This book isn’t what you think it is.
It is not a self-aggrandizing tale of entrepreneurial success. It is not an insider’s guide to launching a startup, brimming with insights packaged for tech bros or corporate leaders looking for an edge.
This book is a ghost story.
My Ghost first arrived in the year 2000 and would haunt me for the next sixteen years. It was a secret, known only to a handful of my closest loved ones.
My Ghost is an illness—one that can amplify human potential and seek to destroy it at the same time. For some, a ghost like mine might even seem life-expanding—jet fuel for the entrepreneurial drive—before the liabilities rip it all apart.
Here is the tabloid-ready summary of my book: In 2016, on the precipice of selling Bonobos, the startup I’d been building for the previous nine years, I flew into a manic spiral and was hospitalized for a week in the psych ward at Bellevue in New York. When I was discharged, I was met by NYPD officers, who took me to jail, where I was charged with felony and misdemeanor assault.
Thanks to my Ghost, I came within an inch of losing the woman who is now my wife, the company, and everything I cared for in the world.
Here’s the thing: I still live with it—but the Ghost, my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, isn’t a secret anymore.
It has taken five years of therapy to be able to write those words.
Normally when your most shameful life events have been hidden behind a veil of secrecy, you keep them under the rug, or in the closet, unexcavated. But what if there is nothing to be ashamed of? Then why would they need to be secrets at all?
If there was not a profound stigma around mental illness, this book would not be necessary. Perhaps it could make a good startup yarn—about the time a couple of guys hit the e-commerce moment right, despite a lot of bad ideas along the way.
The truth, though, is that the stigma is here, and it is profound. Mental illness is one of the final taboos. The business community values stability. When it comes to leading teams, shepherding capital, and governing enterprises, a steady hand is what is sought. So even as we have entered a new era, one where assumptions surrounding race, gender, and power are being interrogated more deeply, issues of mental illness in the workplace go largely unmentioned. For most of my professional life, my mental illness has felt unspeakable: a fast track to an awkward silence, a closed door, or a lost opportunity.
The thing is, a lot of us have it. A lot. The illness I deal with—bipolar disorder—affects 3 percent of the population and, by one estimate, is 7 times more prevalent in entrepreneurs. That might mean 20 percent of entrepreneurs deal with this illness. It is an illness where suicide attempt rates approach 60 percent, and suicide “success” rates approach 20 percent. One study by the National Institutes of Health indicated that almost half of entrepreneurs deal with mental health issues. The figure was 32 percent for non-entrepreneurs, staggering in its own right.
In the world of sports, the conversation is beginning, thanks to Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Mardy Fish, and many other brave souls. In entertainment, it’s understood and accepted that artists have issues: witness Kanye West, Demi Lovato, and Britney Spears.
In the business world, though, no one talks.
I’m fortunate to be in a position where I have a voice—my “exited startup” good fortune insulates me from the fear of financial loss, if not social stigma or personal embarrassment. So why go there? By not discussing what transpired, I would be letting the delusion continue to masquerade as fantasy: It never happened. It won’t happen again.
To see this Ghost clearly, I needed to bring him out of the closet, to acknowledge the impact he has had on my life as a matter of public record. To deny this Ghost is to deny myself. I wrote this story to surface the darker story behind the airbrushed “living the dream” bullshit. This is a book about mental illness told by an entrepreneur lucky to have made it to the other side, even if the other side is an impermanent place full of surprises.
This book is my own story. My account is based on my own recollections, triangulated as much as possible with those of others: family members and friends and loved ones who were there for the ride. It’s impossible that I got everything right. In chapters in which I depict an episode of full-blown mania, I switch the narration to the present tense, to emphasize both the impulsive chaos of these experiences and the blurred nature of my memories of them. In some cases I’ve chosen to alter names or identifying details, or only provide a first name, where I felt it wasn’t important for readers to know a person’s real identity, and where the imperfections of my memory would be a disservice to them.
I write this for the families out there coping with the maddening, challenging people they desperately want to help. Let this be a reminder that there will be thanks later, that on the other side is unending gratitude for your sacrifices and for your love.
Most of all, I write this for all of you out there struggling with a secret you feel you can’t talk about. I hope this book serves as a reminder that there can be a path to health, integration, and healing. For me, it came in the form of a complex daily regimen of medication; therapy sessions multiple times a week with my psychiatrist, Dr. Z; a lawyer when I needed one; a sleep tracker and daily sleep report; the privilege to be able to afford it all; and the unbending, redemptive love and eventual clear-eyed determination and acceptance of a small band of family members and friends who rallied around me and who helped keep me sane. And who still do.
