By Sara Solovitch, BP Hope, Summer 2005
Andy Behrman wrote Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania while convalescing from four months of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) that effectively ended 20 years of undiagnosed, out-of-control bipolar disorder. His book reads at times like a chronicle of loss for that old life of sleepless nightsfueled by drugs, anonymous sex, aimless travel, and midnight pastrami binges followed by tofu and tuna diets and male hustling. And yes, he admits, one of the secrets of manic depression is the pleasure it brings. “It’s an emotional state similar to Oz,” he writes, “full of excitement, color, noise, and speed—-an overload of sensory stimulation—-whereas the sane state of Kansas is plain and simple, black and white, boring and flat.”
But in 1992, his life fell completely apart. A successful public relations consultant in New York, Behrman had gotten drawn into an art-counterfeiting scheme (“the most exciting proposition I’d heard in years”), was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five months in federal prison. It was around that time that he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder—-after seeing eight different psychiatrists over a 12-year period.
His 2002 memoir has been optioned as a movie and is currently in pre-production—with Tobey (“Spider-Man”) Maguire set to play Behrman on the big screen. The book, while raunchy and likely to be distasteful to some readers, is often funny and always honest. At his most psychotic, Behrman imagines himself chewing on sidewalks and swallowing sunlight. He squirrels away his nest egg—a tidy sum of $85,000, earned in the counterfeiting scheme—in a shoe box, and his “strudel money”—some 25,000 German deutsche marks (about $10,000)—in the freezer, neatly stacked between a bag of chicken breasts and a pint of ice cream.
In the book, Behrman describes his New Jersey childhood as happy, yet he was never comfortable in his own skin. A precocious boy, he always felt “different”; he had a compulsive need to wash his hands a dozen times a day and lay awake nights counting cars go by. Yet his family never guessed that anything was the matter. In fact, it was he—at the age of 18, right before heading off to college—who asked to see the first of what would grow into a parade of therapists.
Today, 37 different medications and 19 electroconvulsive therapies later, the 43-year-old Behrman is stable, married, and living in a Los Angeles suburb, where he and his wife just had their first child. He is a strong advocate for medication, and no longer considers it a challenge staying on his. He regularly addresses patient support groups, doctors, and mental health conferences, and is a featured speaker at the three upcoming conferences of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). (Editor’s note: For more information about these conferences, please see details below.)
Here, in an interview with BP Magazine, Behrman insists on dispelling the perceived glamour of mental illness. If he still feels any ambivalence, he doesn’t let on in our conversation.
bp: Why did you write Electroboy?
Behrman: I had read a few books about bipolar disorder but I never identified with any of them, because my story didn’t sound like their story. I thought maybe my case is some kind of special case. I even thought for a while that maybe my diagnosis was wrong. And it was only after Electroboy came out that I heard from other people who said their story was just like mine. They, too, thought their stories were too graphic, too dramatic, too something to fit into the category of the illness. Their responses made me feel like my brand of bipolar disorder was more the norm than anyone else had ever represented, because there is a lot of high drama, a lot of craziness, a lot of risk-taking, and a lot of destructive behavior.
bp: How did your parents react?
Behrman: I gave them an advanced copy of the book and I don’t think they knew how to react. I think they were just shocked. Pun intended. They were flabbergasted that I had led this life that they knew nothing about. They stopped talking to me for a while. Then they wanted to sit down with a therapist. The general concern was that I was completely exposing myself, that it was a confessional. I think they were also concerned for themselves. We talked at length about bipolar, really for the first time. Before, I had just been seeing psychiatrists on my own and reporting back to my parents. And they came to the realization that this was something they had ignored. I think they felt guilty that they had been oblivious to it, as well as guilty that they had passed it on to me.
bp: Is there a family history of bipolar disorder?
Behrman: Yes. Probably my paternal grandfather. Nobody talks about him very much, but he was an attorney who kept very odd hours. We know he had mood swings, but he wasn’t diagnosed with anything. My father is somewhat obsessive-compulsive and my mother is very driven, as is my sister. We’re all related and similar in personalities, though I’m the only one diagnosed.
bp: When did you realize that things had gotten out of hand?
Behrman: Probably when I became involved with the art-counterfeiting scandal. I was aware of the danger, but I thought I was being rational. I was aware of the dangers, but not frightened by them. It became a crisis only when everything broke down and my plan was discovered and there was this fear of what was going to happen to me. That’s when I really sought help.
bp: I can imagine the prosecution sighing, and saying, yeah, right, the bipolar defense: “My mania made me do it.”
Behrman: The issue of my bipolar disorder never came up at my trial, which was in 1993. The issue only came up at my sentencing. That was 11 years ago and I had never heard of bipolar disorder. I had never heard of the term manic-depressive, which [is how] it was referred to back then. I didn’t know anyone with bipolar and I was pretty aware.
bp: When you were first diagnosed, you thought it was a terminal illness.
Behrman: I thought I wouldn’t make it to my next birthday. The only treatment back then was lithium. I saw eight psychiatrists before I got my diagnosis and was misdiagnosed almost always with depression. Bipolar patients are misdiagnosed on average eight to 10 times before they see a doctor who diagnoses them correctly. Back then, I thought they were all right. And it’s understandable, because I only went to those doctors when I was in my down periods, feeling terrible. I didn’t go when I was feeling elated or manic. And that’s still a problem today: people who are bipolar are not so willing to give up their mania.
bp: You devote a lot more space in your book to the manic episodes than the depressive ones.
Behrman: The manic behavior is easier to remember. My lows seemed a lot different than the lows that a unipolar depressive feels. I wasn’t blue. My lows were filled with rage, anger, and irritability. I was dysfunctional and agitated, really miserable with life, and desperately trying to get back to where I had been the day before.
bp: And, honestly, in Electroboy, you make the mania sound almost glamorous.
