By Zack Mcdermott (New York Times)
What do you wear the first day back to work after a 90-day leave of absence because of a psychotic break? This is the question I found myself asking a little more than a year after I joined the Legal Aid Society of New York. The last time my colleagues had seen me, I’d been wearing a handlebar mustache better suited to a Hell’s Angel than a 26-year-old public defender. I’d also taken to wearing a Mohawk — tried a case like that even. We won, thank God.
At the happy hour following that trial, I stripped down to my underwear and did a titillating strip tease for a bunch of law students who were there as a part of a recruiting event for a white shoe law firm. It didn’t go over well but I didn’t care. I thought I nailed it.
For my first day back to work I dressed in a sober navy sweater and a pair of dark slacks. Normal haircut, neatly trimmed beard. I got there early to avoid the morning rush and the inevitable stares and whispers. I had been “away with some issues” — that was the official company line, but offices are gossip hotbeds, and I wondered how much of the real story had filtered through. Did they know that I’d marched through the city for 12 hours — manic, psychotic and convinced I was being videotaped by secret TV producers, the star of my own reality show? That the police had found me later that evening shirtless, barefoot and crying on a subway platform? That I’d been involuntarily committed to Bellevue, the notorious psych ward to which we at Legal Aid routinely sent our most mentally ill clients?
For most, an involuntary stay in a locked psychiatric ward becomes a closely guarded secret. But part of me wanted everyone to know. I wanted them to know that I had received a Bipolar I diagnosis — that the “madman” they’d been covering for was actually a very sick young man who did things he feels guilty about, but who also knows that he had no more control over the doing of those things than a cancer patient has over the state of his lymph nodes.
Because that’s the thing about mental illness — our brains betray us. Our symptoms are our behavior, and the disease makes us do humiliating and dangerous things.
In the weeks leading up to my break, I knew something was up with me. I couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours each night, but seemed to have limitless reserves of energy. At times, I felt like electricity was shooting through my spine, that I was breathing in secrets of the universe.
I cried a lot, too. I’d listen to Bruce Springsteen sing “41 Shots” and weep in my room while I meditated on police brutality. These, I would learn, are all classic symptoms of bipolar disorder: the delusions of grandeur, the insomnia, the rapid cycling moods. And I was in my mid-20s — the textbook clinical age when bipolar disorder tends to present.
I wanted to tell my colleagues that the “madman” — the drunk, naked guy who ran through oncoming traffic and covered his wall in Sharpie — was gone. That he didn’t go easy, that he had to be killed with a drug regimen that had left me drooling and impotent, with my hair falling out by the fistful, rapidly packing on weight.
Now I had to clean up the mess he’d made. 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.” I’d lost friends, an apartment, maybe my job and reputation, too.
Mercifully, one person stuck by me through it all — my mom, nicknamed the Bird on account of the choppy, avian head movements she makes when her feathers are ruffled. She had been my tether in a hurricane.
During my leave of absence, I’d taken to calling the Bird in the middle of the night, every night, to hear her voice. I knew the toll it was taking on her. I could feel her heart breaking for me. 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.
What I wanted to hear was, “This will never happen again.” I wanted to hear that I’d never again be restrained and injected with anti-psychotics. That I’d never have to smell that place again or eat that food. That I’d never again wonder if the orderlies would tackle the flailing patient before he really starts swinging. That I would never again fear the worst in a communal psych-ward shower. But no one, not even the Bird, could tell me that.
I buzzed my security card and entered the interior office. The halls of the Legal Aid Society felt nearly as claustrophobic as the psych ward. I wanted to believe that these people understood mental illness. They make their paltry living arguing on behalf of the poor and mentally ill, citing poverty and mental illness as an explanation for “bad” behavior every day in criminal court. But I was terrified of them.
I had to go talk to my supervisor. But just before I rounded the corner, my body made a U-turn back to the lobby and dove into the restroom. I fished my phone out of my pocket, scrolled to the Bs, and tapped Bird.
It was 8:30 a.m. in Kansas — she’d be busy setting up her students as they trickled into her class. She answered on the first ring; her phone had become an appendage since I moved back to New York.
