Mary Pilon | The Kevin Show: An Olympic Athlete’s Battle with Mental Illness | Bloomsbury | March 2018 | 14 minutes (3,775 words)
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you.” –The Velveteen Rabbit
As Kevin Hall stood onboard the Artemis, a 72-foot catamaran, trying to help his teammates dredge Andrew Simpson’s body out of the water, he wasn’t entirely sure if the scene unfolding before him was really happening or not.
Andrew “Bart” Simpson, whose body might or might not have been in the water, was a stocky British Olympic gold medalist with short, spiky chestnut hair and a wide smile. One of the world’s best sailors, Simpson knew what to do in emergencies, which made his being trapped underwater for ten minutes all the more incomprehensible. The $140-million Artemis was supposed to be a technological wonder, so it made no sense to anyone onboard that it had crumpled so quickly into a taco shell, trapping Simpson in its fold.
Finally, Kevin and his teammates were able to pull Simpson’s soggy two hundred pounds out of the water and onto a floating backboard.
The emergency responders began to perform CPR, one officer cutting open Simpson’s wetsuit so he could apply a defibrillator to his chest. They pushed, the sailors waiting for Simpson to breathe, to show some sign of life. But Simpson was dead. He was 36 years old.
Months of preparation and millions of dollars had gone into the design of the Artemis, a vessel that had stunned other sailors with its foils and gadgets and that had seemed almost to fly over the water. Kevin suddenly felt lost. What had happened? Who, if anyone, was to blame? And why had Simpson, of all the sailors on the boat, been the one to die? Kevin had known Simpson for years, their sailing careers often overlapping, intersecting, and running in parallel. Simpson had something that Kevin and some of the other men on board the Artemis did not — an Olympic gold medal — and he represented something that all of the men on board aspired to be: a champion athlete and family man with a kind heart and generous spirit, seemingly unfazed by the success that he had attained.
Kevin thought about all this and more as the emergency workers took Simpson’s body away and everyone went home. In the days that followed, part of him wanted to talk to his teammates about what had happened, but part of him dared not. Because, if he was honest, he still wasn’t entirely sure that the crash and Simpson’s death had really happened. It seemed too horrifying to be real. And for a few moments, there had been that flash.
The Director. Cameras. Actors. Scripts.
Kevin wondered: Had it all just been part of The Show?
* * *
I’d somehow chosen to cast my lot with my life’s drama’s supposed audience instead of with the drama itself.
When Kevin was in The Show, he had a sense of “everything happening all at once in the span of an instant,” a description similar to what he later read in David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon.” Wallace seemed to be fluent in a secret language, but a language that Kevin connected with deeply. Wallace’s story opens with a declaration of imposter syndrome, which still plagued Kevin in his career as a professional athlete, husband, and father even many successful years into all of it. “My whole life I’ve been a fraud,” wrote Wallace. “I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired.” In shattering detail, too, Wallace wrote about what was real and what was a scene. The main character in his story realizes that at “an early age I’d somehow chosen to cast my lot with my life’s drama’s supposed audience instead of with the drama itself.”
On the first day of work at the Artemis compound in Alameda, one of the tasks was to peel all of the blackout paper off the walls. Kevin had heard that parts of one of the Matrix movies had been filmed there in years prior, a Show-like coincidence he held off on remarking to his teammates about.
Since this was to be the highest-tech sailing bout ever, Kevin received a pair of Google Glass. A tool that at the time was lampooned by many in Silicon Valley and still not fully available to the public, the device could be used as a hands-free computer, able to capture video and photos and share the thrilling experience of what it was like to be on board. No one was aware of his experiences with The Show and the Director.
Even Kevin didn’t think much about Google Glass being a potential trigger for his mania.
* * *
The patient actually had been on television, written about extensively, and competed at an international sporting event that many treat like the most important thing in the world.
As soon as Kevin heard the term “The ‘Truman Show’ delusion,” he plugged it into Google, where he learned that it was a term used to describe a type of bipolar disorder in which, during manic highs, one felt as if he or she was the star of a reality TV show. “The ‘Truman Show’ delusion” was a term coined by brothers Drs. Joel Gold and Ian Gold to describe what others were now discussing on online forums like Reddit. Dr. Joel Gold was a psychiatrist at Bellevue in New York City, and Dr. Ian Gold was a philosopher of psychiatry and neuroscience. More and more, Dr. Joel Gold had observed, patients were coming in for treatment with technology as the focus of their delusions. Many felt that their lives were being filmed, but in a city where the streets were being monitored by cameras, and everyone had access to live streaming via smartphones, Dr. Gold was finding it more and more challenging to convince his patients that they were delusional. From a factual standpoint, they made a compelling case. “How do you address someone who can point to the internet and say, ‘They did write about me’?” Dr. Joel Gold said.
