In this episode, co-hosts Sara Dixon and Daniel Pewewardy explore the topic of mental illness with guest Zack McDermott, author of the memoir Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love. Zack, who grew up in Wichita, talks about his book, how his mom inspires him, his love/hate relationship with his hometown, and shares his experiences living with Bipolar I disorder.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription. Some errors may occur. If you find a transcription error, please contact us with any corrections and we will make those corrections as quickly as possible.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis here around Wichita, call COMCARE's 24-hour crisis line at (316) 660-7500.
If you think you or a loved one may be having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the United States.
DANIEL PEWEWARDY, VOICEOVER: Welcome to Read. Return. Repeat. : A ReadICT Podcast. We're your hosts. I'm Daniel Pewewardy.
SARA DIXON, VOICEOVER: And I'm Sara Dixon. We're both librarians at the Advanced Learning Library.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: In today's episode, titled Checked Out, we're going to jump ahead to category 11 to explore the topic of mental illness and one man's experience living with bipolar disorder.
SARA, VOICEOVER: Zack McDermott, originally from Wichita, is the author of Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love. In the book, he recounts the psychotic break that led to his Bipolar I diagnosis and the love and support of his mother that allowed him to learn to live with it.
SARA: Okay. Hey Zack, thanks so much for joining us today.
ZACK MCDERMOTT: Hello. Thanks for having me.
SARA: Yeah, we're excited to get into it.
DANIEL: Yeah, it's nice to meet you.
For those who haven't read the book, can you tell our listeners about it?
ZACK: Okay, so Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother's Love. Pretty accurate subtitle, I think. So when I was 26, I was living in New York. I just moved here after law school in Virginia. I was doing stand-up comedy at night and I was making a living as a public defender during the day, kind of burning the candle at both ends. Comedy picked up pretty quickly. I actually did find myself in some chats to maybe have a TV show that I would write and star in. I made friends with this guy who was the brother of a pretty big celebrity who actually died, but he had loads of connections from this, loads of money and he became my partner and we were very good friends. Toward the end of my first year, I had the first of what would be several psychotic breaks. I was running around New York City convinced that I was being videotaped Truman Show style, that Jim Carrey movie where he's a character in a TV show but only he doesn't know it, all his friends are fake and actors. I thought that my producer, my friend had set this up because I was not an actor so we thought maybe if we kind of taped me in the wild through like hidden cameras and things like that, that I would be a more natural actor.
Yes, none of this makes sense. I was experiencing a psychotic break. I ran through the streets of New York for 10, 12 hours, broke up a rec league soccer game, ran through the game exposing my buttocks, just mooning the whole crowd. Everyone screamed for me to leave. Went and started a rap battle with a group of Black guys on the corner. Ended up on a subway with my shirt off, my shoes off, wearing only soccer shorts in late October. It's freezing. I get off the train and I think all the pedestrians are basically doubling as production assistants so like I'm supposed to follow the crowd basically scene to scene. You get off, half the people of the left, half people go right. I don't know who to follow. I'm exhausted, I'm confused, I start crying. Two N.Y.P.D. officers come up they asked me what's the problem. I tell them I think the problem is I'm cold and I'm trying to figure it out. This guy says, "You got no shirt on, no shoes and you're sitting here crying. You don't think that's a problem?" I was like, I don't know. So they're like, "You don't seem violent." It's like, I'm completely non-violent. And they said, "Well, you don't mind if we cuff you then for safety purposes?" I said no, but you're not real cops, right? And the guy said, "No, there's a costume party later." So this reaffirmed that yes, we are in a TV show.
They cuffed me. Instead of a squad car, they put me in the back of an ambulance, they take me to the notorious Bellevue psych ward where I stay for the next 10 days mostly still convinced I'm on a TV show. My mom shows up. At first I don't even think it's her, I think it's an actor in prosthetics. She got a call from N.Y.P.D. while she's in Wichita where I'm from. She flies out to New York, she's there for every minute of every visiting opportunity and it's not until she uses my name, Gorilla -- she's the bird -- that I believe it's her. So we talk, I'm still trying to convince her it's a TV show, I tell her she's a terrible actor. And she's, you know, there five minutes, 10 minutes before every visiting opportunity, stays until they kick her out. I had to go back to Wichita after I was discharged. I stayed with her for three months just mostly smoking and drinking in her garage and trying to just process what happened and my new reality: can I be a comedian, can I be a lawyer again? What does bipolar disorder mean? Which is what I was diagnosed with. And this was not really my first rodeo. My uncle who is dead now was a paranoid schizophrenic. I have a lot of mental illness in my family. And I represent mentally ill people as a public defender for a living and I've sent a lot of people to Bellevue so I left with an appreciation for the place that, you know, I never wanted to be but did have to send people sometimes. And there's a lot of Wichita in there, some stand-up comedy, the maybe a little love story and it works out or it doesn't but I'm alive so that's... that's a long version of the back of the book. I maybe should have just read that, but that's... that's what happened.
SARA: Thank you. I mean, it was a lot to share with your readers so...
DANIEL: So the readers of the book not only read your story but also your mom's. How has the success of your memoir affected her? How did she react when you told her you were writing a memoir that she would be co-starring in?
ZACK: She's my number one fan. She loves it. She loves... you know, if I need a confidence boost, I'll send her whatever I'm working on, it's always brilliant. She's a writer herself, she loves writing, she's an English major. So I don't think I could have done anything that would make her more proud than getting a book published and she loves that it's about her. She's not shy. She's a teacher, she speaks a lot. We speak at mental health -- I don't know what you call them -- functions together frequently. She's funny and I mean she's the hero of the book so like what do you want, you know? Your son is lionizing you. I think she's... she's cool with it so...
