Senior Spanish major Zachary Mason boarded a plane for New York City on March 9, the Friday before spring break. He woke up in a hospital in Hoboken, N.J., more than a week later.
“I used to be the guy who could juggle everything,” Mason said. “That guy is gone.”
Mason — also known by his stage name, Riah Finch — traveled to New York to audition for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for graduate school in musical theater writing. The audition ended March 11, but Mason stayed in New York through the duration of Spring Break with his friend, a former Conservatory student.
During his week in the city, Mason suffered a mental breakdown and, from lack of sleep and hallucinations, got lost in the city with no personal items and no way to contact his friends or family for several days.
“It got to the point where I was not sure how much of what I was seeing was reality and which was not, because I was no longer hanging out with my friends,” Mason said. “When you’re alone, it’s very difficult to discern between waking reality and the hallucination.”
Mason said he wanted to travel to New York with someone because he felt he was slowly developing symptoms of bipolar disorder. When Mason got to New York, he said he had trouble sleeping.
The hallucinations began on Tuesday, March 13. He received an email from the department chair of the Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program at NYU informing Mason that he would be recommended for admission. Then, when exploring the city, he started seeing what he believed to be spies around the city who were sending Mason coded symbols.
“This happens a lot to people who have psychosis on top of bipolar disorder,” Mason said. “When they get to a state of mania — meaning they’re up, they’re unable to sleep, their thoughts are uncontrolled, unbridled, really — they can see hidden messages in things that are very ordinary.”
The next day, Mason got lost in downtown Manhattan while he searched for the venue where he hoped to see the six-and-a-half-hour play “Gatz,” an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” As he wandered the city, Mason’s hallucinations worsened. He briefly made it back to his hotel that night, but still could not sleep.
Through Thursday morning, Mason traveled through the city and grew increasingly paranoid of the people around him. He began to feel burdened by his belongings, which he believed people tried to steal from him. To ward off the people he feared wanted to rob him, Mason left all of his personal belongings — including an iPad and iPod he rented from his hotel, cell phone, cash, credit cards and identification — on the street.
Except for a phone call from a friend on Wednesday afternoon, it had been days since Mason had spoken with anyone he cared about.
Mason said he walked inside the Lincoln Tunnel when a bus driver called for Mason to get in the bus. When the bus exited the tunnel, police waited to take Mason to a hospital. He was admitted to a medical center in Hoboken as a “John Doe” on Thursday, March 15. Mason had no form of identification, and Mason was too paranoid to tell police who his name.
When he woke up in the hospital three days later, his 22nd birthday had already passed.
While Mason stayed in the hospital, his family and friends began to realize something was wrong.
“I realized he was missing on Sunday morning, the 18th, after trying to call him that Thursday, Friday and then all day Saturday for his birthday,” Zachary Mason’s mother, Renee Mason, said via Facebook. “He typically doesn’t return my phone calls, so I called the hotel and intended to wake him up and wish him, ‘Happy Birthday.’ I found out from his traveling companion that no one had seen him since Thursday afternoon.”
Renee Mason and several of Zachary Mason’s friends frequently posted on Zachary Mason’s Facebook wall and asked for tips from anyone who had seen or spoken to him in the last five days.
“As a good, good friend, it was really worrisome,” sophomore anthropology major Nell Fogg said. “A lot of us had a little inkling of what was going down when we heard he went missing. We were freaking out. It turns out we didn’t know as much about what was going down as we thought.”
When no one responded to Renee Mason’s Facebook comments, she tried to file a missing person report in New York. But, because Zachary Mason took his belongings with him (before leaving them on the street) and there appeared to be no evidence of foul play in the hotel room, the New York Police Department would not file a missing persons report.
Renee Mason had to go through her local police department in Rice Lake, Wis., to file a missing persons report on March 19. Brenda Hanson of the Rice Lake Police Department confirmed a missing persons report was filed for Zachary Mason. Because there was no evidence of foul play, Renee Mason said the report was a “wait and see” situation.
A nurse from the medical center in Hoboken called Renee Mason on Tuesday morning, after Zachary Mason finally revealed who he was and how to contact his family.
Renee Mason flew to Hoboken where she rented a car, picked up Zachary Mason and drove the two of them back home. Zachary Mason returned to St. Louis on Sunday night, March 25.
Zachary Mason is now seeing a psychiatrist, who prescribed him three medications to treat symptoms of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective tendencies. He and his psychiatrist decided it would be best if Zachary Mason withdrew from classes at Webster in order to regain his mental health. He will take online classes at a public college to finish his BA in Spanish.
“He’s making the best decision for himself,” Fogg said. “I see him being incredibly happy and I’m proud of him for keeping it going.”
Zachary Mason received his acceptance email to NYU on March 26. He will defer attendance until fall 2013, when he plans to move to New York to pursue graduate school at NYU for composing music for theater. He said when he attends NYU, he will live within two blocks of campus, regardless of the cost.
“I still do want to go, but I definitely feel that Manhattan is a very sinister place,” Zachary Mason said. “I think it is both good and evil… It’s scary for me. I really want to go to this school, but I know it’s a big world that can swallow you whole if you’re not careful.”
Zachary Mason said most of what he thinks happen in New York City from March 14 to when he woke up in the hospital on March 18 did not actually happened to him. He had to get a new cell phone, as well as pay one thousand dollars to replace the hotel’s iPod and iPad he borrowed and left on the street.
Despite the whole experience, Zachary Mason said is grateful to have returned home safely and appreciates the support he received from his friends and family.
“If there is some sort of higher power in this world, somebody was watching over me,” Zachary Mason said. “To have come out unscathed is unfathomable considering the distances that I traveled, the missed stops, the scares, all of those things.”
—Alex Brandt contributed to this story.