Behrman: I’m always surprised when people say Electroboy is so glamorous. If that’s glamour, I can live without it. I think people make the assumption that because you’re traveling from New York to Tokyo and Paris, you’re living a glamorous life. But if you’re not in control and you can’t stop what you’re doing … if, when you’re in Paris, and you think, why not Johannesburg? Like I got to the Berlin Wall [in 1989], and I thought, no big deal; it’s just some people chopping off little blocks of cement. Let’s go back to Paris.
Depressives say, oh you’re so lucky to be manic-depressive, you don’t know how horrible it is not to be able to get out of bed. I completely understand. But at the same time, bipolar is so frightening. When you’re flying high, you don’t know where it’s taking you. If you’re driving, you don’t know if you’re going to crash; if you’re flying, you don’t know where your plane is taking you.
bp: Given all that, do you ever miss it?
Behrman: Not at all. Perhaps there was a period when I did, but now if you see where my life is compared to where it was … God, it’s been 12 years. There was a period after I left, well, I was asked to leave, my art consulting job, when I didn’t work for eight years.
bp: What is your life like now?
Behrman: I’ve been stable since 1999. I’ve left New York and I’m living in LA. I was married in November 2003, and my wife and I just had our first child, Kate Elizabeth, on April 27. So I’m stable, married, living in the suburbs, and working full time writing two books [a sequel to Electroboy, and a self-help book for bipolar disorder], doing my speaking engagements, and working on a film version of Electroboy.
bp: How do you think living in Manhattan influenced your behavior?
Behrman: Manhattan is a very convenient place to be bipolar; it’s the city that never sleeps. And a bipolar is a person who never sleeps. If you feel like going out for a snack at 4 a.m., you can find a diner that’s never closed; you can go to the corner and buy magazines; you can go to a club.
bp: LA is hardly a land of peace and quiet.
Behrman: LA might not be the land of peace but try finding a hamburger at 10 o’clock at night. The potential for getting into trouble is much greater in Manhattan.
bp: Do you think bipolar disorder is being overdiagnosed?
Behrman: I don’t think it’s overdiagnosed, but I do think it’s overglamorized in the media. People say, “Oh he must just have bipolar.” It seems to be the glamorous diagnosis of the moment. I could never understand that because it’s the least glamorous one I can think of. I used to tell my psychiatrists, “Just take a limb off. I’m sick of this illness that I can’t get under control.”
For six or seven years, I was on 37 different medications and I also underwent electroconvulsive therapy because the medications didn’t work for me. There was nothing that would break my manic cycle. I was walking around on drugs that were sedating me and not allowing me to function, literally being in my apartment for five years and just watching television. And at the same time, cycling back and forth from mania to depression. It was a really uncomfortable, pretty horrible time of my life.
bp: What made you decide to try electroconvulsive therapy?
Behrman: At that critical part of my life, I was just begging for help. My psychiatrist was initially opposed to it. She said, “You’re so sensitive to medications, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” But she referred me to another doctor who said I was a great candidate. Without being too cynical about it, I think doctors who treat patients with ECT … well, it should be a last resort, and he didn’t know me too long.
bp: How long?
Behrman: About 15 minutes.
bp: And when was your first treatment?
Behrman: The next day. It was the only thing left to treat acute mania, but I have to tell you I was so unwell at the time it didn’t even frighten me. The doctor didn’t give me a lot of information: “Just trust me, you’re going to feel better,” he told me.
bp: And you trusted him.
Behrman: My initial reaction was: this is really glamorous; this will be another adventure. I also thought that if I undergo this barbaric treatment then I won’t feel guilty. I can tell my family and friends that I’ve tried everything. I can’t be held accountable…
bp: So what was it like?
Behrman: After my first electric shock treatment, I felt like everything had been recalibrated, my thinking was a lot clearer. [That’s] not to say that I didn’t experience the side effects: the memory loss and the achiness. I needed to be rubbed and massaged. I was in tremendous pain, and barely recognized my sister when she came to the hospital. I knew I knew her, I just didn’t know how.
bp: You’ve become a new voice for the bipolar consumer. Are you comfortable in that role?
Behrman: I have a Web site, something that my publisher didn’t really think was important to do, but after my book came out I started getting tons of mail—-up to 600 emails a week from people thanking me for the book and telling me their own stories. I responded to every email and every response led me to other people and groups of people who asked me to come and speak, and so I would go, and I didn’t question it because the idea was to tell my story and listen to other stories.
This whole bipolar world is so connected on the Internet that basically I could do this sitting behind a computer. But people want to see you in person, and somehow when you speak in person your story is more meaningful. I never get tired of it. My wife asks, “Why does your speech change every time?” It’s never the same. Even at book readings, I never read from the book, I just start talking.
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Electroboy: the movie
Before it was even written, Electroboy was optioned in 1999 as a movie by HBO, which pounced on it when it was only a 10-page book proposal. After HBO let its option expire in October 2001, a Hollywood producer flew unbidden to New York City. Julia Eisenman had been tracking the book’s development and sought to persuade Behrman that her company, Endgame Entertainment, could do his story justice.
“We had lunch and ended up talking for five or six hours, about bipolar disorder and her mother, who had been bipolar for 30 years and just committed suicide the month before,” says Behrman, recalling that initial meeting with Eisenman, who two years later became his wife.
Tobey (“Spider-Man”) Maguire, also a producer, is slated to star in the $25-million-budget movie. Current plans are for production to begin late this summer. Except for the 1993 movie, Mr. Jones, starring Richard Gere, about a man with bipolar who falls in love with his psychiatrist, Behrman says this will be the first mainstream Hollywood film with a bipolar protagonist.
Update on the Electroboy movie: