz, CNN | 10/4/2017, 8 a.m.
The signs that he was spiraling downward were everywhere. They appeared in his scribbles in red marker all over his ...
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The signs that he was spiraling downward were everywhere. They appeared in his scribbles in red marker all over his apartment walls. They materialized when he stripped down to his skivvies at a happy hour, after winning a court case while sporting a new mohawk.

And they screamed out as he raced around New York City for 12 hours, darting through traffic, bounding through a dog park on all fours, assuming strangers were actors in his very own reality TV show.

By the time police handcuffed Zack McDermott -- then crying, shoeless and shirtless on a subway platform -- it was clear he'd had a psychotic break.

The 26-year-old Brooklyn public defender was in the midst of a severe manic episode. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he spent 10 days in the psychiatric ward. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a manic-depressive illness that afflicts more than 6 million American adults, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Like most mental illnesses, it is often misunderstood, stigmatized and spoken about in whispers, if it's spoken about at all.

McDermott, now 34, who traded in the practice of law for full-time writing in 2015, is on a mission to change that.

With brutal honesty, sharp humor and an accessible tone, he's laid his journey bare in his book "Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love," which was released September 26 and has been optioned for a TV series.

McDermott has offered glimpses of his story in various publications, introducing audiences to the tale of him and his mother, the constant supporter whom he calls "the Bird."

"The 'madman' had raided my checking account, and there was no overdraft protection for 'Sorry, I had a manic episode and rang up $800 worth of novelty T-shirts at Urban Outfitters,' " he wrote recently in the New York Times. "I'd taken to calling the Bird in the middle of the night, every night, to hear her voice. ... She couldn't tell me that everything was going to be O.K. because the truth was, she wasn't sure. All she could do was make sure she kept answering the phone."

He's put himself out there for others struggling with mental illnesses, including the countless clients public defenders stand up for in courts, men and women who don't have the support networks and privileges -- including easy access to health care -- that he's had. Already, he's seeing a payoff in opened conversations.

"It's no longer surprising to me how many people have stories of their own or a loved one's struggle with mental health that they are dying to share but embarrassed to talk about," said McDermott, who says he's been flooded with responses. "I hope we can give folks a little permission to talk about these things, because it's important, and it's everywhere."

One among millions

Nearly 44 million American adults, or 18%, experience some sort of mental illness in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Of those, about 10 million, or one in 25, live with a serious mental illness.