Let me tell you a ghost story.
In Hindi, there are at least ten words for “aunt” or “uncle.” Your mother’s sister, mother’s brother, father’s sister, father’s brother, mother’s sister-in-law, mother’s brother-in-law, and on and on: they all have different names. The most affectionate term of all is masi, reserved for your mother’s sister. For my sister and me, our mom’s family was the strongest force in our childhood. Our mom has four sisters, so I have four masis; it was a profoundly and proudly matriarchal upbringing. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would one day spend thirteen years building a company named for a species of matriarchal chimpanzee.
Mom’s parents, Prakash and Dhian, were born in Rawalpindi, a city in Punjab State. In 1947, the British split Punjab in two, creating a Pakistani side and an Indian side: Muslims over here, Hindus over there. My grandparents, a Hindu and a Sikh, had to leave in the middle of the night with their two daughters. The region was thrown into chaos, with an estimated fifteen million people displaced, and at least one million killed.
Usha Ahuja, my mother, was born in this context, in a refugee town called Kurukshetra, during her family’s multiyear journey from Rawalpindi to New Delhi, where they eventually settled. My mom’s mom, our Badi Mummy (Prakash), was a child bride, not educated beyond the sixth grade. She lost two children in infancy before she turned eighteen. Then she had seven kids: five girls and two boys.
My mom and her sisters adored their father, and they feared him, too. The level of his expectations for their success was daunting. He was an enterprising building contractor, a chain smoker, and an alcoholic. He instilled in his daughters a progressive message, ahead of its time in 1950s and ’60s India: “You don’t want to be dependent on a man like me.” His vision for his children was for them to get educated and make it to the United States. By the time he fell ill with emphysema, my mom had graduated college and been shipped first to Canada and then to the United States, to live with my Ashi Masi, by then an obstetrician-gynecologist. My aunt would go on to deliver both my sister and me.
My mom’s mandate was to get trained as an X-ray tech and send money home, living with her sister so that she could pass on 100 percent of her income. With her father ill, they desperately needed the money, and my mom—a most dutiful human—answered the call to the sublimation of her own possibilities. Any dreams she had of becoming a doctor, like two of her older sisters, were subsumed by that short-term need in the late 1960s. She never complained about it. She never complains. Money was so tight that when my grandfather died, in January 1969, my mom couldn’t afford to go home to New Delhi for his cremation. It haunts her still. She has never gotten closure.
Mom’s sisters built the clichéd Indian-American immigrant family, filled with doctors and married to them, too. Ashi Masi’s husband is a radiation oncologist; Shano Masi, an internal medicine physician, married a surgeon; and Dolly Masi, my mom’s younger sister, is a physical therapist. My dad’s side of the family is smaller, but also filled with medical professionals.
As I was growing up, doctors were everywhere. It’s a marvel that, when the time came, we were all in denial. My older sister, Monica, and I felt invincible—there was always medical help ready for any issue we faced.
Except, of course, for the one that came.
For Monica and me, Mom was a hands-on cultivator of empathy, a self-awareness developer, and, like her own father, a setter of high hopes and expectations. She was a rare mixture of caring, tough, compassionate, and candid. She was the same at work: in her twenty years of leading a team of a dozen women in a hospital ultrasound department, no one ever quit.
“You have to love the person behind the person that works for you,” she’d say.
In my childhood home we had paintings from Mackinac Island, in northern Michigan: gulls, pine trees, windy skies, rocks, and bluffs. There is a gray-blue hue where the horizon meets the lake. My dad’s eyes are that color. At six feet two inches, Charles Dunn seemed to me a gentle giant. “I love you” rolled off his tongue easily; unique, perhaps, for midwestern dads of his vintage. As a parent, he was a watchful protector, a role model for how to treat your wife, the answerer of all questions, and an ascetic who abstained from all forms of hedonistic consumption, save for ice cream. He was a walking encyclopedia. On a trip to Madrid, in 2003, I was three years out of college. Dad and I headed into the Museo Nacional del Prado. I asked if he wanted to get the tour by audio headset. “I’ll provide the audio,” he quipped. And then he did.
Dad’s family is multigenerational Irish, Danish, English, Norwegian, and Swedish-American. One of three children, he was raised as an evangelical Christian, a Swedish Baptist. His father was adopted, so tracing the lineage becomes hazy: picture some Danish immigrants on a farm in Wisconsin, a Swedish bartender and his Irish bride, and you start to get the idea. His family moved nine times in twelve years before landing on Chicago’s West Side.
