My Cousin Donnie

By Lloyd Graff

I once had a cousin named Don. Don was a couple months older than me. We played softball together and a lot of ping pong. That was until we were 16. Then I lost track of Don. I never saw him again.

Donnie and I were first cousins. My Uncle Jerry, my father’s elder brother, was his Dad. He lived a few miles from us on the southside of Chicago. Jerry made a lot of money in the plumbing supply business, but he was too cheap to buy a home in a nice neighborhood. He rented a stuffy apartment in a three flat in a sea of other three flats four miles south of us.

Jerry used to bring Donnie over to our house so we could play catch or ping pong, but we never really talked about anything. Don was a mystery to me, but I was too naïve to know why at 10 or 11 years old. He was just my cousin Don who played ping pong left handed.

After grade school I went to the University of Chicago Lab School, a school for the kids of faculty members and an assortment of teenager’s from Chicago’s southside whose parents wanted them to get a really good education. Don went to his public high school, South Shore, but in his junior year Jerry enrolled him at the Lab School. I had no idea why he moved him to Lab. He just did. It seemed odd but I didn’t ask.

Don had no friends at the Lab School. Actually, Don had no friends at all, I think. We weren’t really friends, we just played ping pong together when Jerry brought him to our house.

We were in one class together our Junior year, English Literature with Eunice Rosenthal. Mrs. Rosenthal was a thin dark haired woman who wore stylish suits to teach her class. I remember her as a frigid bitchy lady who scared her students. She never smiled. English Lit was a class I was good at, but all I wanted to do was be invisible in her class.

One day in the Spring of 1961, Mrs. Rosenthal was talking about Hamlet and suddenly aimed a question at my cousin Don. It seemed innocuous when she asked it, but Don struggled to answer. She would not let him off the hook. She kept badgering him, then ridiculing him, mocking his halting answers. I could feel Don’s discomfort as she slid the verbal knife into his vulnerable psyche.

And then Donnie got up and ran out of the room. He ran out of the school. He just kept running. Eunice Rosenthal just ignored it and kept teaching her damn class. And Donnie ran.

The School called Jerry Graff and Jerry called his brother Leonard (my Dad) and eventually they found Don crumpled up.

I was confused about the whole event. My father wouldn’t tell me what was going on with Don, but he did not return to school that semester. He never returned. I never saw him again.

Life went on for me. I played basketball, went to college, the Army, marriage, a life. Don went to a “mental hospital” where he stayed quite a while, I came to learn. Schizophrenia, my father whispered to me a long time later.

Schizophrenia. It seemed so scary to me. Donnie, my first cousin, my lefty ping pong partner, was Schizophrenic.

He eventually got out of the hospital and left Chicago. Jerry told me he got a job with the Government. Who knows if he really did or not.

I asked Jerry and my Dad about Don from time to time. The answers were a couple sentences of avoidance. I didn’t probe. I didn’t want to get close to Schizophrenia. I didn’t even want to say the word.

Don was frozen in time for me as my 16-year-old cousin who used to play a nice game of ping pong – and ran away from Rosenthal and never came back.

Five years ago I received a phone call from Don’s niece. “Lloyd, I just want to let you know that Don was killed a few days ago in Washington. He was walking his dog at four in the morning and a guy in a Honda hit him,” she said.

I had not seen him in 50 years, but still I was stunned. A presence in my life was dead. I had never reached out to him. Jerry had never given me his phone number, but I had never asked for it.

Don was an outcast in the family. He had never tried to connect. I could never forget him, but I was afraid to reach out to him. Schizophrenia, it scared me.

They buried him and I went to the cemetery. I guess that was safe for me.

And the strange thing is I recall Don Graff now every day as I run through the dead people I’ve known who are worth remembering for me.

Don struggled with mental illness most of his life. I struggled with just the thought of it.

Question: How have you dealt with mental illness?

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8 thoughts on “My Cousin Donnie

  1. Skip

    I have an adopted cousin with schizophrenia whose father is a psychiatrist, what are the odds?
    I have a nephew so overcome with anxiety that he is non functional.
    I have a friend on social security disability, diagnosed as “incapacitated” that I see on a regular basis. My best pop diagnosis is Asperger’s syndrome. He gets by with a financial guardian and a host of “angels” that keep an eye out for him. Without that support system, I’m sure he would be homeless, and more than likely dead.
    I was talking with another friend just last week about illnesses she has been battling and the possibility that they are as she said “all in my head”. A thought that separates a mental illness not as valid and not the same as a physical illness. We talked about that.
    Our society struggles to accept and believe that someone with a mental illness doesn’t want the illness and doesn’t have a choice, the same as someone with appendicitis. We don’t say to someone with appendicitis, “snap out of it”, “just straighten up”, “if only you could be normal”. Mental illnesses often have real physical consequences. An ulcer is no less real because it was caused by anxiety or stress.
    We are getting there as a society, but until mental illness is thought of on par with physical illness, we still have a ways to go.
    So yes, I deal with mental illness in friends and family.

