Mentally Unfit

When the police found me I was standing on a subway platform, somewhere in Brooklyn, barefoot, wearing only soccer shorts in October, and crying. My hands were folded behind my head like a captured soldier. For the previous 12 hours I had wandered the streets of New York, convinced that I was being videotaped, Truman Show-style, by hidden cameras. I made my living as a public defender in Brooklyn, but I did standup at night. I'd recently met with a network executive to discuss a pilot for a reality show based on my act; now I thought the city was my set.

As soon as I walked out of my apartment on the corner of St. Marks and Avenue A that afternoon, I knew we were rolling. I could tell the people on the sidewalk were actors, but just barely. They resembled the normal East Village lot, but they were archetypes—the skaters were all wearing DC Shoes and expensive skinny Levi's, the construction workers' boots were too worn, their accents too Brooklyn thick, and what kind of girl wears Louboutins in this neighborhood? Even the homeless people, with their made-up facial tattoos, were a little too attractive.

The herd steered me toward Tompkins Square Park at the end of my block. I couldn't believe how well they'd cast "generic old man on a park bench." The attention to detail let me know that he was supposed to be my first mark, so I approached him immediately. Wild-eyed, I said hello. He looked nervous but returned the greeting. I grabbed his bike with the intention of taking it for a few laps. "No!" he shouted, as he yanked it away. The old man had some chops. Figuring our scene was up, I sprinted east toward the dog park and hurdled the fence. Before popping back out at the end of the dog run, I dropped down to gallop on all fours with the pack.

Any minor doubts that we were shooting were eliminated when Daniel Day-Lewis power walked through the basketball court. He was dressed in full Gangs of New York regalia—top hat and coat, but, of course, not too heavy for the period, and a long waxed mustache. The producers knew he was my favorite actor, and as a legendary practical joker, he must have agreed to make a cameo just for the hell of it. We certainly couldn't afford him.

I continued my march through the city for the next 11 hours. On the corner of Houston and First Ave, thinking the streets had been closed for me, and the cars were piloted by professional drivers on a closed course, I sprinted across the intersection, narrowly avoiding several taxis as they braked and swerved out of my path. On the other side, I unilaterally engaged a group of black men in a rap battle. My words spilled out of me as if I was reciting memorized verse, familiar as the Pledge of Allegiance, but faster and fiercer than Eminem. I didn't know I could do that, but I felt like a professional MC.

"Yo, man. You gotta chill. You're going to get squashed." I wasn't sure if he meant by him or the traffic.

"Nothing can touch me. This is my day," I countered, and threw my baseball cap on the ground. A demonstration of victory and a generous offering of a soon-to-be-valuable souvenir.

"You're crazy, dude. You should roll. Be careful."

I continued following the foot traffic through the East Village, still thinking the invisible producers, watching on monitors, were using the pedestrians to guide me to specific shooting locations. I ended up on a Brooklyn-bound L train, surrounded by what I still thought were extras and assistants, headed to Williamsburg.

When the train stopped, everyone spilled out in their own directions. Alone and without guidance, I panicked. "What do you want from me?!" I screamed, crying so hard my contacts flushed out of my eyes. I'd lost the game.

The police approached, and their uniforms looked real, but I thought the cop who cuffed me—"for safety purposes"—was an actor. "But you're not real cops?" I asked as they detained me. "No, there's a costume party later," he said. Well, it was close to Halloween, I thought.

Hours later I was admitted to Bellevue's locked psychiatric ward. They called my mother in Wichita, Kansas and told her only that I was being held in a mental ward. At 50, she booked her first trip to the East Coast.

The next day, she walked through the two doors marked "Danger of Patient Elopement," tried to ignore the nylon restraints peeking out of the nurse's drawer and spotted someone resembling her 26-year-old, bearded, public-defender son. I was 35 pounds underweight, shoulder blades slicing through my blue scrubs. I had a rigid mohawk and a Wyatt Earp style mustache.

"Bird?" I asked.

I'd nicknamed her the Bird as a teen because of her tendency to move her head in choppy sequences when her feathers were ruffled. I squinted at her, trying without my contacts to make out the blurry image.

"The Bird is here," she told me.

"The Bird can't be here, the Bird lives in Wichita."

"The Bird got on a plane," she said. "You're a bag of bones, Gorilla."

Throughout the day, I'd spotted at least 30 doppelgangers of people from my past— my best friend from grade school, the girl I lost my virginity to at 14, and, in the hospital intake, my father whom I hadn't seen in years. I was shocked at how much research this must have required by the producers. It wasn't until my mother used my nickname, stemming from my excessive body hair and barrel chest, that I believed it was actually her and not an actor in prosthetics.

She tried to convince me that we were not being videotaped by hidden cameras, that the other patients were not wearing masks and voice modulation boxes. The bald old man wandering around talking to himself was not the dad from Everybody Loves Raymond. This was real. I assumed the producers had not told her what was going on, in the interest of keeping her performance authentic.

"Mom, you're a terrible actor," I said.

"You are in a locked psychiatric ward," she explained. "Your roommate said you wrote all over your apartment walls in red Magic Marker."