For years, Kevin had thought he was crazy in, well, a particularly eccentric way, but now he wondered if he wasn’t alone after all. Strangely, the thought made him feel cheapened. It sounded absurd, but he had thought his experience with The Show was special. Now not even his mental illness was remarkable anymore.
The Gold brothers believed that biology alone didn’t account for mental illness, including bipolar disorder; rather, there seemed to be environmental factors that helped push people over the edge, or at least informed how they got there. They had found, for example, that for some reason delusions of jealousy were more prevalent in Germany than in Japan, that a wealthy Pakistani man was more likely to have delusions of grandeur than his poor female cousin, who in turn was more likely to suffer from erotomania, a delusion in which one person believes that another person is in love with them. Delusions involving biblical or religious figures had waned over the last couple of centuries as the influence of organized religion had diminished. This backdrop posed challenging questions for the “Truman Show” delusion. What role was the typical American media diet playing in modern mental illness?
Having read up on the subject, Kevin learned that there were many different kinds, some more obscure than others. There was the Cotard delusion, in which a person believed that he or she was already dead, either figuratively or literally, or that he or she didn’t really exist. There was Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a self-mutilation disorder in which one may consume his or her own body parts — until, that is, one’s teeth are removed, which is often seen as the “cure.” There was Alice in Wonderland syndrome, in which people see objects in real life as being distorted compared to what they really are, as if they were viewing the world “through the wrong end of a telescope.” Boanthropy referred to people who felt that they were a cow, ox, or other bovine creature—some falling on all fours and eating grass. Reports also surfaced of Foreign Accent syndrome, in which a British woman, after she woke up from surgery for a migraine, inexplicably found that she had a Chinese accent. Critics may decry some of these labels, like Truman Show Disorder, as boutique diagnoses, ways for doctors to garner attention or funding, but whatever the branding, their circumstances continue to befuddle and fascinate those in the field.
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Kevin sent an email to the Gold brothers inquiring about their research, partly because he thought he could be helpful to them as a case study, partly because he wanted to know more.
Kevin’s case posed a new dimension for the doctors: What were they to do when the patient actually had been on television, written about extensively, and competed at an international sporting event that many treat like the most important thing in the world? In fact, Kevin was the first case the doctors had ever encountered of a quasi-public figure with “Truman Show” delusion. Dr. Gold was not Kevin’s official psychiatrist, but he and Kevin developed a friendship, mutually fascinated and informed by each other’s experiences from opposing sides of the proverbial couch.
When emailing back and forth, Kevin and Dr. Joel Gold got on the topic of their educational backgrounds. It turned out that not only was Dr. Gold a fellow Brown University alum, but he had graduated in Kevin’s year, and in revisiting the cartography of their dorm room assignments, the two realized that they had lived close to each other for years.
Kevin had to tell himself this couldn’t be the work of the Director, but rather just an uncanny coincidence.
* * *
The more he tried to resist the commands of the Director, the more he wondered if part of him was slipping away.
A friend who knew that Kevin had been on the Artemis told him that post-traumatic stress disorder was very real and that he should be on guard against it. What he had gone through on board with Simpson’s death was beyond horrible and more than merited some time for healing and extra self-care.
Whatever, dude, Kevin replied.
He had nightmares about the crash, his relationship to the water inverted from one of trust to fear, the sound of the boat snapping in his ears at inopportune times. His meds didn’t feel as though they were working right and when he mentioned this to his doctor, Kevin was told that this was not a good time to change them. With less than ideal information and support, he stopped taking them on his own.
Kevin’s lows were as unpredictable as his highs, but for different reasons. When he was manic, his life was one plot point after another, and there was no telling what he was going to do next as the star of The Show. During his lows, there was no telling how long he would stay curled up in a ball in bed.
After the crash, Kevin thought of the end of Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis, a compendium based on thousands of typed and handwritten notes and journal entries by Dick, in which he describes how he spent eight years trying to understand a specific experience of the universe. Kevin had started reading Dick in high school and his themes — isolation, loneliness, the future — continued to strike him. He had particularly loved The Man in the High Castle, an alternative history novel that takes place in the years after the Axis powers claimed victory in World War II, and Time Out of Joint, about a man living in a false reality. Dick totally “got it,” Kevin thought, particularly the feeling of living in two parallel worlds, and how when pushing away voices in his head, one could actually get more and more out of reality and less grounded. It was a strange paradox Kevin could relate to; the more he tried to resist the commands of the Director, the more he wondered if part of him was slipping away.