SARA: She definitely is the hero.
SARA: She seems like a really cool person.
ZACK: She's hard to write because she is really such a good person that I didn't want it to seem like, oh, I love my mommy, my mommy's so great. And you know --
SARA: There's nothing wrong with that, is there?
DANIEL: That's fine.
ZACK: No but it's kind of boring and then like, okay, great, your mom's great, we get it. But you know, she... she is. So it was challenging, it was like honestly challenging to make her believable because the woman is nearly saintly. I mean, she embodies unconditional love for a lot of people and people that society writes off. You know, gang members, things like that, like we grew up around a lot of gang members because our house was just open to anyone. She'd feed people, tutor people and you know, we have guys coming over that are struggling to read on a third grade level that are out getting shot, getting arrested, some went to prison, you know, and some got college scholarships because of her. Couple did both. And you know, we've got a guy that we're very close to, Bobby, and he went to prison for seven years for a pretty heinous crime but, you know, he's still family and he showed up at our place as soon as he got out. You know, he calls my mom, "mom," and she's just a very non-judgmental empathetic person that's good at loving people, not even in spite of their flaws but almost because of them. And you know, she's got... there's a line in the book like the bird's got some flaws in her feathers and... and one is kind of her choice of romantic partner.
My dad, no one would really nominate him for dad of the year. He left when I was very young. I don't really have much of a relationship with him. My stepdad was, you know, you could probably say verbally, emotionally abusive, was definitely like very authoritarian and it was just eight years of locking horns with him. Things got to where they never got violent but he like kind of, you know, wanted it to. Told my mom he'd love to take me outside and beat my you-know. She's like, you know, you lay hands on him, I will have you arrested but first I will stitch you into the bed and beat you with some pots and pans. And then we left the next day. But she has a lot of guilt I think about like kind of the male figures that she "put into her life." But for me, you know, when she married my stepdad I was seven or eight which would make my mom 31. And I was the middle child, so she had a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old, an 11-year-old. She was broke. You know, we needed some... I'm not saying she married him for money, he didn't really have much. He was very middle class. But it put us squarely in the middle class and also I think, you know, she just wanted her boys to have a father figure.
And it's interesting, you know, I don't want to get too deep into like the psychoanalysis of it but like I was thinking about this the other day and I was like, you know, I think the therapist might say that I've kind of been abandoned twice like by father figures because, you know, after we moved out, he like never spoke to me again. He made an effort to have a relationship with my brother but not me. And I never cared because I didn't like the guy and he didn't like me and I was just happy he was gone. But I was just thinking about it. I was like, you know, back of the mind like, you know, that that probably left a mark of some sort but I think just on balance it was so much better that, you know, I was happy with it. But yeah, you know, I think it probably could have even been worse than it was and thankfully she left when she did. But yeah, she has guilt about how she manages her finances too which like, you know, I tell her like, look, we were broke, what are you gonna do? There's nothing to manage. You know, you're managing groceries. So but yeah, she's very cool, very funny, very smart, very sweet.
SARA: Well, your feelings on her are very clear in your book.
Now, in reading it -- because Daniel and I both read it -- you're not very nice to your hometown of Wichita which Daniel and I both call home.
SARA: There's contempt for sure but there's still like this underlying sense of attachment.
SARA: How has your relationship to Wichita changed following the publication of this book and relatedly, how did your local like family, friends, acquaintances, the people from here respond to your more scathing assessments?
ZACK: So the city itself, I really... I love Wichita, I do. I do call it home and I come back whenever I can. I think, you know, I didn't have too many people from Wichita say I missed the mark. A lot of people are like, "Yeah --"
"I know this place." And you know, Wichita's got a lot of problems. There's a lot to like, there's a lot that's problematic and then there's a lot that's just like, you know, I wish we had more vegan options, you know, things like this.
ZACK: You know what I mean? Like just kind of culture and food and things like that that like, you know, yeah, I love all that New York has to offer but you know I find Wichita amusing. I think you can read the book and say, yeah, you're harsh on the town. And I would say like, okay, maybe but this was my experience. I think anyone that lives there does have positive and negative things to say about it. I think a lot of the negative stuff I highlighted is kind of funny. And it's... you know, like it was a hard place to grow up in a lot of ways, like I got in a lot of fights growing up and I think it was, you know, there's this culture of like toxic cowboy masculinity and, you know, there's like... we all know there's fights in Wichita, whether you get in one or not. It's not... it's not an easy place. And you know, I was an athlete, I went to a lot of parties and, you know, people come, they drink, they get tough, testosterone gets going. And before you know, people are knuckling up and I was beat up very badly a few times. It's no secret that there's a lot of, you know, racism and Trumpism in Wichita which I'm... you know, that's the opposite of what I'm about so like yeah, I mean there's stuff that makes me angry about it, there's stuff I can't stand. There's a lot of people I don't want to associate with. But beautiful sunsets, you know? It's a very easy place to live, it's cheaper than hell. Get anywhere --
SARA: Low cost of living.
DANIEL: For now. For now. The rent's going a little bit up right now but it's still pretty good.