“Gorilla report?” (The Bird nicknamed me Gorilla, because of my barrel chest and hirsute body.)
“Gorilla is at Legal Aid.”
“First day of school? Not good?”
“Not good.” I spilled it — sobbed, breathed, sobbed. “I shouldn’t be here. This is so ridiculous. I feel like such an idiot. Idiot! I can’t see these people again yet.”
“Steppers keep on stepping. You’re a …”
“Not a stepper! Not a stepper. No steps.”
“Three months ago you were in a locked psych ward. You’re at work now. You’re still an attorney. It’s not easy, what you’re doing.”
“I’m scared. Of everyone. And everything — all the time,” I told her. “The subway. Confined spaces. Walking through the halls, waiting for everyone to stare at me, and think, The Madman is back in the building.”
“You need Mama Gorilla to open up five cans of whoop ass on somebody?”
I laughed. I knew she’d love to.
“Boy, we been through the fire with gasoline soaked drawers on. You got this. Puff out that big gorilla chest and go rip it off like a Band-Aid. Call me if you need me.”
I wiped my eyes, left the stall, and splashed some cold water on my face. Game time. Don’t let them see you sweat. Steppers keep on stepping. I looked in the mirror — You look good, you look normal. You’re a normal guy. Then I slapped myself in the face as hard as I could.
I knew I had a lifelong disease and that bipolar disorder is something to be managed, not cured. I knew I’d need to take medication for the rest of my life and that I’d humiliated myself in front of countless friends and strangers alike. I knew that I had more in common than I’d have liked with my schizophrenic uncle Eddie who lived the last 15 years of his life in a state mental institution. That no matter how early I got to work, no matter how useful I made myself, no matter how reasonable and modest my khakis and my sweater were, I was and would always be the “crazy” dude.
I finally bucked up and made it to my supervisor’s office. I knew we’d have a come-to-Jesus talk soon enough — my practice was in disarray when I left — but he seemed genuinely glad to see me. “You look great,” he told me. “Got some meat back on your bones. We’re thrilled to have you back.”
Twenty minutes later, he was forced to dismiss me. I needed a note from my psychiatrist declaring me fit to return to duty. “Sorry,” he said, “it’s just policy. You can’t be in the building without a note.”
“Them’s the rules,” I said.
I was relieved to have an out but I was humiliated all the same. The note requirement didn’t feel like the fulfillment of a bureaucratic requirement; it felt like a request for proof of sanity. We’re thrilled to have you. Now we’ll be needing certification that you’re no longer certifiable.
I got the note the next day and returned. I knew I had no choice but to keep showing up every day, take my meds, keep my pants on and channel my trauma as best I could to find a way to be someone else’s Bird.
It did not work.
What I’d once viewed as my dream job became a pressure cooker I couldn’t withstand. The cramped jail cells where we public defenders spend so much of our working day frequently triggered PTSD symptoms, bringing me right back to the claustrophobia of forced confinement. But it was the anxiety attacks after work that eventually did me in. My philosophy as a public defender was that no one should spend an extra hour in jail because of a mistake I made. It’s probably an impossible standard to meet, but I couldn’t shake the fear that I wasn’t cutting it. After two more psychotic breaks and hospitalizations, I left the Legal Aid Society.
It’s been two years now, and thanks to the love and support of the Bird and modern pharmacology, I no longer live in constant fear that my mind will abandon me at any time. I also live with the knowledge that millions of others with mental illness live with that fear, and suffer through it alone, and far too many are sucked into our hyperactive justice system and treated as criminals for an illness they are powerless to fight. A 2015 investigation by The Times found that nearly 40 percent of the population at Rikers Island, a total of 4,000 men and women at any given time, suffer from mental illness. In other words, our jails have become our de facto mental health facilities.
Ultimately, I couldn’t take the pressure of having lives hanging in the balance when I went off the work in the morning, while also keeping my bipolar in check.
What I could do, though, was speak and write honestly about being utterly at the mercy of my illness, and being pulled from the brink by the care of one person’s love. And that’s what I am doing now.