Before the mood swings and all the moving, my paternal grandmother, Alva Georgina North (Nana), was a World War II hero. Nana was born in Chicago. She was a surgical army trauma nurse who arrived on the beaches of Normandy on day ten, treating frontline soldiers’ wounds on the march to Berlin and Victory in Europe, celebrated as V-E Day. She was there for the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Back in the States, she had treated an airman named Charles Willard Dunn II, my grandfather (Dada), who would win the Distinguished Flying Cross as a pathfinding navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress, leading bombing raids over Europe. They exchanged nine hundred love letters on the European front, which Dad discovered in a trunk in the basement after they were gone. He spent ten years writing the story of their wartime romance, titling it The Nurse and the Navigator.
Dada dropped out of Harvard, but after the war eventually made it to medical school and became a psychiatrist. Nana became, informally, one of his patients, and he started medicating her. In an unpublished appendix to Dad’s memoir, he writes of his grandfather: “Dad’s decision to become a psychiatrist was made with the expectation that his resulting expertise would mitigate the effects of Mom’s disorder. But it also gave him dark powers that could be wielded against her.”
The treatment plan included barbiturates, tranquilizers, at least two institutionalizations, and frequent moves to avoid the “embarrassment” of Nana’s difficulties. One of Nana’s commitments was a few weeks long, another a few months. When my grandmother returned, in true Scandinavian spirit, it was swept under the rug. My dad writes: “During the good times, Jane, Bob [Dad’s siblings] and I—taking our cue from Dad—always pretended that everything was okay. Indeed, during the good phase, Dad himself always proceeded as if there was no reason to be concerned that the bad times were going to recur, although they always did.” In a theoretical world, my grandmother’s psychiatric issues and my grandfather’s career as a psychiatrist might have prepared us for what was to come. Instead, the family tradition did the opposite: it prepared us to bury it all.
From my vantage point, they seemed like normal grandparents, sending us a one-dollar bill each year on our birthdays and taking us on trips to Marshall Field’s, where Nana, doused in perfume, would buy us Frango mint chocolates. According to Dad, by the time Monica and I met them, they had transcended the turmoil, though they bore little resemblance to the war heroes he later encountered in those letters.
Even a decade after my own issues emerged, it never occurred to me to wonder if, or how, mental illness runs in a family, let alone how shame, lack of candor, and stigma compound generationally. A house filled with ghosts.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I grasped very little of my family’s history, and even less of the impact it would ultimately have on me. What I did know was that I was the son of an ultrasound tech and a teacher, living in a fairly modest, twenty-two-hundred-square-foot house in suburban Downers Grove, an upbringing that, looking back, felt solidly middle-class.
Our parents were expert savers, lived within their means, and invested everything above our cost of living in us. They did everything for us, and had no discernible social lives beyond their kids and our extended family. When I begged for a saxophone, they saved for months until then I got one. Monica was seven and I was five one Christmas when they woke us up in the middle of the night to head to the airport. Wearing my Chicago Bears gloves, they ushered Monica and me out the door for a surprise trip to San Diego, where the main attraction for a boy obsessed with animals was a visit to the zoo.
We wanted for nothing, it seemed, but we were by no means wealthy. I wasn’t introduced to the concept of a millionaire until the seventh grade. If class differences mostly eluded me as a child, some part of me did recognize that I looked different: brown skin in a sea of white classmates. My sense of “other” translated as a form of uniqueness. Instead of burgers and hot dogs, we’d have Italian beef on the grill, with corn coated in garam masala and lime.
When I was in second grade, my parents pulled me aside. I thought I had done something wrong. They let me know that they’d been speaking with the teacher about my skipping third grade. They wanted to know what I thought.
“How long have you been talking to Ms. Bostedo about this?” I asked, incredulous that they’d kept this from me.
“About a month,” my mom replied. I squinted at her, disbelieving.
The truth was, I couldn’t wait to skip a grade. Even at that age, I processed this as a sign that I was some kind of outlier (well before I knew the term), capable of things other kids weren’t.
Despite my mom’s attempts to keep me grounded, this sense of being special, or “gifted,” became bedrock for my psyche. The root mixture of self-importance and hubris, prerequisite for many entrepreneurs, is in some ways traceable to that year. While it wasn’t necessarily a precursor to delusion, it incepted something in me that my biochemistry would later exploit.
