In January 2020, Max Drabkin, a 26-year-old videographer from Albany, had a business lunch in Montreal with a woman who had just returned from Wuhan, China.
She had a cough.
Days later, Max was feverish and achy. Less than three years after the lunch, he’d be dead.
Max may very well have died as a result of COVID-19.
However, Max was not killed by the symptoms we’ve come to associate with the disease. He did not lose his life because of breathing trouble, kidney failure or blood clots.
Instead, Max died by suicide at age 29 on July 27, 2022. His 30th birthday would have been this Monday, March 6.
A small, but growing, body of scientific research published in leading medical journals such as The Lancet suggests that the psychosis Max first developed shortly after getting sick with COVID could have been a result of the virus’s physical impact on his brain.
While the effects of social isolation stemming from pandemic lockdowns are more widely understood and accepted, the very real impact that COVID-19 the virus can have on a person’s brain is still being studied. But there’s reason to think the virus’s neurological effect is wider than we know.
University of Oxford research examining the health records of nearly 1.3 million people found an increased risk of cognitive deficit, dementia, psychotic disorders and epilepsy among COVID-19 patients. Other research delves more specifically into the sudden onset of psychosis following infection.
I knew Max. He was the son of one of my mother’s best friends. I babysat him when he was a kid, and can still picture the goofy grin and twinkle in his eye. He was like a fireworks display – bright and dazzling, and every temporary fade seemed to be always backed by yet another colorful burst.
But even if I didn’t know Max, even if his parents, Nicole Langlais and Peter Drabkin, were strangers instead of family friends, I’d still have helped the couple share their story, because it illustrates a thought-provoking and not-yet-widely discussed element of COVID-19.
“It’s a tragic tale of a young person who never had a history of psychosis until these couple of very unfortunate two or three occurrences, and he became submerged in his battle,” said his father, Peter, who worked three decades as an epidemiologist for the New York State Department of Health. “It’s a tragedy when young people with so much promise, spirit and love get lost to a combination of tragic events in their lives.”
When Max had lunch with the woman who had returned from Wuhan, where COVID-19 is believed to have originated, he was a McGill University and Albany High School graduate amassing videography contracts. He specialized in filming musical groups, and eventually filmed multiple acts, including Gareth Emery and Cheat Codes. A package he shot of Cheat Codes aired on Good Morning America in late 2021.
He had no history of mental illness. In fact, his life was relatively frictionless. He was a smart kid who did well in school, and a charismatic guy who did equally well in romance.
But after getting sick with what now clearly seems to have been COVID-19 — January 2020 was still months before widespread testing was available — Max changed. He was restless and impulsive.
“He was not his normal self. He sounded manic,” said mom Nicole, a retired mental health professional who worked directly with clients at Four Winds and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs before becoming assistant director at the Committee for Physician Health. “He wasn’t sleeping too well, and he didn’t know exactly what he was going to do.”
Of course, like many of us in the winter of 2020, Max was dealing with a lot. Not only was the pandemic putting his videography contracts on hold, it was also slowing the restaurant industry that provided his more dependable income. The mix of Max’s shaky behavior, unsteady job situation and the Canadian border closing prompted Max to move from Montreal back to New York, splitting his time between Albany and his family’s second home in Red Hook. It also ended a roughly sixth-month relationship with a girlfriend.
But Max’s troubles that spring went deeper than depression.
In June 2020, not long after breaking up with his girlfriend, Max told his parents he was heading out for coffee. A few hours later, he called his dad to say he was near Cape Cod and had gotten a big filming contract.
“It felt more than a little weird,” Peter recalls.
Sometime during Max’s trip, he stopped and cut his leg with a broken glass bottle he’d found on the side of the road. Police later discovered bloody bandages inside his car. Max eventually revealed he’d been responding to threatening voices inside his head.
When police first stopped Max in a McDonald’s, where he’d reportedly been behaving erratically, Max was lucid. Officers told him to rest and then finish the drive home. The second time police approached him, he was wandering barefoot in western Massachusetts and was taken to Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield.
Max spent about a week in the hospital and was prescribed antipsychotic medications.
He’d never before displayed any signs of psychosis.
“You’re talking about a normal person. You know, not a perfect person. But a normal kid, then to this kid that was completely out of whack,” Nicole said.
Max’s experience is eerily similar to other cases that have emerged in scientific research linking COVID-19 to the sudden onset of psychosis. For instance, the British Medical Journal’s research looked at a 33-year-old North Carolina mother of three who just days after getting COVID in May 2020 began having delusions and tried to pass one of her children through a drive-through window to keep the child safe from irrational fears of cellphones. (The anecdote was also included in a March 2022 Time magazine deep-dive on the emerging research into COVID and spontaneous psychosis.)
One UK study in The Lancet in October 2020 found that of 153 people diagnosed with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, 10 experienced unprecedented psychotic episodes. An August 2021 study in General Hospital Psychiatry analyzed 40 scientific articles and found commonalities among 48 individuals who experienced psychotic episodes linked to COVID-19.
There are a variety of medical theories that fly miles over my head on how COVID-19 may impact the brain. One suggests that upper respiratory infections can cause the immune system to develop antibodies against brain receptors, which can trigger severe psychosis, the Time article outlines. Research has also shown that COVID-19 can enter the brain numerous ways, including through the olfactory neural pathway or transfer through brain cells, causing inflammation and subsequent neurological problems.
