As beautifully told in his book Gorilla and the Bird, former attorney Zack McDermott relied on his mother’s unconditional support while winning his way back to stability
At the time, it all made perfect sense to Zack McDermott.
After stepping outside his apartment one October afternoon in 2009, he immediately knew that cameras were rolling—and he was starring in a reality show being filmed on the streets of New York City’s East Village. He was living a dream come true: auditioning for a TV pilot based on his comedy stand-up act.
In fact, the 26-year-old attorney was in the depths of his first psychotic episode. For nearly 12 hours, he did his best to be entertaining, at least in his own mind. Clad only in shorts, his feet bare, he maneuvered through crushing New York City traffic and a swanky lower Manhattan bar. He cavorted through a dog park on all fours. His grand finale concluded with him sobbing on a dingy subway platform.
Cut to the final scene: McDermott inside an ambulance and the sound of the radio dispatch: “Intake available at Bellevue”—the venerable public hospital legendary for its psychiatric ward.
During his 10 days as an inpatient, McDermott received a bipolar I diagnosis and began to document his experiences. Those notes became the basis for an unexpectedly successful memoir: Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love, now out in paperback.
On its original release in October 2017, the book’s portrayal of an unconventional but rock-solid family won praise from the New York Times, NPR and Kirkus Reviews (“rueful, funny and utterly authentic”). The media flurry continued with interviews in the likes of Rolling Stone. Actor Channing Tatum’s production company optioned the book with plans for a possible TV miniseries.
The Gorilla in the title is McDermott and the Bird is his mom—one Cindy Cisneros-McGilvrey of Wichita, Kansas. She raised three children there on her own after their father took off, leaving $37 in their checking account. She worked in a grocery store to support the family, went back to school when McDermott was 7, ultimately earned a PhD in secondary education, and established a career as a teacher.
She’s been a constant source of support for her son, his unwavering and optimistic advocate during the toughest times—of which he admits he’s had plenty. And she does it from six states away, with clarity and compassion.
McDermott, who is now 35, attributes his nickname to his ample body hair, large chest, and a tendency to grumpiness. His mom’s moniker came from “her tendency to move her head in these choppy semicircles when her feathers are ruffled,” he writes.
Whether making speeches from the podium or communing with readers at book signings, McDermott gets an overwhelming response when he talks about his mom.
“I watch people’s reaction to my mother,like, ‘Your mother is a deity,’ and that’s taught me so much about her and given me a new perspective.
“In fact,” he continues, “she has lived a life that allowed me to write a book about her. Those people’s reactions drive home the enormity of everything she did for us three kids growing up. We never had enough money, but I never knew hunger.”
Despite the hardships, McDermott recognizes that he’s always had a kind of wealth others might envy: “There was almost a foregone conclusion that I would never be in the discard file,” is how he puts it.
“My mom was next-level…. I remember when I was in the psych ward, she came to visit me at every opportunity. I was one of the only people who had visitors most days and, every single time, she was there.”
For her part, Cisneros-McGilvrey describes getting the news that her son was in Bellevue as “terrifying.” In a video made when the book was released, she reflects any parent’s dilemma in that situation: “It’s difficult to know what to do when your child is in New York and you’re in Wichita, Kansas.”
What she did do was make herself available in daily phone calls and provide long-distance coaching when McDermott was feeling especially uncertain, even if she was in her classroom at the time.
When asked to describe his mother in five adjectives, McDermott doesn’t hesitate to provide six: “Tenacious—there ain’t no quit in the Bird—strong, warm, loving, smarter than heck, and hilarious.”
Accepting his diagnosis back in 2009 was fairly easy for McDermott. Acclimating his life to it, not so much.
“I was told what it was, bipolar I, and I read about the symptoms and accepted it straight away,” he recalls. “It’s hard not to admit that something has gone terribly wrong when you think you’re on a TV show for the better part of a week.
“Hearing the language, though, was tough, and I thought, ‘You’re that thing, and unfortunately or not, that fact is not going to change.’”
McDermott returned to his job as a public defender for the Legal Aid Society of New York three months after his psychotic break. In hindsight, he admits he wasn’t ready when he returned to work then, or after two subsequent episodes in 2010 and 2011.
It wasn’t stigma in the workplace that pushed McDermott to switch from the law to writing, though he describes getting “some ‘side-eye’” after his leaves. It was more the nature of his job, which ultimately led to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety symptoms.
By nature highly conscientious, McDermott worried that a casual mistake might cause one of his clients to incur extra jail time.
“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,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times in September 2017.
Eventually, his personal and professional experiences blurred together in an unsustainable way: “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 to work in the morning, while also keeping my bipolar in check.”
While McDermott is no longer on the front lines of the justice system, he now gets “to interact with a lot of people who care about this sort of thing.”
He adds, “I do feel more liberated now than I did a decade ago, about speaking openly about it and in public. I do think stigma is fading a little bit and that we are starting to reckon with these kinds of topics as a society.”
Social justice for those with mental health issues has been a continuing campaign for McDermott and his family. He’s determined to foster changing attitudes, to “decriminalize” mental illness, through the efforts of his Gorilla Bird Foundation. He says his grandmother is the first donor, having promised $99,000 to kick things off. She sold the farm where she grew up in Oklahoma to make that happen.
“We want to end the mental health-to-prison pipeline through the arts,” says McDermott, who saw enough of that kind of warehousing during his years as a public defender.
“We’re aiming at people who … are at risk of becoming incarcerated, or who have been incarcerated. We’ll teach them documentary filmmaking and other creative pursuits. Not only will we work with people who’ve been convicted of crimes, but in an about-face, we’ll give preference to them.”
For society in general, he’d like more education around bipolar disorder starting in grade school, to head off pejoratives such as “so-and-so is bipolar” applied to everyday behavior.
“Let’s teach that rather than bipolar disorder being a debilitating thing, it’s more like, ‘I got a cold and I’ll take this medicine for it,’” he says.
McDermott knows he can’t expect everyone to completely understand what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder or psychosis.
“What most people can’t relate to is a sudden or near-sudden loss of lucidity, the immediate and total inability to distinguish what’s real and what’s not, when the elements of the unreal become part of your reality. I know what that somersault looks like and feels like.”
Nonetheless, he adds, “I think almost everyone can relate to being out of control, and feeling like they are at the mercy of forces that are not themselves. Everybody’s got a little bit of that.”
Self-education for those with the illness is equally important. His own climb to stability was not without its setbacks.
“Learning to maintain this condition is a marathon, not a sprint. It hurts and it takes a lot of patience and endurance. Eventually you learn you’re actually running an ultramarathon and that’s a lot of miles.”
This all entails a massive dose of self-awareness and responsibility, he says.
“It is manipulatable by the host—that’s you—and it can get better if you give it its due and proper respect, which can take a lot of doing. It can humble and humiliate you repeatedly as you learn to dance with it.”
He likens his own bipolar to a giant wave: “You really can learn to surf it,” he says. Moderation is key, he knows, though it’s not always so easy to maintain.
“I still drink more than I should sometimes, or smoke, but I realize I’m not always going to be perfect. Maybe you also struggle with a dual diagnosis—many of us do have substance abuse issues. If I do want to have a beer, I accept that but try not to drink when I really don’t have to.”
He tries to take care of his body and brain as he does a car, and to pay attention to every indicator on his dashboard.
“I might need an oil change, or to check my wiper fluid levels,” he says. “I try to keep tabs on how I’m feeling all the time.”
Then there are the basics, as described to Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year: “It’s actually pretty simple. My maintenance procedure is to get enough sleep … if you feel like you’re going to an unsafe or dangerous place, take the proper medication and get some rest.”
Downtime hasn’t been as easy to come by since his memoir’s “instant” success. (He wrote the book over eight years, with the oversight of two writing partners and a “brilliant” editor, then painstakingly trimmed the manuscript from 3,000 pages down to 287.) But he’s careful to stay grounded despite the media exposure.
“I don’t get stopped on the street. We’re writers and nobody knows what we look like. It’s been cool, though. You want people to respond to your work, and like it or not, you’d better shut up and be glad someone wants to interview you.”
Unlike other aspiring writers, his post-publication “peeps” include a literary agent, a publicist, book-to-film agent, a production company, and another production company.
“There hasn’t been time for a lot of champagne cork-popping along the way, though,” he says, especially since the paperback release this fall occasioned more publicity demands.
Part of the payoff for all that time and effort will be spreading the message that we can all be the Bird for someone in need.
“When people are at their absolute worst, when your instinct is to be repelled by them, what you really need to do is go toward them,” McDermott says. “It’s good advice from the Bird on how to be there for a friend or loved one who’s going through it.”
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WHAT WORKS FOR ZACK MCDERMOTT
A feline friend: Getting a cat was one of McDermott’s early self-care steps. He declares his devotion to his jet-black male kitty, Gorilla Junior. Of course, he’s also devoted to—and grateful to rely on—his wife of six years, Aurélie Hagen.
Working out: McDermott believes that “getting a sweat in is huge.” One caveat: “I try not to get mad at myself or blame myself when I don’t.” He also endeavors to do yoga occasionally.
Self-forgiveness: He’s a strong proponent of “don’t be too hard on yourself,” especially as it applies to erratic behavior due to bipolar disorder. “It can be very hard not to hate yourself for some of the stuff you’ve done—like being a jerk—under the influence of bipolar disorder. Give yourself hourly permission to move forward and to not feel bad.”