Andy is the most gifted student we’ve seen around here in a long time.
While the leap from “being gifted” to “being a gift” is a dizzying stretch, the possibility became a twinkle in my eye when I was eight years old.
My time at Herrick Junior High was dominated by science fiction, computer games, and math. While I was reading science fiction books by David Eddings and J.R.R. Tolkien, and cultivating my inner superhero complex, my friend Gavin, the school’s only Jewish student, was reading Tolstoy and Zola. We’d shoot baskets in his driveway, play chess in his living room, and eat Peppermint Patties from a jar near his front door.
One day, in seventh grade, Gavin came to class with a new jacket, saturated with brilliant colors: purple and yellow and red. I asked him what it was for, and he said skiing. That winter break, his family went on a ski trip to Aspen. I’d never heard of such a thing. No one else I knew went skiing. It was expensive, and it seemed dangerous.
His family lived in Oak Brook, where homes regularly sold for over a million dollars. The sum was inconceivable to me.
From what I could tell, there were two kinds of people in Oak Brook: doctors and people who owned their own businesses. Gavin’s dad, Rick, owned an auto parts business with five locations. One day Gavin told me his father had an office filled with security cameras. I used to picture him there, in a command center of sorts. Rick would play basketball with us in the driveway, and we’d watch movies together in the family’s home cinema. He didn’t believe in credit cards and carried around a wallet brimming with cash at all times. Most impressively, Gavin’s family had season tickets to the Chicago Bulls. To twelve-year-old me, in my corner of the world, this was the Holy Grail of professional triumph.
Looking back, I admired Gavin’s family, and I envied them, too. I didn’t know any other entrepreneurs growing up. My preteen brain sensed that there was something different about Gavin’s dad—that in running his business and employing working-class people, he knew how to relate up and down the class spectrum, and profit from his acumen. Connective tissue was forming in my head around entrepreneurship and the notion of being my own boss—and, perhaps, the ability to go to Bulls games with a wad of hundos in my pocket.
Two years later, I was a sophomore in high school, and a new nickname for me was making the rounds. We were exiting CAT, college algebra trigonometry, a class mostly of juniors and a small cabal of precocious sophomores. As the only one of those sophomores who had skipped a grade, I was fourteen years old in a classroom full of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Late to puberty, I was a baby-faced boy in a classroom of young men. An easy target.
The nickname was invented by Joe, a junior. He was a year older than me and a star on the varsity soccer team. I was a mediocre member of the sophomore team, two rungs down. What made it worse was that we were friends, at least in the way a striving younger teenager thinks about friends: someone you hang out with, look up to, and want to be around because they travel in cooler circles. It was a confusing and pernicious mixture of affinity in private and taking the piss in public.
It got to me. I was the kid who’d run upstairs after losing a game of Monopoly and cry behind a lounge chair to hide my hurt. My skin was thin. As the boy prince in a matriarchal family, with no brothers, a doting older sister, an adoring mom, and a gentle father, I had none of the armor most boys have by the time they get to high school. Though I was wounded, I made little of it when I told my parents, almost in passing, about the nickname.
They started laughing. It was a rare moment of my parents not being empathetic—but since I hid my hurt from them, too, they couldn’t help but react with amusement. After all, it was kind of funny. Nicknames that stick, particularly derogatory ones, stick for a reason.
What was that reason? It was a clever play on words. Sure. But beyond that, it was kids weaponizing difference, and I didn’t have the tools to process that. Our culture was a long way from caring about or even recognizing the feelings of “otherness” for a brown-skinned half-Indian kid, and so I started developing skills to pretend those feelings weren’t there. Hiding vulnerability became a survival skill for me, and like other young men, I learned to stash it behind a veil of indifference fabricated by feelings of rejection.
That’s where anger begins: sublimated hurt. If the anger and hurt are not surfaced, acknowledged, and dealt with, the combination of emotions can metastasize into depression. It would be years before I understood that possibility, and that it all begins with hiding things from yourself.
My sister knew, though. She intuited that I was bruised. A senior at the time, Monica gathered a bunch of her friends, the you-don’t-want-to-mess-with-me variety, and word got to Joe that if he kept making fun of me, he was going to get his ass kicked by a bunch of seniors. The harassment died down.
In Hindi, we reserve a special term of respect for our older sisters.
And a good didi will always protect her little windu.