ZACK: Yeah, my $2200 apartment, it ain't much. But yeah, no, so that's first part of question. The second, friends and family, definitely did not go over well with my dad's side of the family. Been semi-disowned. Definitely not going to Christmas anytime soon, might even really have to skip a funeral. They all also carry guns so I'm not really interested in any sort of confrontation. And look, I get, especially my uncle, where they're coming from. You know, it wasn't a flattering portrayal. That's not to say it lacked verisimilitude, but it wasn't flattering. I do think it was funny. I do have people that have read the book have said like, "They were mad about that? That's nothing." And you can tell that you love them. And I do feel like, you know, it was revealing some of the like, you know, funny stuff like my family is funny, unintentionally a lot of the time. But you know, people like you can tell you love them, you just kind of tell them how it is. And what's funny is my uncle, whose name was changed, called me up and just ripped into me, called me all sorts of stuff. And you know, the funny thing is he's not named in the book. And I'm just like, if there's nothing true here, how do you... like where do you recognize yourself, you know? Like how do you know this isn't just someone totally made up? So then he went on some website, wrote some horrible review of the book, said it reads like a cheap grade school paperback and then sign -- so he logged into his real Facebook account so you know who it is and then he signed a name that I had assigned to him. It was like, literally no one would know this as you but now -- I mean, I won't say everyone does this like people are just like, well, let me find this obscure review of Gorilla and the Bird, but yeah, so they're pretty salty. And we don't really have a relationship to begin with. I'd see him once a year so it's not like a big thing, but I actually did feel really bad, felt like I was punching down and like I understood where they were hurt. But yeah, you know, I also stand by that chapter, I think it's pretty funny.
SARA: You know, I was like, oh man, that's not... there's no people like... you know, people like that don't exist. And I was like, oh yeah, I do know people who it reminds me of.
ZACK: It's also... there are several Wichitas. Like they're... those people definitely exist and so do gang members and so do rich people and so do Republicans and so do liberals. Like it's... it's a way more diverse city in ways other than race but racially too, than people think. You know, people think when you out here, you think it's you know a cornfield. I'm like, we've got more shootings per capita than Compton some years. Like it's, it's no... I do get nervous when I walk around. I feel like I don't necessarily like look, dress necessarily like your typical Wichitan, whatever that is, and I do feel like some eyes on me like from some of these good old boys who like just walk around with guns on their hips. And I think it's like, honestly, you know, I've got a very dark beard. I think there's maybe some like, "This guy one of them Muslim sort of things going on?" And like I feel that and I don't really see where else it's coming from. That's kind of like where I suspect it lies, from just the nature of, you know, what the people with... that are giving me eyes look like. So yeah, I mean I think I get a little nervous there too. I feel like people are a little too aggressive and violent. And you know, I talk to my grandma who lives there every day and she's always telling me about some new shooting, like happens way more often in New York. So yeah, it's a complicated place but definitely interesting.
DANIEL: I think it's like bubbles because I like will wear a lot of metal shirts and I can definitely know I'm not in my downtown bubble when I'm getting looks. Like, oh, I'm wearing a metal shirt at K-96 and Greenwich. Oh, I forgot.
ZACK: I also like... so I have a bad back and I was flying a lot when the book came out and I will stand up for like the good majority of the flight and I'll like walk back and forth. And no one ever cares where I'm going anywhere. But when I'm on the little puddle jumper transfer in... for in Dallas to go to Wichita and I get up and I'm like walking toward the cockpit and back, I swear to god I see people looking at me like is it time to say let's roll and tackle this guy? Especially because I'm always stretching so I think most people are probably listening to this so I'll describe what I'm doing. But make kind of a U goal post thing with my hands to like stretch out the thoracics --
SARA: For your back, yeah.
ZACK: And you know, I think it looks like I'm having kind of a little like, you know, prayer maybe beforehand and like I... I mean, I've... I don't think I'm projecting, like I... I see some people's faces and it's kind of crazy. But yeah, it feels like going into another dimension when you leave the East Village and go to Wichita but it's... it's fun. I... I don't think I'd, you know, really want to live there but I... I definitely enjoy visiting and my mom's still there.
DANIEL: So you offer a great detail of your manic episodes including some things I'm sure you'd rather not share with the whole world or that you wouldn't want your grandmother to read. Why share those things?
ZACK: I did want the whole world to read it, I want more people to read it. I... you know, part of it comes probably from whatever disposition it is that makes a person willing to do stand-up comedy, makes a person write a memoir. You know, if you're not really willing to like give us the straight scoop and, you know, be vulnerable, like I don't really want to read that. This, for me, I'm a writer first and, you know, a guy that lives with mental illness second and I'm all about like what's... what makes the better story, you know, like while staying true to the facts. But like it doesn't really matter how I feel, it matters like how you write the best book and you get one first book and you need to make it as good as possible so that was my concern. It also takes years to write this stuff. I had written an essay -- so you're kind of reckoning with that, you know, and you know what's coming a little bit. I also wrote an essay for Gawker, it got like a hundred thousand hits and I was still a lawyer at the time. And it was pretty revealing and vulnerable and, you know, it was a little nervy going to work the next day.
But I mean really, this experience and this book like helped me realize a lot of dreams and I think it's important that if you're able to do that without too much embarrassment that, you know, you tell those stories because, you know, people need to know like I'm not alone, there's nothing to be embarrassed about, this is an illness. I also just... I don't care, you know, if you're gonna judge me for... for whatever, for going crazy and doing crazy things while I was crazy. Then, you know, you don't get it and that's... that's on you. My grandma loves the book. She's read it a few times. Yeah, there's probably some stuff I wouldn't want to read aloud next to her but I think it was a good experience for her to read it too. I think she understood me way better, what's going on with me. I probably shed some light on her own son who is featured in the prologue. I did read that to her on Memorial Day at his grave actually and got a little weepy. But yeah, no, they... she loves the book and I'm... I'm just, I don't have a very high shame factor I guess, threshold. But yeah, I mean that's what you want to read, right? You want the warts not the like, oh, you know, work was great today, who cares?
SARA: Well, and I kind of... the way that I took it as your reader was just like lifting the veil on some of that stuff that we probably try to keep hidden.
SARA: You know, like it's important for us to read that, like I've never experienced anything like that and so in order to understand what more people are going through and you know.
DANIEL: It kind of goes into the whole like when you're talking about like polite society and like I forgot what word you use when you're in New York and you kind of have to ignore seeing crises just to get through your day because like you put blinders on and people need --
ZACK: Yeah. Just like --
DANIEL: Go ahead.
ZACK: Need blindness, I think, something like that is maybe what I said. Yeah, you have to... you'll never get to brunch if you stop to help everybody on the way. You know, you just won't. I see homeless people on the way to work. And then when I get to work, I represent homeless people and it's everywhere and it's very sad. Definitely you get some kind of like lingering secondary trauma if you will from being exposed to this all the time. But you know, you... you gotta have a certain stoicism to kind of like do this work effectively.
But yeah, you know, it's... it's terribly sad and New York's doing horrible things to the homeless right now. They're clearing out, you know, places where people sleep, you know. I mean, these are... these people are dwellingless but where you lay your head is your home. And just because it's a tent and a shopping cart doesn't mean it's more valuable -- you know, less valuable than my MacBook Air. It's way more valuable. I can get another one if mine goes on the fritz today. You know, so it's crazy what, you know, this Democratic mayor Eric Adams is doing. I... I can't believe, you know, the party of like Black Lives Matter couldn't do better than electing a like fairly authoritarian former police officer but, you know, that's what we did and so far it's kind of, you know, not been great for criminal defense nor homeless people. But you know, that's another story.
SARA: Different podcast.
ZACK: Exactly. Zack --
SARA: We're gonna take -- oh, I'm so sorry.
ZACK: Zack rants about local politicians.
SARA: We'll have that one next week.
ZACK: Yeah, sounds good.
SARA: Well, we're going to take a quick break. But when we get back, we want... we've got a couple more questions for you including some questions about your foundation.
VOICE: Did you know that the Wichita Public Library offers a large selection of digital magazines for free? They are easy to access and are now available to you on the Libby app. You can download Libby from your phone or tablet's app store, sign in with your Wichita Public Library card and start browsing immediately. Magazines can be found under the "Guide" section on Libby and include popular magazine titles about news and politics, cooking, celebrity news, healthy living, and more. For additional information on Libby, please visit wichita.overdrive.com.
DANIEL: Welcome back. In one of the interviews since publishing the book, you mentioned that it took you a number of years to write it and it was something like 3,000 pages long originally. Obviously a lot of the material was cut to get the book we know now as The Gorilla and the Bird. Do you have plans to write a second book with the discarded material? Are you working on anything else?
ZACK: Yeah, I'm writing a book right now. I have no idea what it's about. It's a sloppy novel. Hopefully --
SARA: Best kind.
ZACK: Yeah, hopefully kind of more of the same to a certain extent. But there's also been, you know, I'm almost 40 right now and like I think I've been just kind of meditating a lot on like what's life. And I keep coming to like some pretty cynical nihilistic conclusions. It keeps coming down to like nothing matters and the irony of like working really hard to articulate really well that nothing matters is not lost on me. [LAUGHS]
It's like, well, you're working awful hard to tell us that aren't you, bud?
But yeah, I kind of... you know, I'm like what... what's productive, what's a life, what's... what's cool, what's happy? You know, when did you... what's making it sort of thing. How do you deal with like friendships receding and fading and all but ceasing to exist and, you know, like being... being kind of lonely, being single. You know, all the stuff that, you know, these fragile little things we have that could probably break any of us down pretty good pretty quickly but that we kind of just march through life with our armor on pretending like we're not lonely and half depressed. [LAUGHS]
So yeah, kind of getting into that and I'm trying to not make it a huge buzzkill but I'm like, maybe I'm cynical, I don't know.
SARA: There are plenty of buzzkill books out there so you know you just kind of have to follow your inspiration, I guess.
ZACK: I mean, I just... I write every day more or less. I try to get a thousand words a day or more and, you know, it's whatever is on my mind at the moment because I just... you know, what's beautiful about writing I think once you're hitting your stride, like it's not too dissimilar from reading like I don't know what's happening in three pages when I'm writing it. You know, sometimes you have a better idea than others, but it's a conversation. You know, you're going to sit there and go, "What was I talking about again?" No, it doesn't matter, I'm talking about this now. And I find that like the, you know, the more experienced I get as a writer like... the part about like writing sentences and paragraphs, that's not really hard for me anymore, it's a thing I know how to do. But like what's interesting, why, you know, what give me story, story, story, that's harder.
And you know what, Gorilla wasn't near that challenge because like you get stuck, it's like, well, what should happen next? What did happen next? Okay, keep... keep it moving. Keep it linear and keep it moving. With this, although there's plenty based on real life and I don't have any clue what the book's about yet really, doing a lot more lawyer stuff than the first book -- I just went back to work so I'm practicing again -- yeah, you know, I don't know what it is so I kind of just take what's coming, I'm struggling more to find the story than to write it but I'm really feeling good. I feel like my chops are kind of back and like, you know, with... with me if I write a thousand words in a day, it's a good day. And if I don't, it's not a good day. It's just, you know, it's kind of like a gym rat, they got to get that like dopamine hit and you know... not dopamine, what do you... what do you get? I don't know what you get, you get a --
SARA: I think it's dopamine but it's adrenaline and then it creates... I don't know, serotonin?
DANIEL: Endorphins. That sounds right.