"I was being filmed," I insisted. "Daniel Day-Lewis was on my street."

"Son, half the people in your neighborhood look like Daniel Day-Lewis."

I just stared at her blankly.

Logic failing, the Bird took a break and held my hand. This breed of bird does not shrink from adversity. She raised three kids alone, working at a grocery store full time and eventually earned a Ph.D. in urban education.

This was not her first experience with psych wards. Her older brother overdosed the day I was born. He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and spent the last 15 years of his life institutionalized. Later she told me that she went to my apartment after her visits, completely shattered, pleading to herself, "He can't be schizophrenic. I can't lose him. He is not my brother. He's too brilliant."

Regaining sanity in a mental hospital was like treating a migraine at a rave. My belief that I was being videotaped was supported by the fact that the place looked exactly like the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—walls totally white, inmates wandering around drooling, fighting patients tackled and injected. The only change since the 1950s seemed to be the smoking ban. The Bird's calming reassurances and a heavy dose of antipsychotics eventually helped dissolve the cinematic into reality—the doctors started to look real, and I began to realize that, quick as catching a cold, my mind had disappeared. I was diagnosed as Bipolar 1 with a psychotic break, not schizophrenic like Uncle Neddie. With proper meds, this could be an isolated incident.

After one week on the ward, we returned to my East Village apartment. I felt better, but not safe. In the bathroom mirror I could still see the madness in my dilated pupils. The term "psychotic break" tortured me. I was in the same league as Charles Manson and Uncle Neddie—the man who, high on PCP, was beaten by five cops on my grandma's front lawn, and who chased me with nunchucks on his Christmas visits when my soccer ball got near his room. I wanted to shatter the glass but instead I collapsed in the corner, shivering and crying. The incomprehensibility of the situation overwhelmed. The Bird came in and rubbed my back.

"I'm insane," I sobbed.

"You're going to be OK, Gorilla," she said.

"Can we just watch TV? I don't want to be alone."

"Of course."

We posted up on my couch and watched The Princess Bride, a movie I had memorized by age seven. I feared that I would be my family's burden for life, but with The Bird by my side, I calmed for the first time in weeks. The Bird and I flew home to Wichita the next day.

Depakote made me gain 30 pounds in three weeks. Risperdal reduced me to an impotent, libido-less, drooling sack. My 70-pound English bulldog snored at my feet as I watched hours of television and we competed to see who could generate more slobber and gas. I was so scared of what had happened that I took the drugs until I decided that feeling no emotion was worse than severe depression. Against the advice of my psychiatrist in Kansas, I abruptly quit taking both. He told me I was exposing myself to a serious risk of seizures and almost certain severe depression. The seizures never came.

I went through months of sleeping 15 hours a day, bitter that this disease had chosen me at random, possibly erasing years of academic achievement and my career as an attorney. My girlfriend broke up with me over Gchat a few days before I returned to New York. She was livid that I'd risked going off my meds, and she didn't believe me when I told her I'd trust a psychiatrist in New York to prescribe something new. "I'm done trying to make someone happy who seems comfortable being miserable." Friends distanced themselves, uninterested in remaining in my crazy orbit. I lost my apartment in the Village. It had been difficult to paint over the Magic Marker.

The Bird and I both worried I'd returned to New York too soon, but there was nothing else to do. I couldn't keep chain smoking Marlboro Lights in the garage and drinking beers in the basement while family friends acted like it was a blessing that I'd come back to the Heartland. When she called to tell me my bulldog had died, I said, "I hope you don't care that I don't care. I just can't care."

"Not at all," she said. "You got a lot going on right now."

When I panicked in the middle of the night, I'd call her. She answered every time, she never cried. "You aren't crazy. Crazy people don't know they're crazy," she tried to reassure me. Eventually, Lamictal, a much milder mood stabilizer, returned me to a safe equilibrium, and the 3 a.m. calls became less and less frequent. I realized there would be no shaking the fear that this could happen again, but I accepted it. It's not fair, and no one asks for this, but neither do diabetics or cancer patients. It wasn't my fault; mental illness is no more preventable than lymphoma.

After a three-month leave of absence I returned to work. My caseload had dropped from 70 to zero. Reactions to my return ranged from, "Where have you been?" to "Welcome back." A few people hugged me and cried. As public defenders we fight for clients who are mentally unfit to stand trial on a near-daily basis. We meet our clients for the first time in jail. I knew if there was a group of people that wouldn't judge someone for a DSM-V code, it was my colleagues.

But, real or imagined, I felt a widened berth in the hallway and could only see their shattered perception of who I was in their eyes. The hotshot with the mohawk was actually the deeply troubled sad sack with "issues." Soon enough, I was back in court, and my projections begin to melt, but I was armed with a completely different understanding of my mentally ill clients than I ever hoped to have. Every time I was forced to send someone to Bellevue I battled a wave of nausea. I wished I could tell them, "You aren't crazy. Crazy people don't know they're crazy."

Zachary McDermott is a writer and public defender in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently working on a memoir.

[Image by Jim Cooke]