By senior year, my status had solidified: King of the nerds. I captained the quiz bowl team and was in the top five on the math team. I played soccer and tennis for a few years but was never good enough to make varsity. Mentally, I blamed it on being a year younger than everyone, owing to the skipped grade, but the truth is, my competitive drive was not matched by my athleticism. In senior year, I didn’t bother coming out for the tennis team. It was a quiet defeat.
Although I was not much of a heartthrob, one girl eventually came around. When senior prom arrived, I was dating Melanie. On the way up to the summer house where a bunch of us were staying, we made a stupid decision. We went off-road. Not with pickups or a Wrangler, but with a minivan and my little Dodge Neon, an undersized sedan that looked like a hyperactive frog. We got stuck in the wet dirt. As the tires spun, mud flew, clogging the small tire wells, spitting grit all over the car.
Walton was the prom date of one of Melanie’s friends. He was driving the other car, a maroon minivan, which did not get stuck. His leer irritated me, as did the way he leaned out the driver’s window of the minivan, laughing. Angry at being made fun of, I bottled up my resentment and focused on extricating the car.
After arriving at the house, we filled the bathtub with cans of beer, partied late, and did what teenagers do when they get to spend a rare night away, unsupervised.
Early that morning, still awake and foggy from the depleted bathtub beer stash, I snuck out and transferred as much mud as I could, by hand, from my car to Walton’s. He had humiliated me. Now it was my turn. The deed complete, I went to sleep. What I didn’t consider was that my actions would only deepen my own humiliation come daylight.
In the light of day, everyone saw what I had done. The mood grew somber on the drive home. We went full midwestern: nobody talked about it. My girlfriend was especially quiet. I felt ashamed. Mine was the injured pride of a frail ego, laid bare for all to see. I didn’t address it, I didn’t apologize, and nobody called me out. The referendum was the silence.
Dr. Z and I talk frequently about my desire to out-alpha any male I feel challenged by. We’re still searching for the headwaters. I revered my dad for his devotion to all of us, for how funny he was, for how he seemed to know everything. We loved watching competition together—the Cubs, Bulls, and Bears—but he was never competitive with me at all. I begged him to play chess. He didn’t enjoy beating me, and seemed pleased only once I beat him. Then we gave it up. Somehow this absence of expressed dominance, a subtle form of dominance in its own way, turned into a mixture of me sanctifying him and wanting to show every other male I met that they weren’t as good as either of us. Deifying him would turn out to be a problem.
Meanwhile, although I wanted to be No. 1, I had to settle for No. 3. I graduated third in my class at Downers Grove North. For the high school yearbook, I was named “most likely to be a millionaire.” I was both flattered and surprised. I had no interest in business, I didn’t read books about entrepreneurs, and I wasn’t particularly coin-operated. While I tried my hand at mowing lawns, I was more candy striper than side hustler. My dream was to be a doctor, not an entrepreneur.
Maybe my high school classmates saw something I didn’t.
Do goal-driven future doctors treat quiz bowl like the Super Bowl, obsess over status, or coat their friends’ cars with mud because of a small slight?
I don’t know. But emotionally fragile, hypercompetitive, mercurial teenagers do, and those qualities, for better and worse, line up nicely with the central-casting traits of the male entrepreneur.
At Northwestern, I lived in a freshman party dorm called Bobb Hall, where alcohol was the defining fixture of extracurricular life. In high school I had been a late bloomer when it came to partying and dating; those activities had been on the back burner relative to academic work. Now I began to wing it in the classroom while my focus turned entirely to my social life.
I knew that joining a fraternity would mean a built-in schedule of one party after another, and I pledged at Sigma Chi. If Gavin’s dad was my original entrepreneurial role model, Sigma Chi was a new jolt of inspiration, as well as status recalibration. While a handful of our friends would go on to medical school, most guys in the house were all about business. Some came from money, but even those born with a silver spoon were ambitious. One such trust funder had a black BMW M3, a vehicle I envied (it was standard issue for a bunch of brothers), with the license plate MLTS. Rumor was that it had been a high school graduation gift from his dad. The letters stood for:
Most Likely To Succeed
He was mocked for it behind his back, and deservedly so. What he was putting out there, though, was something most guys in the house were already thinking.
Today, I’d call my experience in Sigma Chi at Northwestern a playground in white male privilege. My first internship and my first job out of college both came directly from brothers in the house getting me interviews at their firms. But the bonds were genuine. Guys cared about each other. They were mentors, sounding boards, and role models.