For years, Kevin had felt that living the lifestyle of an athlete had allowed him to hide a bit. The training regimen gave his life a rigid, unquestioned consistency and sense of purpose. When he was at the gym, there wasn’t time for asking questions—rather, the focus was on getting more and more weights on the bar and making sure that nothing got in the way of improving his physical prowess. With most of his time occupied by trying to become a world champion, there wasn’t a lot of time for self-pity. Now, after the Artemis crash, all of that had changed. Kevin stopped going to the gym his usual six to ten times a week. It seemed utterly insignificant.
* * *
The accident had made no sense when it was happening and made even less sense the more he chewed on it.
While the rest of Kevin’s teammates were able to get back on the water, he was not. He spent many hours staring out the window of his home in Berkeley, gazing at the water and listening to Coldplay’s “Fix You” on repeat. When watching fictitious characters on television or film, he found himself moved to tears by scenes that ordinarily wouldn’t have provoked such sensitivity. It all felt connected to Simpson’s death, everything a reminder of life’s fragility. He wondered: Was there anything more he could have done on the boat that day? In the weeks leading up to it? Every line drawing, every comment in a design meeting, every maneuver on the water kept replaying itself in his mind, through the distorted prism of grief and anxiety. The accident had made no sense when it was happening and made even less sense the more he chewed on it.
Given Kevin’s history, it was hard for him and others to tell what was a phase of grieving and what was a more lasting sign of a mental health crisis. Kevin knew that it was difficult for his wife Amanda to go about her day as he drank more than usual, or woke up at 4 a.m. each morning. The guilt this generated only made him more depressed, creating a vicious cycle. At times, it even felt as though depression was just another thing that he was bad at.
Kevin wondered if the symptoms of his bipolar disorder were a coping mechanism, a way for him to make order out of the bedlam he felt surrounded him. When things were going right, the thought of going off the rails felt less compelling, The Show less intoxicating. Yet when he was on the threshold of an episode coming, it felt as if he had no choice but to dive in. Only afterward, when he thought about the implausible plot of The Show, did the notion that he was the center of the world, or that he by himself could save it, feel ridiculous.
For decades, Kevin had felt like a gerbil stuck on a wheel chasing achievement, but the Artemis crash had forced him to stop and look up and take a raw assessment. Did he really want to spend the rest of his days trying to win a sailing race, especially when something as horrific as Simpson’s death could be a by-product? Simpson had the one thing that Kevin had thought he wanted — an Olympic gold medal. But, in the end, what good had it done him?
Kevin joined his teammates in flying to Sherborne Abbey in the United Kingdom for Simpson’s memorial service. They gathered in the historic church, surrounded by lush green lawns and cradled inside by sweeping ivory arcades, light streaming in through stained-glass windows high above.
A choir sang Coldplay’s “Fix You” in perfect pitch, their solemn voices echoing through the cavernous nave.
* * *
Because he had been toying with the Glass for a couple of months, he now understood why this episode was important. It was pivotal in the history of The Show. For once, he would be allowed to do some of the directing.
As Kevin’s family packed into their rental car and made their way from the hotel toward the sprawling parking lot of the theme park, large block letters spelled out welcome and a bright, crayon-colored edifice beckoned.
Similar in spirit to other amusement parks in Southern California, Legoland bills itself as a fun attraction for families, its own fantasyland built of brick and plastic. At the center of its round 128-acre grounds is a pastoral lake surrounded by awe-inspiring Lego displays, including a large multicolored dragon and replicas of the Taj Mahal and the Sydney Opera House.
Kevin set off on his own, armed with his Google Glass and a brand new, bigger-than-ever mission from the Director.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The Lego models were beautiful. The uniforms of the Legoland staff were beautiful. The trash they picked up was beautiful. The trash cans that held the trash were beautiful.
As Kevin explored the park wearing his Google Glass, it only made sense that people stopped him and commented on his new gear and asked him questions about it, as they were still rare. He was on The Show, after all, so the attention he was getting from the extras and supporting cast felt perfectly logical. In response, he told the questioners an assortment of things, among them that he was wearing the spectacles because he was working on “a project,” and invited strangers to talk about it with him. They nodded, enforcing the idea in Kevin’s mind that this was a worldwide show. Of course they were interested. They were part of the narrative, too, all souls linked together at Legoland by destiny, meant to be there as part of the new world order.
