Don’s Story

By: Don

Source: Remembrance and Recovery Project by Mental Health America (Mental Health Minnesota)

I have, beginning in 1951, been diagnosed with dementia praecox, schizophrenic reaction, paranoid schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and manic-depressive. What all these labels have added up to during the past 50 years is that I have regarded as a useless human which has resulted in few opportunities to develop the talents that I possessed. It is quite possible that I am near the top of the list when it comes to talented schizophrenics. I had my first schizophrenic psychotic breakdown in Korea in the US Army in 1951. The treatment was 40 electroshock torture treatments. The treatments were stopped when it was thought I had become mentally retarded according to my military records. The record states that in October of 1951 I disappeared from my unit and was found three days later and put in a locked ward of a field hospital. The electroshock treatments were begun without trying any other treatment. The shock treatments ended at Camp Carson Hospital in Colorado in February of 1952. I was given a medical discharge from Camp Carson in August of 1952. Before being discharged I was conned into signing a waiver of disability retirement pension in favor of a $519 severance payout.

Before entering military service, I was probably potentially the best woodworking talent born in the 20th century. After military service, I was unable to hold a job in woodworking for longer than two weeks. After a year of this, my father filed a VA disability compensation claim on my behalf. The VA awarded me a 10% rating which was $15 a month at that time. According to VA regulations, I should have been entitled to at least a 70% disability with a diagnosis of dementia praecox and 100% for individual unemployability. The VA has treated the psychiatric disabled wartime veterans very badly when it comes to disability compensation. I think it can be stated without exaggeration that the reason for this was to lower the cost of the waging Korean War.

Before entering military service, it is quite possible that I had major league baseball ability. I have had two cousins that played major league baseball. Both started with the Minnesota Twins. I have a cousin whose daughter is the all-time lead scorer in Minnesota high school basketball for both girls and boys. In the summer of 1954, I began playing fast-pitch softball learning to be a pitcher.  In 1956 I had become the best out-state softball pitcher in Minnesota. I pitched my Hibbing, MN team to the 1956 Minnesota State Fast-Pitch Softball Championship.

Before entering military service, I was a 200 average bowler. After military service, the best I did was a 191 average. I lost something due to military service. These athletic achievements are still very noteworthy when you consider I was severely damaged from electroshock therapy back in 1951-52 and suffering from some form of schizophrenia. My skill in softball and bowling was my salvation when nothing else was going right.

In 1980 I had my worst schizophrenic psychotic breakdown as a result of the VA denying my claim for retroactive disability compensation in 1979. I tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the van my wife was driving to the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud, MN. By a miracle, I escaped death or serious injury. This vehicle was going 55 miles per hour. I did this twice. I get the shivers down my spine every time I think of this situation.

The hospitalization made me realize I had to become involved in some kind of creative activity. I began creating original design furniture. A few months later in 1981, I invented the componentized furniture making concept which replaced the stick building method of furniture making. In 1984, the Family Handyman Magazine published a rocking chair design of mine as a project. I had other articles on woodworking published in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1996, I was commissioned by Hillary Clinton to design and build a rocking chair for President Bill Clinton. In the year 2000, I was selected by the International Biographical Center of Cambridge, England, as one of 2000 Outstanding Artists and Designers of the 20th century. In 2000, I was a Gold Medal winner in the National Veterans Art Competition. In 2001, I was a repeat Gold Medal winner and also Best of the Show winner in the National Veterans Art Competition. In 2002, I won first place in the Sister Kenny International Art Show for the Disabled Artist. Also in 2002, I was a recipient of a Jerome Foundation Artist Recognition Grant.

But the most satisfying art achievement has come this year by being published in a book entitled Art Against Stigma originating in Austria. I am one of two American artists to be in the book which includes Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and other famous artists of years ago. The book has a lot to say about schizophrenia and art as therapy for this illness.

I have been doing wall art since 2000. I feel I am a role model in America that schizophrenia does not necessarily mean that a schizophrenic is a piece of useless humanity. I believe I am creating a kind of art no one given the diagnosis of schizophrenia has probably done before.