Beyond the schoolwork and the academic pathways into the world of enterprise, the swagger of the brothers was magnetic to me as a seventeen-year-old. There was a relentless “study hard and play hard” mentality. The outward posture was all chivalry and class. The conversations on the inside were different. I didn’t have the good stories. Compared to other guys, I wasn’t someone who got noticed a lot. But I was taking note of how you got attention. When a sophomore started dating a woman who’d dumped me, it sank my narrative that “nice guys” finish first, and it opened a new frontier for my alpha pathologies to metastasize.
Though alcohol was the fraternity’s currency, one friend in the house, Reuben, was doing some harder drugs and having what were termed “episodes.” He went to Europe for a study-abroad semester, and rumor had it that he came home in a straitjacket. My Northwestern buddies talked about him in hushed tones, and only in passing. The less we talked about his situation, the less real it seemed. As I flew out to New York City in 1999, in between my sophomore and junior years, for a summer internship, Reuben’s predicament was far from the forefront of my mind. I’d never had any mental health issues, and I didn’t do any hard drugs. I drew a hard, if arbitrary, line after booze and pot. What I forgot, or never knew, is that a sound mind is a gift that the good Lord can rip away whenever He fucking feels like it.
My internship—landed with the help of a fraternity connection—was at Deloitte, a management consulting firm where smart senior people give clients advice and junior people, who have no idea what they’re trying to do, make PowerPoint presentations, run Excel models, and try pretend they’re not frauds. It was my first real job in the business world, and I loved it.
I met my boss, Debbie, in the shadow of the Twin Towers, at the marina right outside the World Financial Center. As Manhattan buzzed with the energy of enterprise, we sat at one of the tables with a chessboard, and I wondered if that was the game I was entering: the chess of capitalism. I had no real foundation in business whatsoever. Studying economics is a great way to pretend you do, but marginal cost curves and ivory tower equations have little application in the real world. Nevertheless, I would pontificate to Debbie about vendor management during her cigarette breaks. I was twenty years old, arguing that rather than beating on your suppliers, Lee Iacocca–style, you have to treat them the same way you treat your customers: as partners in the ecosystem. Debbie looked at me quizzically.
The idea of mentioning Iacocca had come from my dad, a left-wing Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher who took a historian’s view of American business. Why attack the people who make your product possible? Sure, you want to buy stuff at the lowest cost. But do you? Doesn’t making sure your suppliers are winning, too, ensure the long-term success of your business? I must have seemed like such a naïve kid to Debbie, but the gist of the idea is one I’d still be discussing twenty-one years later with the CEO of the largest company in the world.
One day that August, while I was sitting in an ocean of cubicles in Deloitte’s office at 2 World Financial Center, my phone rang. It was my dad. I wondered if my neighbor could hear, from her cubicle, the calamity about to unfold in mine. I was being charged with a misdemeanor by the state of Illinois.
In our sophomore year, our fraternity helped a number of members secure fake IDs. They were Indiana driver’s licenses and looked so good that we put our real names on them. It was a foolproof way to get in, anywhere, because we could show backup, usually a credit card, if there was ever any doubt. Now we could party in Chicago. This worked beautifully for two years. Until it didn’t.
Crobar was a busy night spot in Chicago at the time. Think: industrial beats, Dennis Rodman doing shots at the bar, bare midriffs, and expensive tattoos. Thanks to that Indiana fake ID, I’d been to Crobar many times. Then one night, as my friends streamed in, I was stopped. The bouncer said that I wasn’t getting in, and that he wasn’t giving me my ID back. It was freezing outside, with the kind of Chicago winter wind that doubles as a buzz saw. I had lost my golden ticket into bars, and by summertime in New York City I had entirely forgotten about it.
Until the call from my dad.
As it turns out, that ID had ended up with law enforcement. The state of Illinois authorities sent a letter to my house in Downers Grove, and on the phone with my dad, I struggled to catch up to what he was telling me. I ducked into a small conference room, and my brain finally comprehended. I was being formally charged with a misdemeanor: possession of false identification.
Throughout my childhood, I’d been in trouble with my dad fewer than five times. The first time was as a four-year-old, when I said I didn’t want to give my grandmother a kiss on the cheek because her skin was too wrinkly. She couldn’t hear me, but I can still remember the expression on his face: briefly withering, then shifting to disappointment. Though crumbling inside, I stood my ground, and refused to kiss her goodbye. But this time was different. I was twenty. This was anger and disappointment, simultaneously. I’d never felt both of those together before, and with real legal repercussions. It terrified me.
Toward the end of the conversation my dad said that the whole ordeal was a dagger in the heart.