Because he had been toying with the Glass for a couple of months, he now understood why this episode was important. It was pivotal in the history of The Show. For once, he would be allowed to do some of the directing, and that level of control made him feel tremendous. He could weave in the recent advancements in social media and mobile technology, as more and more, Kevin had heard about how people were streaming their lives using services like Twitch and video blogs. All the previous episodes were part of a historical narrative leading to this one, which made Kevin a trailblazer on that front with The Show.
It was all making some sense and now, in 2013, it was all coming together. Once again, Kevin had an overwhelming sense of sureness. This was precisely what he was supposed to be doing.
He made his way to a part of the park that was a winding, paved road lined with Lego busts; legoland block of fame, a red and blue sign read. He walked past columns topped with chest-level Lego renditions of famous heads: Winston Churchill grimacing with a cigar, the Queen of England with pursed red lips, Shakespeare with a thin mustache, Einstein with thick gray Lego eyebrows. There was also a suited Lego Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action star turned governor of California, and a Lego Marilyn Monroe with stylish waves of yellow hair fashioned of bricks.
Then Kevin spotted a Lego Salvador Dalí. That had to be a sign that he was on the right track. Not only did he love Dalí, he had trained for the Olympic trials by the Salvador Dalí museum in Florida with Morgan. Kevin stood in front of the bust in awe.
Next, Kevin made his way to an exhibit about the history of music told through Legos. This also seemed like too great a coincidence to be just random chance. The Director must have put it there, knowing that Kevin loved music and singing, and for years had found clues and meaning in song lyrics.
With the Google Glass, Kevin could be on the other side of what he now thought of as the rabbit hole and share with the audience the things he was seeing even as he himself was being filmed. Depending on what the Director wanted to do, Kevin’s view could be transmitted on screen as a thumbnail within a larger screen, or the screen could be split to show multiple perspectives at the same time.
The mirrors of Legoland fascinated Kevin, and he delighted in seeking them out, creating one pseudo-selfie after another, feeling as if he was in an artificial metaparadise, or, even more profoundly, HOME. Whenever a song he liked came over the theme park speakers or on his Spotify playlist, it seemed like a sign that he was on track with The Show. He sang along to some of the tunes as he roamed the park and noticed a few fellow patrons staring at him. Unlike the other extras, they didn’t get it, he thought.
Kevin turned down a winding path and there it was: a Lego replica of the Golden Gate bridge stretched across the pond, its bright red bricks shining in the California sun. That had to be another sign, especially since on the water was a boat, and not just any boat, but what appeared to be a J-class yacht, a type associated with the America’s Cup. Kevin felt spooked. What was it doing there? The boats used in the competition must have been packed up by now — the Director was off if he was trying to make a scene. Or, was it a callout to the crash and Simpson’s death? Kevin’s future in the sport? This episode was laced with even more meaning than Kevin could have predicted and he struggled to take it all in.
Every now and then Kevin thought he caught glimpses of his father in the park, usually grimacing or frowning at him. He didn’t understand why his dad was being such a bummer. Couldn’t he see that Kevin, for once, was just trying to be himself?
* * *
In the particular is contained the universal.
As time stretched away from the crash, from Legoland, from the psychiatric hospital admission that followed, Kevin further dissected the questions of who the Director was and what purpose, if any, he was going to serve in his life going forward. Was it as Freudian as the Director being a manifestation of his father? Was the Director a supporter? An oppressor? A coach? A version of himself, an alter ego of sorts? Some combination of all those?
Increasingly, Kevin and Amanda try to broach Kevin’s “Truman Show” delusions with friends. The moniker gives them a built-in reference to the film, but Kevin often also explains his delusions by referencing the CCTV cameras in London or the increased presence of street cameras in New York City. “That’s how I feel when I’m in The Show,” he says. “All the time.”
Since returning to New Zealand, Kevin still has had visits from the Director. In the fall of 2015, he had an episode that was Ulysses-themed in which he purchased a one-way ticket from Auckland to Dublin and made endless loops on the ground with the cables of his cell phone chargers. Amanda drove around all night trying to find him. He recalled Joyce’s quotes and took them to heart. “For myself, I always write about Dublin,” Joyce said, “Because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
* * *
Mary Pilon is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Monopolists, the acclaimed history of the board game Monopoly. A regular contributor to The New Yorker, Esquire, Fast Company, MSNBC, Vice, and Politico, Pilon has also worked as a staff reporter at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and was a producer for NBC Sports at the 2016 Olympics. She lives in Brooklyn.
Editor: Dana Snitzky