California Gothic

In an excerpt from his new book, Geoffrey Mak reflects on the certainties found in psychosis.

To go insane is to burn up against the edges of one’s own mind, where thinking ends and grace begins. In the middle of a pandemic in a city I did not call my home, I was sitting on the windowsill of the sixteenth floor of an old GDR apartment building in Lichtenberg—the Hochhaus, the taxi drivers called it—fixing my gaze on the thumbnail-size dumpsters below my feet. I didn’t resent life so much as distrust it: I believed/suspected I was living in a simulation directed by an interplanetary AI, or I was locked in a nightmare from which I could wake myself if I simply pushed off the windowsill and dropped. In my head I was hearing voices that were telling me I was a prophet, and that if I jumped, I would not crash to my death, but—as Satan told Jesus—would be caught midair by angels, like the line from Toni Morrison: If I “surrendered to the air,” I could “ride it.” Quite frankly, I was losing my mind. I believed I was being tested by demons from antiquity, or remote CIA agents with microwave weapons beaming secret imperatives directly into my cochlea. The instructions were clear: I was not to eat or masturbate for ten days. And if I made it to ten days, I would gain nothing less than the powers of divination.

What was I thinking? That my day of reckoning had come—if not punishment, exactly, then some sort of hazing ritual of the soul. Manic, I did not sleep. I reread Reena Spaulings over the course of a single, putrid night, because I thought there were instructions hidden in its puns. By day, my voices instructed me to email and call friends and editors, with whom I believed I was telepathically communicating, and divulge inappropriate details about my sex habits and issue cryptic messages about God and the end of days. In what I believed to be prophetic inception, a voice told me my mother would die of the coronavirus if my sister followed through with a planned visit to my parents. So I called her, imploring her not to go to L.A. “I know you’re operating on multiple planes of reality right now,” my sister said, her voice measured and flat. I took this to be her admission that she was “in on it,” participating in some conspiracy—attributable, I was certain, to a single source—whose meaning was obscured from me, just barely, by a thin veil that I thought could be snatched from my mind’s eye at any moment, if I just had the right answer to this wretched riddle.

In fact, my sister was part of a conspiracy. A friend in Finland, upon reading an email I’d sent her during my mania, frantically fielded information from mutual friends in various parts of the world—Australia, New York, L.A.—and through chains of acquaintances found her way to my brother, on the one hand, who connected her with my family members, and on the other, to my roommate in Berlin, who coordinated with her to get me either to a mental hospital in Berlin or on a plane back to my parents’ house in California.

My roommate tried to get me committed, but I refused. I chose California. My episode lasted four days.


After my sister booked me a flight out of Berlin, I returned to live at my parents’ house in Diamond Bar, a suburb at the end of a brown and monotonous stretch of highway thirty minutes east of Los Angeles, toward Orange County. Diamond Bar not only is small but feels small, conjuring in the mind a montage of smog checks and hose water on sidewalks and imported eucalyptus trees and afternoon naps and Republi- cans and churches in office buildings with green windows and coyotes in the driveway. Arriving at the height of the pandemic, I could not always feel the contours of where personal trauma ended and mass devastation began. The plague shut down city after city at a speed so sweeping it felt biblical: Milan, London, Mumbai, New York, Jakarta. Watching the death counts surge into the hundreds of thousands offered a low, indecent charge that hummed like a lawn mower throughout an otherwise undifferentiated afternoon. To occupy myself, I got absorbed in staring spells at the poolside, heralded the fresh produce that arrived at our door, and took occasional walks along the nearby trail lined with cacti and warning signs for rattlesnakes.

Sunlight yawned. If this was the end of days, how could it be so dull? The hysteria of my insanity had merged with the ravaging of the world, yet the only emotion I felt capable of was boredom. Holed up in my bedroom, like a madman locked in his cell, I was to confront, once and for all, the fact of my unhappiness. Unlike the beat of metropolitan life, the time signature at my parents’ house followed the rhythm of long and insufferable hours invoked in me by the word “home,” which might, through discipline, be cauterized into something else entirely: understanding.