Those words haunted me for a long time. They laced a cocktail of emotions. Fear of the legal system. Shame. Sadness. Guilt. Self-pity for being singled out for something “everyone” did. And another feeling I wasn’t in touch with, one that grew as I reflected in the weeks and months ahead: anger. Anger at Dad for what I perceived to be an uncalibrated reaction, a puritanical worldview, and an unwillingness to forgive.
For my entire life he’d been the perfect dad. And I thought that in many ways, I’d been a perfect son.
Dr. Z would one day explain the father-son relationship to me this way: For the son, his father begins as a deity on a pedestal. The father can do no wrong. As the son ages, he discovers that his father is flawed, mortal, and full of frailty: an oedipal fall from grace. The son is filled with disappointment, hurt, and anger over his dad’s imperfections. The father starts to sink in the son’s eyes, slowly sometimes, and other times all at once. What follows is conflict and resentment. As the son’s psyche grinds against his father’s, men are forged. Boys become men. Or they don’t.
Only some dads survive the son’s journey intact.
Before they do, they all fall down.
Six months later, and it was winter again. I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado; summer in New York was a distant memory, as was the ID scandal. My license had been suspended for one year, but the charges against me had been dropped. A group of us were there for Northwestern’s annual ski trip. I had never skied. It was a sport, and a lifestyle, I was trying on for the first time, the once-mysterious pastime of my affluent childhood friend. I fell in love with all of it—the views, the snow, the mountains, the skiing itself, and another, unspoken feeling as well: being among those who could afford it.
The front door of our rental house was wide open. We were splayed out on the porch, without jackets, but not cold. We were of this world, but we were not in it.
Jack, one of my best friends, was drinking from a jug of water. He gave me a sip. The water tasted like it flowed from the faucet of a glacier. The Rocky Mountains looked impossibly beautiful, surrounding us like snow blankets, flecked with proud and brave pines.
In the bathroom, the tiles were transmogrifying, shape-shifting spirits. They were alive. We had eaten the mushrooms on an omelet. Not porcini, not shiitake, definitely not enoki.
It was the first time in my life I’d shroomed.
At some point that afternoon we decided to go to Wendy’s. The fries were hot, salty, and terrific. What I remember most is the yellow of the cup and the scorching red of Wendy’s hair.
The jacket I’d bought with my mom before I’d left was not as shiny or as expensive as my childhood friend’s, but I was slope side nevertheless. I was also in a serious adult relationship for the first time in my life, with a woman named Camila. She had luminous blue eyes, a dry sense of humor, and an industrious work ethic. She was an exceptional skier, having been raised in a Chilean ski town herself, and waited for me patiently as I skidded and fell, again and again, on my way down the hill.
What my friends couldn’t be expected to notice about me, a twenty-year-old kid in a state of psychedelic rapture, mesmerized by the mountains and falling in love with a woman, doing mushrooms, laughing, drinking beer and smoking pot, and talking fast and thinking fast, was that I was experiencing the beginnings of my first mental health episode.
This is how a manic episode starts. It’s incremental at first. I didn’t know it was happening. Nobody did.
A week or so later, back at the apartment I shared with my three housemates at Ridge and Noyes in Evanston, we decided to have a New Year’s Eve party to usher in the new millennium. My housemates were Paymon Farazi, whom I’d known since junior high; Brent Lampert, a pre-med student who was my sophomore year roommate; and Eric Lynn, a sparring partner on Middle Eastern politics. We all lived on the same hall freshman year, and by senior year we were all still close. As one of the hosts at the party, I was hyper-focused on making sure I asked everyone for their coat when they came in. Getting those jackets onto the bed, neatly stacked, was of paramount importance. Something was starting to shift inside me.
Obsessive, goal-directed behavior, Dr. Z would tell me twenty years later, is one of the indicators of ascending hypomania. According to Google, the hallmarks of hypomania also include an upbeat, jumpy, or wired mood; increased energy or agitation; exaggerated sense of self-confidence; mild euphoria; decreased need for sleep; racing thoughts; and some distractibility. But at a college party, who could decipher between a spirited and talkative guy drinking Canadian Club with Dr Pepper and someone going hypomanic?
My sister, a recent grad of the University of Illinois, drove up from our parents’ house, where she was living, to the party that night. From a balcony, Monica and I looked down on the street. We both feared heights, we learned, for different reasons.
“What if I fall?” Monica said.
“What if I jump?” I said.
Dr. Z says that inside all of us is a death wish.
