a conversation with Andy Behrman      


Qold Type: Maybe you could start just by differentiating manic-depression a bit from other illnesses. For example, in your book many of the impulses you describe seem to be the same as those suffered by obsessive compulsives, and your furious depressions might be the same as those experienced by anyone who was doing as many drugs as you were, at the time...

Andy Behrman: Manic depression is a type of depression, technically, and it's the opposite of uni-polar. Manic depression is also called bi-polar disorder. Some people don't like to call it that because they think it makes it sound too nice, when the reality is if you have manic-depression you have manic-depression. Manic-depressives, if you have bi-polar disorder one, experience a manic episode at least once a year that lasts at least two weeks. I am a rapid-cycling manic-depressive, bi-polar one disorder, which means I can have thirty or forty episodes a year, and I used to have thirty to forty episodes a year. The manic is the euphoric high, and the depressive is the desperate low. You know, melancholy or the blues. The little depression I experienced during my manic-depression was not like depression as anyone else had ever described it. It was very violent and angry and I was full of rage. I wasn't lying in bed.

BT: You don't talk about the depression too much in the book...

AB: I experienced so little depression. And I experienced what I called mixed-mood stage, when you go back and forth from one to the other so closely that they overlap and you don't know which end is up. You don't know if you're feeling good or feeling bad.

BT: Writing a book of any sort requires a fair amount of confidence and is often difficult for anyone without much practice or previous writing experience. Had you done much writing in the past?

AB: I had written two pieces for the New York Times Magazine, one on house arrest and one on ECT, electroshock therapy. I hadn't written too much before that. I'd written a little for New York Magazine, writing for the gossip column. And I'd been in pr for years and I was writing press releases.

BT: What was your approach to telling your story?

AB: I didn't write it chronologically at all. I probably wrote sixty separate scenes at a time and then kind of stitched them together. Kept writing and rewriting and totally cutting things and chopping things out.

BT: Did the process of investigating and writing about your own past lead you into any dangerous territory, as far as reliving painful or difficult moments?

AB: Yeah, I mean, I think the whole experience of just writing the book was a conversation in my therapy every session. Because, I'd get into a part that I really didn't want to have to write about but I had no choice but to face things from my past. Face my manic depression, face all the symptoms of it, all the crazy things that I did, all the crazy places I went. Coming to terms with the fact that this person I'd written about was me, this person who was running from Tokyo to Paris to take the train to Berlin to watch the wall come down then flying back to new York just to take off again to Miami for three days. All those activities, that as me. And that was hard too. There was just no reasoning. In the same way, when I was working with my attorney and looking at all these documents, which clearly left a paper trail straight to me and I kept thinking how stupid this defendant was, how could he have done this. I was totally disconnected from the events and now had to go back and think about having done them and realizing I had lived this life without any consequences, without even thinking about any consequences.

BT: In the book you portray yourself as a pretty culpable character, but during your sentencing you cite letters from your friends which draw a much more generous picture of you and some of your more altruistic endeavors. But you don't talk about that side of yourself at all...

AB: I think my friends would have nicer things to say about me than I would have to say about myself during those years. I think I'm a lot harder on myself than they are. When I did go to trial, everybody pretty much excused me and I sort of got caught up on it. And many acts of kindness are I really wasn't focusing on it...I just, I didn't want to write a book that was self -pitying, but I also didn't want to paint a picture of myself as being a saint...

BT: Your memoirs touch upon your childhood, but things really get going when you've graduated from college in 1984. Some of your mania seems keenly attached to the materialism and self-destruction we commonly associate with the eighties. At what point did you realize that you might be acting on a separate impulse than the rest of the world, or did you always know?

AB: I think the culture kind of induced my mania, and ready access to cash, drugs, alcohol and sex just sped things up, made it a lot easier. I think I did mimic the manic feeling of that period. I think someone actually said something like 'I was an icon for the excess of the eighties,' something about being Downeyesque. So... I don't think it helped me.

BT: You rarely talk in the book about other people's reactions to your behavior. Your parents, for example, don't really become a presence until you've been indicted for forgery. Did your rampant spending or wild mood swings ever raise any eyebrows? Eyebrows beyond the typical "you just have to relax?"

AB: Nobody, or I should say hardly anybody was watching my behavior and saying 'hey, you're really out of control.' They encouraged it. And also, I think the sicker and sicker I go, the healthier and people thought I was. I'd get myself so sick I'd sleep two hours a night, I wouldn't eat, I wouldn't even drink water. I just never though to do these things. And everyone figured, 'Wow, he's going to Japan, he's selling a hundred paintings, he must be fine.' My family, at least, figured everything was fine.

BT: Did you talk to friends about your illness?

AB: Yeah, I think people were concerned, but I think they had known for a couple yeas that I wasn't well and that I'd been looking for a lot of answers. And you know, everybody always had their solutions: more exercise, watch your diet, don't work such late hours.

BT: Did any of those things help?

AB: No. I would grow obsessed with the solutions. I exercised two hours in the morning, two hours at night. I ate nine hundred calories a day. I lived on nothing but tofu and tuna for a year and a half. I slept all the time. I was avoiding the fact that I had manic-depression...and I didn't even know what it was...

