SANTA ANA, Calif. — Nick Lotz was at a music festival in Michigan when it all went sideways on him.
Sure, there had been a bit of weirdness leading up to that day. Like the time he blacked out at a party and woke up in a hospital. While some other college kid might’ve sworn off booze, Nick thought he might be part of some small town hazing ritual, or maybe a cult.
So, yeah, you can call that paranoid.
But it wasn’t until Dave Matthews took the stage at the Rothbury Music Festival that his brain officially went haywire.
It should be noted that Nick doesn’t even like Dave Matthews.
But that night, as Dave jammed, this idea came to Nick in an epiphany:
Oh my God. I’m on the “Dave Matthews Band Reality TV Show.”
A nightmare had started.
Every time Dave came back on stage to do another encore, Nick thought the singer was, through guitar licks and stage lights, trying to give him another chance to crack the code, another chance to get off the show.
Nick couldn’t crack the code.
After the final song, the crowd dispersed.
Oh my God, I blew it, he thought.
The rest of the festival, he says, “was just kind of scary.”
He heard people screaming from their tents, taunting him.
It should be said here that Nick had taken LSD that night, in the summer of 2008. And Ecstasy. And Adderall. Not a good combo for anyone, and in particular, apparently, Nick.
Back home, he nervously told friends that he was the star of the “Dave Matthews Band Reality TV Show,” and that he wanted off the show.
“Dave Matthews Band has a reality TV show?” they would invariably ask.
That must be the show’s catch phrase, he thought. Something people were supposed to say when the cameras were on.
Back home, Nick’s parents sent him to rehab (he had driven drunk into a tree before the festival).
“I thought (rehab) was all part of the show,” Nick says. “Like, ‘Nick goes to rehab!’”
One day a nurse in the facility told the patients: “You know we’re all watching you, right?”
Of course they were. Wink. Wink.
That fall, instead of returning to Ohio University, Nick enrolled in his hometown community college where his mom, Ann, taught art. He took an acting class, since he was starring in a TV show and all that.
By now the voices in his head (old schoolmates, relatives, movie stars, musicians) were louder, shouting orders to keep the show entertaining.
Don’t eat for three days!
Run up and down the stairs for seven hours!
Take off your pants and hop on one foot. In the street!
One day the voices told him to run a marathon. He drove all over town to map out a 26.2 mile route, then went back and hid water bottles in bushes. He ran the route alone. No one cheered, except of course for the fans watching on TV.
It was exhausting. He wanted off the show, but how?
“The show was always building up to an end,” he says. “But I didn’t know what the end was gonna be.”
First he thought it was a shot to win a hundred million dollars. Then it was a billion.
By now friends had stopped taking his calls. He was distracted, his conversation staccato. The voices in his head were a running commentary. They wouldn’t. Shut. Up.
Start doing stand-up comedy!
Nick did open mic nights and posted them on YouTube. Some of them are actually funny. Some of them are raunchy. And some are just plain awkward.
In one video, he is standing alone in an empty parking lot at dusk, snow swirling. Shivering, he tries to tell a joke, but he forgets how it goes.
His mom knew something wasn’t right with her son, a band kid in high school with high grades. But he would just blow her off like teens sometimes do. You’re off script, mom.
She never imagined he was being literal.
A year and a half after Nick got the memo that he was on TV, he moved to Hermosa Beach, Calif., to try living with his dad. He was emotionally drained. He began writing to celebrities for help.
Quentin Tarantino. Lorne Michaels.
“I tried to get my mind back,” he says.
Here’s one to Rob Lowe: Dear Rob Lowe, sorry I was so rude when we spoke.
It ends: Still stuck in a video loop. If you can help me, please contact me.
Only one celeb responded: Emma Watson. It was a form letter thanking him for being a fan.
On to Plan B: Apply for a semester abroad. He would travel to London “to put the show over-budget,” forcing cancellation.
So he was disappointed when he arrived in London to find that everyone there was watching him too.
It’s a world-wide conspiracy.
While Nick was overseas, his mom’s mailbox filled with returned letters he had sent to celebrities using addresses as vague as “Comedy Central.”
She opened each letter with growing dread.
“Nick, there’s something wrong,” she told him when he returned home.
“You’re asking all these strangers to help you. Can I please help you?”
Nick went upstairs, shouting that she had invaded his privacy, but soon came back down.
“Mom, they told me if I let you help me they’ll give me a million dollars.”
It broke her heart.
“Maybe we shouldn’t listen to them anymore,” she told him.
She went online and found Dr. Stephen Marder, head of the psychosis unit at UCLA Medical Center. Nick flew back to his dad’s to begin treatment.
Marder diagnosed Nick with Persecutory Delusional Disorder. An antipsychotic was prescribed.
Every night, his dad watched Nick swallow the pill, making sure he didn’t hide it under his tongue.
After a few months, the voices began to fade. And as they grew quieter they became nicer, less demanding.
You could even say they became apologetic.
We were just trying to get you to be more of an extrovert!
We were just trying to get you into shape!
“The plot is winding down,” Nick thought.
Every morning he would wake up and wait, apprehensively.
“I knew they were going away, would this be the day?”
And one day it was: Nov. 10, 2010.
“It was just silence. And it was beautiful.”
That spring, in 2011, Nick was surfing the web when he saw a story about brothers Joel and Ian Gold, doctors who are writing a book about a small but growing number of people suffering from what they have coined the Truman Show Delusion.
In the 1998 film “The Truman Show,” Jim Carrey plays a man whose entire life, from the cradle, has been filmed with hidden cameras for the entertainment of TV viewers. Everyone is in on it, except him. Eventually he escapes the show.
Nick couldn’t believe it. They were playing his song.
He contacted Joel Gold, a psychiatrist at New York University Bellevue Hospital. The two did a National Public Radio show last month. Gold believes the Truman Show Delusion is not a new mental illness, but the latest twist on the old delusion disorder.
Delusions have been around a long time; people fill in the details depending on their culture and era. If this had happened in the 1960s, Nick might have thought the Russians were controlling his brain with satellites. In the ’70s, his delusion might have included the CIA and dental fillings.
Today Nick is affable and open to sharing his story. He is studying Chinese at Cal State Long Beach where he DJs a campus radio program. And he’s writing a book about what happened to him.
He hopes that speaking out will encourage others struggling to shush the voices in their heads to get help and not be ashamed.
“There is hope,” he says. “You can come out the other end and get your life back together. The stuff that happened in the past seems like a dream.”
A bad dream.
Doctors (and brothers) Joel and Ian Gold are writing a book, “Suspicious Minds,” which focuses on people suffering from what they have coined the Truman Show Delusion, a belief that one is starring in a reality TV Show and cameras are watching your every move.
It’s a new twist on an old mental illness — persecutory or grandiose delusion disorders, both of which are manifestations of psychosis, says Joel Gold, a psychiatrist at the New York University Bellevue Hospital.
The idea is that even though the chemical causes of these illnesses remain constant, the delusions themselves tend to vary depending on culture and era.
Here are a few examples:
In desert regions, such as Saudi Arabia, people sometimes suffer from a delusion known as Turabosis, believing they are covered in sand.
In Shanghai, deluded people often believe they are being pricked by poison needles.
In West Bengal, India, women and men bitten by dogs believe they have become pregnant with puppies.
In 1940s America, people suffering delusions reported that their minds were being controlled by Japanese via radio waves. In the ’50s, the mind controllers became Soviet spies with satellites, and in the ’70s, people began to report that the CIA was implanting their dental fillings with thought control chips.