A TV was on in the house. A news report showing some South Koreans. They were waiting for the Messiah to arrive, praying on their knees.
The next day a friend and I went to the mall to see The Cider House Rules. As I rocketed up, I was convinced that the movie had been a revelatory event in my life. The film is based on the John Irving novel and stars Michael Caine and a young Tobey Maguire. It is a story about a man who breaks with his father figure, only to become just like him later in life. After I saw it I told anyone who would listen that it was the best movie I had ever seen. It’s a good book and a decent movie—but it’s not The Godfather. In the twenty years since I saw it, across thousands of conversations about pop culture, no one has ever brought that movie up. Not once.
The next day, I got a ride from school to our fraternity house from a friend. She was struggling with a relationship that was ending with a mutual friend. I felt terrible for her. Now, in my increasingly perilous state, I decided to make something up to help her feel better.
How do you know?
He told me.
Who is he with?
I meant his actual brother. My underlying intent was to make her feel better. To do so, I invented a story that wasn’t true. As I got out and closed the car door, I felt a clear sense of having helped her, a good deed complete.
To say that I was lying would be inaccurate. Lying is what I do when I intend to mislead someone. In my decompensating state, I had no intentions, just unfiltered dream-state actions. Imagine waking up one day and being like, “That was a crazy dream,” except it was a dream for you and real for everyone else.
I’m no longer hypomanic at this point. I’ve crossed the line to mania. Hypomania is talking excitedly about the guy you just met who you are going to marry. Mania is talking excitedly about the watermelon you just ate that is the reincarnation of your grandfather. Hypomania is a vibrant experience of reality. Mania is inventing your own reality, living out your unconscious in Technicolor.
From there, my memories race and blur.
In a room in the fraternity house, I talk to my parents on the phone. First Mom, then Dad. I go back and forth between crying and not crying. This rapid cycling of moods is bedrock for someone who is losing it. I bring up what my dad had said to me that summer, in the wake of the fake ID incident, and I let him know that drinking is wrong—he’d been right all along. All substance abuse is wrong.
At this point I am (1) making up reality for myself and others; (2) experiencing a gurgling grandiosity; (3) cycling between mood states.
I am also on a college campus where the norm, for me, is staying out late, pulling all-nighters, having weird conversations, and abusing substances. Dr. Z says that everything is overdetermined. While we search for clean-line narratives, there is no one clear singular input that catalyzes insanity. There are usually multiple vectors, working together.
Now the ingredients are all percolating.
Gothic conflict with Dad, weathering his disappointment. The first earthshaking love of my life, and the rising biochemical joy produced by intimacy. Ecstasy the previous summer, mushrooms two weeks prior, marijuana and alcohol as daily staples. Some powerful acne medication to treat the volcanic archipelagos on my back. Throw in the arrival of the year 2000, to which I, in my mood-altered state, attach great significance. Then the fatal decision to stop sleeping, eating, and drinking water—and with it, a flash of divine insight.
I am on foot, striding across campus, walking wherever my feet take me. The whirlwind of thoughts and feelings brings tears to my eyes as I pass the Charles Deering library. President Bill Clinton suddenly comes to my mind. Choking up with joy and gratitude, I know that one day I will be the president, too.
It is the year a.d. 2000. Wait. Those initials are the same as my initials.
The Messiah is coming back.
And I know who He is.
From "Burn Rate" by Andy Dunn. Copyright 2022 by Andy Dunn. Excerpted by permission of Currency, an imprint of Crown, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
super-embed: <iframe width="100%" height="166" scrolling="no" frameborder="no" allow="autoplay" src=https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/1510468210&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true></iframe><div style="font-size: 10px; color: rgb(51, 51, 51);line-break: anywhere;word-break: normal;overflow: hidden;white-space: nowrap;text-overflow: ellipsis; font-family: Interstate,Lucida Grande,Lucida Sans Unicode,Lucida Sans,Garuda,Verdana,Tahoma,sans-serif;font-weight: 100;"><a href=https://soundcloud.com/penguin-audio title="PRH Audio" target="_blank" style="color: rgb(51, 51, 51); text-decoration: none;">PRH Audio</a> · <a href=https://soundcloud.com/penguin-audio/burn-rate-by-andy-dunn-read-by-the-author-chapter-1 title="Burn Rate by Andy Dunn, read by the author -- Chapter 1" target="_blank" style="color: rgb(51, 51, 51); text-decoration: none;">Burn Rate by Andy Dunn, read by the author -- Chapter 1</a></div>
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