Don Looney
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Don Looney

Those of you who will read this presentation and view the video of Don (yet to be posted) are unfortunate.   You have missed out on personally knowing a remarkable human being.  I count myself as one of the lucky people who got to know him as a friend.  The view that you will experience is much like what I learned about Don after his passing.

If you never met him, you might wonder just why a person who suffered from drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, nicotine addiction, suicide attempts and a host of other difficulties could even possibly be considered to be remarkable.

That is a fair question.  After all, aren't those behaviors scorned and considered to be undesirable?  Just what was it that led not just myself, but many others to consider a person with those traits to be so compelling?

The answer lies in meeting Don, which you can no longer do except by what has been preserved of his memory.

Don was remarkable to me for what he became in spite of his circumstances.  His is a story of redemption and triumph over circumstances that would defeat even the strongest among us.  Luckily, almost no individual person goes through life on a path as challenging as Don's path.

Imagine, if you will, maintaining your own personal sobriety in the face of demons that dare you to return to the very things that you reached toward to sooth your troubles, struggling every day to find the strength to resist that temptation.  You have very little in life, subsisting on disability payments that most people would find offensive if they were offered to live on such a paltry amount.  Then imagine a person in that circumstance, offering to share those resources with a person who has not yet found their way to recovery.  No strings attached, just an offer of assistance from another person living on the edge that reaches out to his fellow man at the risk of fracturing his own personal recovery.  You do this at the same time you are training others like yourself how to collect your thoughts and share your often humiliating and degrading story to others publically for the offer of a $25 stipend to pay for personal expense.  If you can, then you have put yourself in Don's shoes. 

While you are doing that, you maintain a cheerful attitude, you volunteer to help others, you call the NAMI office daily and talk with people about helping others.  In your private domain, you take prescription after prescription trying desperately trying to maintain your own health and sanity while you suffer from tremendous medical problems brought about in part by the cards you have been dealt in life.

In spite of his difficulties, others thought so much of Don that NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, honored Don by naming Member of the Year for the entire country.

Fortunately, some people can see through the labels and stigma and recognize the incredible power of a human spirit in spite of its troubled past.  For those of us fortunate enough to meet him as our friend, we give thanks and offer these glimpses of his story and hope that you see what we were able to see in Don's life and be inspired as we have been inspired.

Don Moore, May 19, 2008

 

DON LOONEY: AN UNFORGETTABLE FRIEND

 

From street kid to national mentor and spokesperson for persons with mental illness

Don Looney's life was cut short when a heart attack at age 45 led to his death November 10, 2006. The first years of his life from May 31, 1961 were extremely difficult. Don was able to make a huge shift in life direction beginning at age 39. That was when he tried out for a theater company being formed by and for people with mental illness. His leading role singing with In a Different Light Theater Company, founded by Pauline Furness (a retired social worker and former NYC Rockette) and Stephen Loaiza (then Clackamas County president of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental lllness) gave him a new sense of self-worth.

He has since performed major roles in Neil Simon's FOOLS and in HARVEY, made famous by Jimmy Stewart. Both plays are wonderful comedies with plots related to mental illness. In a Different Light Theater Company's major purpose, as the name suggests, is to assist the general public and persons with mental health issues to change attitudes toward mental illness by displaying the talents and human value of people with these disorders. Cast and crew consist of persons with mental illness, their family members and mental health professionals.

Shortly after the founding of the theater company, a national NAMI (National Alliance on Mental lllness) program called In Our Own Voice: Living with Mental Illness was brought to Oregon. Don trained as a speaker to talk to audiences about his struggle with the illness, his medications and coping skills, and to change people's view of persons with mental illness by his presence. He has presented before state legislators, mental health professionals, nursing school students, and especially CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) programs for law enforcement professionals.

When national NAMI decided to remake the video, which accompanies live speakers, they chose Don as a major player. In recent years, he has been trained as a person to provide training to new IOOV speakers in Oregon, and has been the coordinator of this program for NAMI-Multnomah. Because of his appearing in the nationally used video, he was quickly recognized when he attended national NAMI conventions around the country as Oregon's official consumer representative to national. When news of his death reached a current NAMI leadership conference on the east coast, the moment of silence drew many gasps and tears. Don has been helping lead a chapter of DRA (Dual Recovery Anonymous) 12-step program for persons dually diagnosed with both a mental illness and an addiction to drugs or alcohol. He was scheduled to be trained later this month to teach Peer-to-Peer, a national NAMI class taught for persons with mental illness diagnoses by their peers.

Born into a family struggling with a multitude of problems, Don had a very difficult childhood and chose to live on the streets or with friends at an early age. Life didn't treat him much better outside the family home, but he was able to hold several responsible jobs despite his drinking problem, which began with alcohol in his baby bottle.