BT: You'd been seeing psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists since you were in high school. Today, it's quite normal for anyone to have a therapist, people take their pets, but it wasn't so common at the time. How did you feel about it when you were younger, and what kinds of reactions did you get from friends and peers?

AB: I don't think I told anybody in high school. I don't think anybody would have understood it. Then, when I went to college, it was 1980, a long time ago, I think I was the first person to go to the mental health center and then I referred all my friends. I started this mad rush for therapy. Because I knew I needed help. But it was not common at all. I mean, nobody was talking bout their therapist or their psychiatrist or their Prozac, not like they do now.

BT: Does the modern trend, with everyone going and everyone on some kind of mood-controlling medication, change your perception of therapy?

AB: I think, when it comes to psychiatry, that a lot of people are overmedicated. I think when it comes to ECT a lot of people go through too much. I think there's a lot of guesswork in psychiatry. And as far as psychotherapy, it's very easy to become the victim and to feel trapped. I know people who have been in therapy with the same therapist for eight or nine years and they're still exactly where they were weight or nine years ago. It's just as easy to find a bad therapist as it is to find a bad chef. They're all over the place.

BT: In your mind, is the public perception of mental illness, and if we need to be more specific manic-depression, any better than when you were growing up? Abnormal behavior is being categorically defined within the terms of illness now in a way that it never was before, alcoholism, for example, is only really beginning to be explored as a treatable disease rather than a trait of assholes. But, just because people recognize these things as illness beyond a person's rational control doesn't mean that they have any clearer of a picture of the true nature of the illness, they might still not really get it...

AB: Yeah, I had never heard the term manic depression growing up, I'd never heard of it at all. I started writing Electroboy and I had to ask myself 'What is this book about?' I told everybody 'I'm writing a book bout manic depression,' which it isn't. It's a chronicle of my battle with manic-depression, ECT, and everything that happened in between. Which is as interesting as manic depression itself, but...I still find today that when you tell somebody that you're manic depressive their initial reaction is to pull back and say 'Oh wow, I wish I could be like that. That's so glamorous,' or 'Wow, I could get so much work done.' Or to them manic sounds like maniac and you must be a lunatic and it's all a curse you're never going to get rid of. And you never really do get rid of it.

BT: Have your own perceptions of mental-illness shifted or changed as you gradually came to a better understanding of your own illness?

AB: I'm totally shocked at how many people in the country are mentally ill. 2-3 million Americans are being treated for manic-depression and they don't know how many are undiagnosed. A huge percentage of people in the country could have some kind of mental illness, whether it's manic-depression, schizophrenia, bulimia, anorexia...which are also treated with electro-shock.

BT: Bulimia and anorexia? What's the theory behind that?

AB: There isn't one, same as treating manic-depression with electroshock. You just hear the doctor's advice and say 'okay, I'll do that'

BT: In your descriptions of manic episodes, the high you got seemed to match the high experienced by drug and sex addicts when they indulge in their particular mood-altering substance. As any drug-addict in recovery knows, finding a way to live a sober life without those highs can be a very long and painful process. Do you miss the excitement of mania?

AB: Sure. Yeah. I mean, the opposite for me is to lead a pretty dull existence where I realize that there's no replacement for it. I could pretend that there's a replacement but there isn't, and that's kind of sad. But I also know that I'm in danger of my manic episodes. You have to just sort of fill in with something. Everyday you wake up and you feel like you might slip. You don't know how you slept. Am I gonna wake up and feel high? You don't do miss those days.

BT: The recovery you're describing sounds so similar to what people go through in AA, have you ever worked with a program like that, or talked with someone about their experiences?

AB: It is almost the exact same issue of having to try to replace one thing with another. That's kind of difficult, I mean, you know, three, four, even five years have to adjust to life being dull.

BT: What are your greatest aspirations for this book? On the one hand, it's written completely in first person, present tense and has a fast-paced, fun, Brett Easton Ellis style to the narrative, while at the same time being a serious exploration of what it is like to live with manic depression. Who would you most like to be reading Electroboy?

AB: Somebody wrote yesterday 'next to Electroboy, Bright Lights Big City and American Psycho are pallid fairy tales' I don't know if it was a compliment or not. Yeah, it's written in the first person, it's my own story, and it delves into the mind of a manic-depressive. But it also tells a chronological story of events. When people ask who the ideal reader is...I think people will come to this from every direction and I think the book will find its own audience. A book for somebody who's frightful or depressed, a book for somebody with a friend or family member who's bi-polar or depressed. It's for somebody who's looking for an interesting read about the eighties and nineties, what was going on then and fast living. Drugs, crime, sex. And I think it's an interesting read for people interested in the art world. But I haven't read it since I wrote it, so I don't necessarily know how it reads. I just think it has a very very wide appeal, which is why it's not just ending up in the psychology section.

BT: Book tour?

AB: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, Denver, Boulder, Austin, Dallas, Boston, Providence, and Philadelphia. And I think we're gonna do five more after two weeks. Hit big at the beginning.

author's page
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  -- Interview by Gabriel Delahaye