As the Time article notes, the Spanish Flu of the 20th century provides precedent for viruses impacting the brain, with a high incidence of an ailment similar to early onset Parkinson’s disease emerging after the pandemic.
Max’s dad Peter’s own work as an epidemiologist has focused some on how viruses can cause acute mental health issues following infection.
Obviously, as with so much about COVID’s long-term and comprehensive effects, all of the research remains very much in the early days.
In Max’s case, a variety of non-COVID factors are no doubt relevant. A big piece of his story is that he suffered a serious concussion in the summer of 2016 while on a rope swing at a lake in Ottawa. Max hung onto the rope to avoid hitting a friend and swung back hard into a tree. His autopsy revealed a major contusion on his brain, which could have impacted his mental health.
Another factor, which Max himself blamed for the onset of his psychosis, was that he took LSD in March of 2020 after moving back to New York from Montreal.
These along with myriad factors – including a change in ADHD medication, social isolation, social media – could have helped shape Max’s trajectory.
Max’s parents are realists about all of this, and they know that his death was a result of a complex matrix of circumstances. Even so, the timeline of Max’s final years makes a compelling case that COVID-19 was a catalyst for what happened.
After his psychotic episode in Massachusetts in June 2020, Max had a fairly steady year. He stayed on medication until his psychiatrist said he was doing well enough to come off of it. He took a job at a brewery in Kingston and was put in charge of organizing their outdoor oyster dinners in Brooklyn. He was making contacts again in the film industry and had opportunities.
Still, it was that fall when Nicole saw a clip about a man who had experienced a psychotic episode after getting COVID-19. The man had gotten a tattoo of the monsters he started seeing.
The tattoo was identical to the monsters Max described.
Then, Christmas of 2021, Max got sick again. This time, testing existed to reveal it was the Omicron variant of COVID. Max spiked a fever of 104.
A few weeks later, he went on tour with the band Cheat Codes to film. He was fulfilled by the work, but the schedule was demanding. While the band members slept during the day after performances, Max had to use the time to edit.
His calls home became increasingly worrying, and in early February 2022 he told his parents he was leaving the tour. He stayed with a good friend in South Florida and said he was taking on different video projects. Then, one day, just as had happened in Massachusetts, Max disappeared.
He was gone all night, and the next day, at his parents’ urging, he checked himself into a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, where once again his parents came to his side and ushered him back to upstate New York.
But this time, even the medication couldn’t quiet the voices in Max’s head. His parents would observe him on their deck, making hand gestures and talking aloud to his demons.
We now know Max bought a hunting rifle on July 9, 2022. (Both of his psychotic breaks occurred out of state, meaning they didn’t trigger New York’s red flag protections, and he was able to buy a gun legally.)
Peter and Nicole, along with Max’s older brother, Daniel, didn’t know about the weapon until it was too late. Meanwhile, they held family meetings and discussed with Max more sufficient treatment plans. He was coherent enough to be an active participant. He’d been seeing a therapist remotely, but in the summer of 2022, the family had been working to secure inpatient treatment. Except, despite Max’s disturbing behavior, it wasn’t obvious he was actively suicidal, and he wasn’t admitted.
The thing about Max was that he could rise to the occasion. If company came over, he’d be warm and engaging, even if his mom could see it was taking all her son’s energy to put on a brave face.
The uncertainty that surrounds suicide is part of what makes it so incomprehensively difficult. Should Max’s parents have acted more aggressively? Should they have stopped him from going on tour? They won’t ever know, just as they won’t know if COVID made his brain sick.
Maybe it was the virus — but maybe it was the drugs?
Or maybe Max was doomed the moment he swung into the tree?
Max’s parents are inclined to seek answers, and there is undoubtedly some amount of closure or comfort that would arise from determining that Max’s psychosis was, in fact, brought on by COVID.
We’ll likely never have a definitive answer. And yet there is a very rational case, supported by scientific research, that COVID impacted Max’s brain, twice leading to psychotic episodes and menacing voices growing louder and louder.
At the end, Max wrote a self-aware note that not only described the pain he knew his death would cause his loved ones, but also provided a succinct and rational description of what ailed him.
“Something terrible happened to me, and essentially the worst luck combined with compounded traumatic experiences really became too much,” he wrote. “I was always too afraid to ask for help. I felt too alone.”
Nicole and Peter hope sharing Max’s story ahead of his 30th birthday will inspire other families to take notice of any warning signs – however inconsequential they seem – and take action.
Even in Max’s final days, “there were times when he was OK, and then other times we could see he was struggling,” Nicole said.
On July 27 of last year, my mom was supposed to bring my daughter down to Red Hook to visit Nicole, Max and Peter. But Max said they shouldn’t come because he wasn’t feeling well.
Instead, that morning Nicole and Peter went out to run errands and grab lunch. Before they left, they asked Max if he wanted something to eat.
“You can bring me back the grilled cheese,” Max answered.
Peter and Nicole left.
“And when we came back,” Nicole said, “he was gone.”
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will connect you with a trained crisis counselor. Call or text 988.
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