Don was a talented cook and hairdresser, earned his CNA certificate and gave loving care to elderly persons for several years. His career also included stints as a bartender and even as a female impersonator! For several years, he lived with Scott Beebe, a single parent friend and helped him raise his two children, Ellie and Alex, who adored Don.

By the time he was in his thirties, Don had survived multiple suicide attempts. When his best friend was dying of AIDS, Don wanted to die too, so he purposely tried to contract the disease himself by using the friend's needles after him. However, as he says, God had other plans for him, and he remained H1V negative. Don realized that there must be something wrong with him for taking such action. He sought a mental health evaluation, but was turned away because of his alcohol problems. At the addiction clinics, he was turned away because of his unstable mental condition.

Failing to find the help he sought, Don decided to end it all with a leap off the Burnside Bridge. First, he gathered his meager belongings to take to the Salvation Army. There, he began singing gospel hymns - in a loud voice at 3 AM, and was promptly arrested for disturbing the peace, and placed on suicide watch at the Multnomah County 'Jail.

In jail, he continued his singing (he had a very strong, beautiful voice). The other prisoners complained, "Tell him to shut up." However, the jailers were enjoying the serenade and gave him notes with song requests! Don credits this arrest with saving his life when he was given medication that cleared his thinking. This was a turning point to his finally getting the treatment he needed. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and most recently with schizoaffective disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Don was a very special, warm, loving man who attracted many close friends over the years. As many of them gathered at the hospital following his recent heart attack, all were amazed to find each considered himself/herself Don's best friend. He had a generous heart and often gave away the meager possessions he had to others who had less. He was happy to be in a living situation during his last years in which he could minister to those who needed him.

Don is survived by half-brothers, half-sister and step siblings: Linda Vannest, Dawn Roberts, Terrace Looney, Henry S. Looney III, William Looney, Lana McDonald and many nieces and nephews. He had a multitude of close friends whom he considered as family, including his two Godmothers, Judy Redler (In Our Own Voice Coordinator) and Barbara Hollcraft (director of his theater group), Jimmy Bernard, Angela Cassella, Christine Coiteux, Scott, Ellie and Alex Beebe.

A recent convert to Catholicism, Don was a member of Holy Redeemer parish in north Portland where a Funeral Mass was held at 1 pm on Saturday, November 18, 2006. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to Don's 100 V Ministry Fund established to ensure that a new In Our Own Voice trainer will be trained in April to replace Don. Donations may be sent to Don Moore at the NAMI-Multnomah office, 524 NE 52nd Ave., Portland 97213.

 

Don Looney: Our Advocate, Our Friend

 

NAMI-Oregon, NAMI-Multnomah and NAMI-Clackamas were all left with gaping holes in their programs and in their hearts with the passing of Don Looney due to complications from a heart attack November 10, 2007.

In Clackamas, we are all still chuckling over Donís rendition of Wilson, complete with NY accent, in the September production of Harvey by In a Different Light Theater Company. Having recently become a leader with the Dual Recovery Anonymous group in Oregon City, Don will be sorely missed by those who attend that weekly session. He was a popular IOOV speaker who was always requested by the Clackamas Sheriffís Department for their Crisis Intervention Trainings (CIT). One of their deputies, Gale Schrepert, read her get-well letter (written before Donís death) of respect and commendation at Donís funeral. In it, she stated that Don not only managed to live life on an even keel despite his many illnesses (including schizo-affective disorder), he excelled.

Multnomahís IOOV program was resurrected two years ago when Don took over the coordinator position there. He had become active in their affiliate after moving to Multnomah County over two years ago, and even started a NAMI support group within his apartment building.

Don has served on the NAMI-CC board and also on the NAMI-Oregon board. Don was one of Oregonís IOOV trainers, and trained two groups of speakers recently. He was the official consumer representative to national NAMI and attended three national conventions: in Ohio, Wisconsin and Washington, DC. He was always recognized as a celebrity at these gatherings by persons who had seen him in the nationally-shown In Our Own Voice video. When news of his death reached a national NAMI Leadership meeting in November, the announcement brought gasps and tears from the many in the audience who knew him. Don was scheduled to be trained to teach Peer-to-Peer, a national NAMI program in which consumers guide their peers to better coping skills. It occurred the weekend of his funeral.

But, shining beyond all the awesome positions Don held in NAMI, is Don the friend. Persons at the gathering of old and new friends at the hospital during Donís illness were amazed to discover that each considered themselves Donís best friend! Family cleaning out Donís apartment were approached by many of the other residents bemoaning the loss of their friend and requesting pictures of him. Several NAMI ladies considered Don a son in their families. Words from Donís original song, Treasure, which he recorded on CD four years ago, sum up his life outlook: ďTo be understanding and to be understood.Ē

We were all fortunate to have Don be a part of our lives. May we be inspired by his love to serve and love one another as he served and loved us.

 

 
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Last modified: 05/19/08