Blinking in the sun, I kept asking myself: Why did I go insane? Not just the fact of it, but why did I deserve it?

If this was the end of days, how could it be so dull? The hysteria of my insanity had merged with the ravaging of the world, yet the only emotion I felt capable of was boredom.

I didn’t have the answers. I wasn’t even sure I had the right questions.

Technically, this was my second psychotic episode in the span of three years, and it seemed the far more devastating of the two, leaving me with even fewer certainties. The psychiatrists I consulted couldn’t draw any definitive conclusions about my diagnosis, due to the drugs I had been using (ketamine, DMT, some meth). As a junkie, I was hard for psychiatrists to take seriously, so in turn I didn’t take them seriously. One psychiatrist told me that the brain damage from drugs was possibly permanent. He described a former patient who took acid once and—

“But I didn’t take acid,” I interrupted.

He just looked back at me with self-satisfied pity.

I must’ve looked wan. My hair, usually buzzed, was growing out into a black halo, and my mustache was too long, thick and straight on either side of my mouth, like a Chinese caricature. I was rife with self-scorn, something comfortably drip-fed in private after having so publicly drawn terror and pity from friends and family. During my episode, my sister had interrupted her presentations at work to take my erratic calls outside, then took a week and a half off because of the emotional turmoil. My brother checked out books on schizophrenia from the library. My mother couldn’t sleep, eyes sore from tears, afraid she might get a call in the middle of the night from a stranger in Berlin or Finland.

None of this was remotely my concern during my psychosis, which is to say my self-absorption. In my trance state, I was concerned, rather, with voices telling me specific names of people I knew in the city whom I was supposed to locate and tell secrets to. “Are you writing about or through a condition?” wrote a concerned editor, who gave me a list of links and phone numbers after I had sent her an email with my litany of conspiracies, which I was hoping she might publish somewhere, like a Q drop. My conviction was—as the pandemic seemed to suggest in its early stages—that these were apocalyptic days, and I was chosen to proclaim the truth to the nations and expose the hypocrisy of the wicked.

But if adulthood is marked by a certain equanimity toward meaninglessness and ambiguity, then it was surely adulthood that I had been putting off. What I can’t fathom now is how much certainty I’d felt in psychosis. I almost want to say purpose, with which I’d felt brimming. How pleasurable it was to be swimming in meaning. Every detail up to the outer fringes of my awareness was tinged with significance, like a saturated color. Accidents were taken for signs, signs were taken for wonders. In the unraveling of my mind, I encountered a breaking open of reason that I found grotesque but undeniably ravishing, even if it was batshit torture.

What felt so much like a betrayal when I returned to California—a pain like flat sunlight resting in my field of vision—was that, suddenly, I felt closed off from the supreme guiding intelligence I thought was issuing me commands, as if the entrance to a cave collapsed, barring me from its secret gold. Cast out, I felt like I was groping with pale arms in the dark, trying to rake through a black site for answers—any—to my only recurring question: Why?


Eventually, the lockdown did lift. By then, I had finished the twelve steps. Inventory, amends, all of it. In my memory, the first six months of sobriety had dragged, but I barely noticed the six months after.

When my sponsor “graduated” me from the steps, I asked him for one favor to send me off: Could he give me a tarot reading? “In the name of Christ,” I joked. He laughed bearishly and offered me this one occult indulgence.

He did the three-card reading. The first card, which represents my past, was the Emperor. Power, leadership, worldliness. The second, which represented my present, was the Eight of Wands. Creativity, rapid change, energy.

But when he flipped the third, I started once I saw it: the Fool. It’s the first card in the entire deck.

“What does that mean?” I asked. This was supposed to be my future.

He smiled ironically. “To approach life like a child.” ♦

"California Gothic" is excerpted from Mean Boys, copyright (c) Geoffrey Mak, 2024, with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.

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