ZACK: All those things, all the good magical chemicals. Yeah.
SARA: All right, well, we can't wait to see it.
ZACK: Me neither. 2024 probably. That's a legit goal.
SARA: But when it comes out, we'll have you here so you can see your adoring Wichita public.
ZACK: Love it.
SARA: Now, you started a foundation a few years ago called the GorillaBird Foundation to end the mental illness to prison pipeline. The compassion you feel for this area is very, very clearly described in your book. Can you tell us more about this organization and the work that you're doing?
ZACK: Yeah. We haven't been as active as I want us to be. We've raised some money, we've spent a lot of it. I was able, once we got access to our... our money last year, I handed out, I don't know, five or so grants ranging from like a thousand to a few thousand dollars just to people that have been touched by mental illness and are working artistically in some capacity to combat that. We want to make this a whole huge thing. But you know, the... we had another project that was going to be a film shot in a prison, we were going to be doing a lot of work with inmates. That got shelved because of COVID. And I just honestly need more help with that right now but it's something I hope to like kind of become, you know, a huge part of my... my workload. But yeah, I... you know, if you know any good fundraisers out there, have them hit me up. We could use some help right now. But yeah, we've got a little money still and we've got a vision which just you know like I said, COVID sidelined a lot and we're small right now so need to raise money and spend money. That's basically it.
DANIEL: Not to segue but we do have non-profit resources, Nazar foundation nonprofit resources is a whole section in the Library and we have access to the Foundation database for helping grantmakers and stuff and I help people work with that and stuff. So next time you're in town, stop by.
ZACK: Yeah, we might be talking about that, sounds good.
SARA: Yeah, we have a ton of resources, good idea, Daniel.
DANIEL: Not to plug our services, our free services.
ZACK: You might lose... you might leave here with a new job.
DANIEL: You offer a lot of musical references in your book, almost like a soundtrack to your life. For those of us that grew up in the era, this really helped place the story. Was that intentional? Do you feel like music, especially hip-hop, has helped you process your thoughts on your mental illness and other trauma?
ZACK: I love music, I listen to a ton of hip-hop, I do like kind of write to a soundtrack a little bit. Not meaning I listen to music when I write, although I do that sometimes too. Yeah, you know, I also tried to write this book, you know, to read like a TV or... or show or movie. And you know, I'm always kind of thinking like, well, you know what's playing right now? It's interesting, the director that... so the book's been optioned to be an H.B.O. series and the director was Jean-Marc Vallée who did Wild, he did Dallas Buyers Club, Big Little Lies, and Sharp Objects. Well, he passed away on Christmas of this year just completely unexpectedly, had a heart attack. And I knew him, he was a great guy, extremely talented. I wouldn't have anyone -- if like literally if I could pick any director in the world, I would pick him to direct my thing. But he loves music and he does this thing, I don't remember the technical term in TV writing but he has music almost all the time in his shows but like it only ever comes from a natural source so like someone's listening to the music, it's either elevator or headphones or speaker, it's never just montage, you know, music.
DANIEL: I think it's diegetic. Diagetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic, it takes place in the story; non-diegetic, it's not you.
ZACK: Look at you. And you could be 1000 percent right and no one knows if you're wrong.
But no, so he... the way he starts a project is he makes a Spotify playlist and they, like, sent me... they were like, will you make a playlist for this? So I made it, sent it to him and sent it to Bryan Sipe who's the showrunner and writer of the series. So yeah, I mean it's obviously like not a thing that's unique to me when you're like kind of putting a piece together. Like okay, well, what's this sound like? Why so hip-hop heavy? I mean, that's what I listen to. I listen to everything but, you know, Spotify just knows I want the Wu-Tang Clan and that's what they queue up for me when I... when I queue. I'm like, give me some new stuff. No, you... you like the '90s and you like rap so that's what you'll be listening to.
Did hip-hop help me process it? Probably. I mean, I find a lot of truth in that music. I relate to it, you know, I like... I just... I love it. And there is kind of a, you know, there's an ethos of like I am who I am. It kind of runs through that with some hubris slapped on top of that usually. But yeah, you know, there's something in there about kind of being unapologetically yourself that I probably identify with and also an anti-authority... authoritarian sort of disposition. And you know, anyone who reads my book will know I'm not a huge fan of law enforcement. So there's that too. But yeah, no, I... I love the stuff and I think a lot of the book like goes well with that. But yeah, you know, there's some rock in there too: granny's ironing to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and Pink Floyd. So yeah.
DANIEL: I thought that was a really sweet like scene in your book when you're talking about how she listens to the music of her son to like connect with him and I thought that was... I really enjoyed that part too.
ZACK: Well, she just loves it on her own now. That was her exposure. You know, he was always playing that stuff like super loud and she got into it. So yeah, she's 91 and listens to the Stones every day.
SARA: That's awesome.
SARA: If you feel comfortable talking about it, how did the -- well, obviously you feel comfortable talking about a lot of things. How did the isolation that many of us experience throughout the pandemic affect your illness?
ZACK: So this is just so much. I'm gonna have to just absolutely give you like three bullet points. But after being pretty episode-free save a little... a little incident in 2018. But other than that, I hadn't been hospitalized -- I wasn't hospitalized for that -- but I hadn't been hospitalized since 2012. I don't know why. And I don't know what if anything COVID had to do with it, but in 2020 I went to the hospital more times than... like I really don't even know how many times, it was at least five. And I was kind of in and out of psychosis all year. I ended up in a situation where I had some squatters living with me. It was the worst year of my life, COVID aside, like just, you know, I was in and out of the hospital. And yeah, just kind of like low-grade psychosis for almost a calendar year. It was very scary for everybody.
I don't want to write Gorilla again but there is a book's worth of stuff in there. I'm going to pull out what I can. It's kind of a little painful to revisit it, I'm not really like ready to read all the texts and emails from friends and family yet. Not really ready to like interview people and... because it becomes like a laundry list of embarrassing and sometimes harmful things you did. And even though my friends and family aren't trying to like give me a guilt trip or take me to task, you could only hear like you did this and that then this so many times for so long before you're like, okay, I just... break. You know, I get it, I know. It's... there's no limit to how many embarrassing stories there are here. And there's... and they're painful.
I also got beat up really badly. I just got jumped in Brooklyn one night, don't even know who it was, no words were exchanged, I just turned a corner, just got popped and dropped and then just beat like I literally thought I was about to die, had a really bad concussion. I was in so much pain, I was like waking up and going to sleep in tears every day. I'd be like so out of it and know what room in my apartment I was in. So dealing with like the psychotic break, getting my bell rung, thinking I maybe had some permanent brain damage. Thank God I don't, didn't. But yeah, it was... it was a horrible year overall. And people are often like, oh, that was COVID. It's like, no, it wasn't though. That wasn't your COVID. You didn't go to the hospital five times. Five times, it's not normal. But yeah, so awful and I could say more.
SARA: Yikes. I'm sorry.
ZACK: It's all right. I'm... I've been there before.
DANIEL: Glad you're here with us today.
ZACK: Me too, me too.
Yeah. No, it was... it was wild.
DANIEL: Do you have any words of advice for our listeners who may be living with a mental illness themselves or have a close loved one who may be struggling?
ZACK: Yeah. You know, my mom's got a pretty good saying and she says like when people are at their worst when you're repelled by them and you want to run away, what you really need to do is go forward and meet them. And she's very good at saying like you need to meet people where they are. And you know, there was times when she would come to the hospital where I was just like acting like a child and we would talk about Disney movies and we would like name Disney movies. And I would get mad if she named a live action instead of an animated movie. And you know, she's talking to her son who, you know, went to a top 10 law school and is, you know, practicing law in New York and, you know, normally doesn't talk about Disney movies too frequently and that was the level of discourse I was capable of having.
But I mean yeah, so that's an example of meeting somebody where they are and, you know, being aware that you can't really talk someone out of a psychotic break. You kind of have to be patient, you need to figure out what they think is going on. I would be very reluctant to get authorities or hospital involved because psych wards are a nightmare. And there unfortunately isn't really a middle ground between doing nothing and that, like there's not a lot of like, you know, minor emergency for psych. You know, it's like kind of the whole thing -- we lock you up -- or you're out. You know, if it's someone that's been diagnosed and is compliant with meds and stuff, you can nudge them to take their meds. We're not always receptive to that. I'm very good about taking mine unless I'm sick, in which case sometimes I think like, oh, I don't need an antipsychotic right now, which is literally the only time I need one. But you know, your judgment can get a little blurry. So you know, you can't take anything personal. You can't get mad. You just gotta have compassion, try to figure out how you can help the person.
And for certain people, no matter how close you are -- and in fact, closeness could be like a barrier -- you might not be able to reach your best friend, your sister, whatever. You know, there might be some like brotherly issues, some daughterly issues, some... you know, for all the reasons we love people, you know, there's always... there's no like relationship that's without its baggage for lack of a more creative term. And some of those things can really get exacerbated in the throes of, you know, an acute mental health crisis. So you kind of got to let whoever is having some success approaching the person approach the person. And if you think you can give them space and have them be safe, you might have to do that too. But you know, it's patience and... and love and there's some good organizations too.
NAMI is a good organization, National Alliance on Mental Illness. I do a lot of work with them. So they have some resources. But you know, I talk all over the country about this stuff and it... it's a thing that is tough when people are in it and it's... it's a thing that doesn't have a one-size-fits-all solution at all. But you know, I think it's important to recognize the symptoms. The earlier you get at something, the better chance you have of keeping it under control. And you know, like when someone starts... very first starts exhibiting symptoms, you say, hey man, are you... what's your... what's your level right now? I have a friend who asks me, "How are your bananas?" That's what he says when he's trying to ask if I'm okay. Bananas are like when you're carrying around crazy stuff you don't need to carry around. It's like drop your bananas, Gorilla, that's what he tells me.
SARA: Oh, I get it. Sorry, I did not... I just was like, oh, bananas, okay, potassium!
DANIEL: Like the spoon thing they do. I've like heard that a lot for people with that are not... that are neurodivergent, spoon analogies like how many spoons do you have today and things.
SARA: Sorry to interrupt.
ZACK: Yeah, you never ask my feelings, like how how's bananas right now. And you know, I tell them if I got one or two. And you know, normally I don't. That was what was so scary about last year. I didn't really change my routine, I didn't go off my medication, I wasn't drinking more than I normally do, I wasn't smoking more than I normally do, just kind of doing my thing and I'm still kind of at a loss for what happened. But you know, been good for over a year now.
You know, this thing is... people are kind of like, oh, you overcame this. You know, you wrote a book, you're doing fine. It's like yes and no. It's more like diabetes than pneumonia, like it's there, it's not going anywhere.
DANIEL: Yeah, congratulations on a year from... since last year, that's really good to hear.
ZACK: Yeah. Yeah, about a year and a half now, it's... it's good. I mean, it was definitely scary for everybody for sure.
SARA: Yeah, I was writing just script for this podcast and it was like, no, you don't say that you overcame it because you're just learning to live with it, so yeah, it's distinction.
