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'Gorilla and The Bird': Inside New Memoir About Being Bipolar

'Gorilla and The Bird': Inside New Memoir About Being Bipolar
From Rolling Stone - September 26, 2017

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 are 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 would not turn kids that other people called 'bad' away helped expose [Zack] to the philosophy that everyone deserves equitable treatment," she says.

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 af**king 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 neighborhoodindeed, the entirety of New York Cityin 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 have 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."

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