    1. Bryan


      I recently took a course in Mental First Aid from a place called Life Spring in Southern Indiana. The training is gaining ground on a national level and I cannot give the program enough praise.

      I have experience mental illness in my family. The only time we hear from my family member is when she goes off her meds and needs to be bailed out of jail. The family had given up on her. Because of this training, I can now see a pattern of “getting well” then slipping back into her mental illness when she can’t afford her medication. I’m doing my best to bringing the family around to what is going on and checking on her at regular intervals before she gets off the tracks too far.

      If this training is available in your area, I highly recommend it. Mental illness will not be conquered until we accept it as a true illness and find ways to support the people that need treatment.

  2. Mark Singer

    As I was reading the comment referring to a Mental First Aid course, I reflected on how far we have come to have even the thought of such an important notion to begin to gain acceptance. Fifty years ago as a young engineer in the surgery department of a large university hospital, I found myself in the difficult circumstance of having to interact in person with a surgeon (no longer in clinical practice) from another institution who had authored a seminal paper in my field of research. I needed the benefit of his insight to finish a paper of my own. His behavior was so irrational and filled with fear that we couldn’t hold a conversation. I often had lunch with the department head of our psychiatry division and sought his help. When I detailed my observations, he explained that I had described the behavior of a paranoid schizophrenic. He explained the illness and suggested how I might best proceed (having disabused me of any notion that I could cure him). I tried again with my newly acquired sensitivity to people with mental illness and to this particularly difficult type, and it worked. With my vale of ignorance beginning to lift, I came to understand that mental illnesses were widespread and as crippling as physical illnesses. The difference was the stigma and shame attached to mental illness. That was a high barrier to treatment. It was the fortunate few who could even understand that they needed help, who could find competent help, and who afford to pay for it. That barrier is less high today, but an unfortunate barrier still.

    One of my colleges at the hospital was a paranoid schizophrenic and at a point when he could not function, my boss asked me to intercede with him to accept treatment. I protested that I wasn’t an expert. He said that trouble with experts that they were never around when you needed one, and so I was it. He was institutionalized for the better part of a year and with medication and better coping skills he returned to work. He went on to get an advanced chemistry degree and held jobs with increasing levels of responsibility, finally becoming a plant manager for a major chemical company. Until his recent death (cancer), we remained close friends. The nurse whom he married shortly after he had returned to the hospital introduced me to the head nurse of the hospital’s psychiatric unit. That wonderful woman is the love of my life and we have been happily married for almost fifty years.

  3. John Ribic

    Mental illness is a very difficult disease to deal with for everyone, those that suffer with it and their loved ones and friends that do not understand it. I recently lost my sister after she suffered with depression since her teenage years and it later became bipolar disorder. She lived at home with my parents until she was 39 and then lasted on her own for about 18 months. Everyone including her wanted her to succeed on her own, stand on her own two feet. Unfortunately we did not understand that with her depression and bipolar disorder she did not have two feet to stand on. People with depression are difficult to reach, they put up their guard and do not share the pain they are going through. Many of them, including my sister do not understand that there is treatment and medications that work, but it may take months or years of experimenting to find the best treatment. She ended up self medicating and becoming an alcoholic which only made the disease worse.
    People that suffer from mental illness need everyone’s love and support on a daily basis. As a friend or family member you need to really try to get them to open up, compliment them as much as you can and do whatever you can to keep them in a treatment program. I really wish I understood this better months ago and now it is too late and I have deep regrets for not doing more. I plan to try and spread the word as much as possible to people that suffer with the disease and to the friends and family of loved ones that deal with it. Patience, love and empathy are the key to helping those with mental illness survive and thrive. Get involved with their treatment, meet with their therapist and psychiatrists and learn ways to help. Meet as a family or group of friends and determine a way to work as a team to support them and make sure they always have someone there for them. My sister was a beautiful person and I miss her everyday.

  4. Lloyd Graff

    Skip, Bryan, Mark and John, I thank you for sharing your thoughtful and insightful comments. Reading comments like yours really makes be grateful to be able to connect with the great people who spend the time reading the blog and have the courage to reveal themselves in such a beautiful way.

  5. Al P

    Good article. Sometimes I wonder how much the environment a person is in has an effect on mental well being? Would a kind word to someone that is having a hard time doing something or understanding what to do help them avoid breaking down? I have seen the harm that comes from someone getting treated badly and taken advantage of by a person in a leadership position. Eventually the person on the receiving end believes they really are worthless… The power of a kind word is underestimated. My experience has been support and kindness, setting up a position that they can do well in has helped as much as medicine. Medicine is needed also… Mental challenges are as hard as physical challenges.


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