ZACK: It's maintenance not, you know, conquering the thing. It's... it's living with it. But you know, I... by and large I, you know, do all right with it and... and mostly okay. You can't really hope to do much better than mostly okay, I don't think. [CHUCKLES]
DANIEL: Yeah, that's mostly okay. And thank you so much though -- oh, go ahead.
ZACK: No, I just was gonna say better than mostly dead. Princess Bride.
SARA: I was going with that but I just wasn't gonna... yeah.
ZACK: Yeah, definitely.
DANIEL: Thank you so much for joining us. It was great talking to you and --
ZACK: Thank you guys reaching out and having me. It's been fun.
DANIEL: And the book was great. And I... I liked the audiobook too so yeah, you did a great job reading that.
ZACK: Thank you so much. That was an ordeal, let me tell you. We recorded half of it and then I got better so we had to record it, the first half all over again. It was supposed to take four days, it took like three weeks. But I was just like... it was like, well, we got to do the first half over. They were like, "I don't think we got to do it all over." I was like, "Was that better?" They were like, "Yeah." I was like, "What are we gonna do tell people? It gets really good around hour five? Like no, we gotta do it over." So yep, we did it over. Glad you liked it.
DANIEL: Did you have any social media things that you... people can follow you on and keep... keep track of the progress of your second book?
ZACK: WichitaZack with the ck is my Instagram handle and then Twitter I believe I'm just @zackmcdermott, again with the c-k, m-c-d-e-r-m-o-t-t. And yeah, I don't ever tweet and rarely post anything on Instagram, but people will message me on there. I look at it.
SARA: Cool. Well, we'll put those in the show notes as well.
ZACK: Cool, cool.
SARA: Yeah, thanks so much for joining us today. This was fantastic talking with you and learning from you. And to any listeners that haven't picked up your book yet, I hope that we've convinced them to do that.
ZACK: Do it.
DANIEL: Thank you.
ZACK: All right. Tell your... tell your brother I said hi.
DANIEL: Yeah, I will tell him you said hi so cool.
ZACK: Great. Take care.
VOICE: Did you know you can check out more than just books and movies at your library? Over the past year, the Library of Things program has added many new and unique items for checkout. Need internet access? Check out a Wi-Fi hotspot, either on its own, or bundled with a Chromebook. Keep your home safe with our Radon detectors, or explore the night with our telescopes. For the little ones, STEAM to GO! activity kits are available in a variety of interests, such as fossils, robotics, and engineering. All this and more can be found at wichitalibrary.org/things.
SARA, VOICEOVER: And now here are some recommendations from Wichita public library staff for books that deal with mental illnesss, category 11.
JENNY DURHAM: My name is Jenny Durham and I'm an adult programming librarian at the Wichita Public Library. My recommendation for category 11 is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. In this rather unconventional memoir, Machado recounts her horrifying experience with an abusive relationship with a woman from her past. Most of the story takes place in the house she shared with this woman, which she labels as the "dream house." This house starts off as a place of idyllic refuge and a representation of all her hopes and wishes for a future together with this woman, but then it quickly becomes an ugly place that is like a prison she can't escape from. What I think is incredible about this book is the author's unique way of experimenting with the memoir genre. Machado melds her own personal anecdotes with reflections on society and how historically the reality of abusive relationships in the queer community have been ignored or minimized.
The dream house, which is central to this story, is itself a character and is used as a literary device that mirrors the author's own mental health as she becomes increasingly trapped in this abusive relationship. This is an intense, difficult story and is brutally honest with the reality of just why so many people are unable to escape abusive relationships, and how it literally changes how victims of abuse experience the world, both in the physical toll it takes on their bodies and the years of trauma that can take years to process afterwards if they are lucky enough to escape the relationship. I highly recommend trying this one out, but this book may also be upsetting to some readers, so please read with caution. This has been my recommendation for category 11: a book that deals with mental illness. For more reading recommendations, please visit wichitalibrary.org/readict.
ROBIN: Hi, I'm Robin from the Wichita Public Library and this is my recommendation for category 11, a book that deals with mental illness. Jenny Lawson published her most recent work, Broken (in the Best Possible Way), last year in 2021. Lawson suffers from both anxiety and depression and has made her mark as an author by pinning now four books on her life with these conditions in an incredibly unique way. In Broken, she approaches mental health in a humorous yet honest fashion instead of sweeping it under the rug as our society sometimes seems like it wants us to do.
Broken posits that speaking of pain openly can be a huge part of community building and that the world feels safer somehow if we share our pain. It becomes more manageable. And by sharing our pain, we inspire others to share theirs. We are so much less alone if we learn to wear our imperfections proudly like tarnished jewelry that still shines just as brightly. As someone who suffers from anxiety and depression too as well as ADHD, her willingness to dive deep into the battle she encounters with the U.S. mental health care system, her insurance company, and even her own brain, I find her dialogue incredibly refreshing and special. With her interview at the 2021 San Antonio Book Festival, she assures us that we are all carrying around our own challenges and our own monsters but that sometimes we can learn to live with them and even cherish them. This has been my recommendation for category 11. To find more and a curated list, go to wichitalibrary.org/readict.
IAN: Hi, I'm Ian and I'm a member of the Adult Programming team at the Advanced Learning Library. For ReadICT category 11, a book dealing with mental illness, my recommendation is the graphic novel Invisible Differences by Julie Dachez. This autobiographical story follows Marguerite, a French woman in her late twenties who constantly feels overwhelmed with social interaction and struggles with the fear that she might not be like her friends and colleagues. Her lack of social skills strain her personal relationships, her sensitivity to noise disrupts her work, and she constantly feels like her world is chaotic and suffocating. When she finally reaches a breaking point, she begins to research autism spectrum disorders and begins the long process of obtaining a diagnosis. The book follows Marguerite over the course of several years, from her struggles with everyday life and the accompanying anxiety and distress, to her eventual diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome. At the time, autism and Asperger's were poorly understood by the French psychiatric community, let alone the average French person, and Marguerite made it her mission to educate and advocate for autism. I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to better understand autism and Asperger's, or just feels like reading an inspiring story of a young woman finding strength among chaos. This has been my recommendation for category 11. For more reading recommendations, visit wichitalibrary.org/readict.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Thank you again to Zack McDermott, author of Gorilla and the Bird, for sharing his story about mental illness and joining us today to further that discussion. And thank you to our staff for those terrific recommendations. To request any of the books heard about in today's episode, visit wichitalibrary.org or call us at (316) 261-8500.
SARA, VOICEOVER: To participate in the ReadICT reading challenge, visit wichitalibrary.org/readict. Stay connected with other participants on the ReadICT challenge Facebook page. You can find out what's trending near you, post book reviews, look for local and virtual events, and share book humor with like-minded folks. To join the group, search #ReadICT challenge on Facebook and click join.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: You can follow this podcast through the Anchor app or stream episodes on whatever platform you listen to podcasts on. If you like what you heard today, be sure to subscribe and share with all your friends.
SARA, VOICEOVER: This has been a production of the Wichita Public Library and a big thanks goes out to all the staff members that helped produce this episode. I'm Sara Dixon.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: And I'm Daniel Pewewardy.
SARA, VOICEOVER: Join us next episode when we discuss category 6, a book about mythology or folk tales.
DANIEL, VOICEOVER: And now we'll leave you with a short piece of prose submitted to our short story dispensers: "Inspiration" by Dhllan Pili. This is one of the many short stories and poems you can get from one of our short story dispensers located at Reverie Roasters coffee shop and now the Eisenhower airport. And if you have a short story under 8,000 characters to submit, you can visit wichitalibrary.org/shortstory.
RACINE, VOICEOVER: "Inspiration" by Dhllan Pili.
I usually spent my time reading stories such as fiction, fantasy, action, etc. Sometimes I also made some stories that I have in my head, I made them based on what I fantasized what I wanted to be and wanted to happen. I always had free time, but I did not go outside, because I feared people, I feared that they might make fun and pick on me, the way I dress, the way I walk and the details about me that even I don't know.
Reading through stories while listening to music, holding a book in my hand, my phone in the desk and earphones on my ear, I suddenly got a notification, a notification that may change my life or the way I view life. A notification that suddenly shook me from reading because I was too immense onto the story. I checked what it was and there I saw, an invitation to a convention, an invitation to propose stories and if your story is recognized, then, you will be encouraged to do more stories and you will be recognized by people, by readers. It was very unimaginable that I would be invited because I only posted stories in a shady site. I thought it might have been a scam, but reading through what the notification might have been, I saw that it was a real invitation. I immediately accepted the invitation because I have dreamt of being a writer for the longest time I could remember.
I thought of stories that I could have submitted for the readers, but none of them seemed good enough. I thought of stories that involves action, or drama, but I thought that all of those wasn't good enough to be submitted. I felt frustrated, I felt that my dream may never come true, I couldn't understand why they were not good enough. I was running out of options, then, I came up with an idea, what if I looked around my room, my house, check every part of it and think of what history it may have. I looked around my room, under my bed, the desk, the closet, nothing. I looked around the house, the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, the basement, all over the house, but I still couldn't get any idea of what story to write. I ran out of options; I don't know what to do. Then, I came up with another idea, one that I never wanted to do, going outside my house, the idea I came up with was to see sceneries, to watch people in the park, the riverbank, the city. At first, I hesitated, but I couldn't think of another way, so, I went to the city, but I couldn't think of one, I saw people walk, talk to one another, and a homeless person singing to gain some spare change, I thought to myself that I might have been a lucky person and I'm taking my current life for granted, I went to the next location immediately because I didn't want to spend my time outside too much. Next, I went to the park, there I saw people, walking their dogs, children playing, and couples flirting with each other, suddenly in my head, I remember my past, I remember that I used to play with my friends and doing dumb stuff that I could never have imagine doing now, it felt nostalgic. The couples... I remember the real reason why I stopped going outside, I was sad, depressed because I used to have a partner as well, I immediately felt sad after seeing the couple, but I was happy for them, I wanted to leave the park early, I do not want a lot of people to see me sad. I went to the next location, the riverbank, I saw that there weren't any people at all. I rested at some spot to just not think of anything and stop thinking about what had happened before. I looked at the lonely river bank, took a look at the running water, I see my sad face, I didn't want to see it, so I averted my eyes away. I looked around the place I am in and I thought that there should be time when people should think about their mistakes and rest. It was about to go dark; I hadn't realized I stayed outside that long.
I went home fast; I did not want to catch the night before I get home. I ate first before going to my room to think about my story. After eating, I went to my room and re-evaluate what I had learned and what stories I may come up with. I came up with a story not thinking if it seemed good enough to submit, I came up with a story that I was satisfied with. A story that involved learning and understanding of the way of life. Time passed and the time to submit it was about to come. I dressed up to go to the convention and without thinking of what story I had, I saw a lot of people, a lot of people submit their stories, I thought they must've worked hard for their stories, but it did not make me feel down. It was my time to submit mine, I felt nervous, scared, yet proud of the story I came up with and only the readers can judge my story, whether it's good enough or not.
Time passed and whether I passed or not is history. This is where my story ends.