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The ups and downs of David Yandell

BACK STORY: Cabdriver, turkey philanthropist talks about life with bipolar disorder
by: Jim Clark, Portland cabdriver David Yandell is known for the charity drives he organizes. He also plays piano sometimes at Holman’s Bar and Grill in Southeast Portland.

Although most Portlanders may not recognize David Yandell's name, they've probably heard of at least some of his charity drives.

Yandell, 45, is the Radio Cab driver who started the company's annual turkey dinner program that has provided free Christmas dinners to thousands of low-income families over the past 10 years.

Today, it is handled by a nonprofit foundation formed by company employees to support Yandell's projects, including one that gives free bicycles to local schoolchildren.

Yandell also has been recognized for his volunteer work by numerous nonprofit organizations in town, including Cascade AIDS Project, Sisters of the Road Cafe, Doernbecher Children's Hospital, the International Refugee Center of Oregon and the local Ronald McDonald House.

But the same source of energy that makes Yandell such a hardworking volunteer has a downside - crippling bouts of depression so severe that he cannot get out of bed. Yandell admits he was voluntarily hospitalized twice in recent years when the depression became overwhelming.

'I'm bipolar,' Yandell says, referring to the medical condition once known as manic-depressive illness, a term used to describe the extremes of high and low energy that people with it experience.

Yandell says he only acknowledged and sought treatment for his condition about six years ago. He offered to talk with the Portland Tribune about his experiences to help counter what he sees as its widespread misrepresentation in the media.

'Just about the only time you see the term bipolar, it's being used by some to explain why someone just committed a horrible crime. But bipolar people can be productive and benefit society, too,' he says.

Dr. Ward Smith, a Portland scientist who is working with Yandell, agrees.

'Yandell is a good person who has helped a lot of other people. I wouldn't be able to organize the kinds of benefits he's able to pull off,' says Smith, who runs the Summit Research Network in Montgomery Park in Northwest Portland.

Yandell credits the boundless energy he feels during his manic phases with his ability to pull off so many charity drives. But he also admits that the long-lasting highs and subsequent bouts of depression make it difficult to live a normal life.

Yandell says he was always in trouble growing up, dropping out of school and eventually being convicted of felony car theft and, later, misdemeanor domestic abuse. Although he graduated from Portland State University, today he can only drive a cab a few days a week and lives in a single-occupancy apartment above a tavern on West Burnside Street.

'I don't even have a checking account. I've been able to help a lot of people, but I can't seem to do anything for myself,' he says.

Seeking treatment has not allowed Yandell to turn his life around yet, in part because he cannot take lithium, a drug traditionally used to stabilize the moods of people with bipolar disorder.

Smith is working with Yandell to find another drug or combination of drugs that will have the same effect. In the meantime, Yandell is still grappling with his condition.

'People know me from the turkey project and the other things I've done, but the truth is, I'm a tortured soul,' he says.

More than mere moodiness

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, bipolar disorder is a brain condition that causes severe mood swings - from dramatically increased energy (and sometimes irritability) to sadness and hopelessness, and then back again, often with periods of more balanced feelings in between.

The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression, hence the earlier term.

The NIMH says that about 5.7 million American adults, about 2.6 percent of the population age 18 and older in any given year are bipolar. Although some people have symptoms all their lives, bipolar disorder typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood.

Bipolar disorder is different from the mood swings most people experience, the NIMH says, and can result in damaged personal relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide.

Scientists do not know what causes bipolar disorder. It cannot be identified through any physical test, including blood tests or brain scans. Instead, it must be diagnosed by analyzing symptoms and, where possible, studying family histories. Bipolar disorder seems to run in families, so some scientists believe it has a genetic component.

'Many people with bipolar disorder feel very good when they are manic. They have a lot of energy and feel that they are accomplishing things. But as time goes on, they realize that their behavior is destroying their social relationships and the depressions are always just around the corner. At some point, most bipolar people realize there's something wrong with them and seek treatment,' Smith says.

According to the NIMH, most people with bipolar disorder - even those with the most severe forms - can moderate their mood swings and live nearly normal lives with the right treatment.

Drugs - including lithium - can be used to stabilize the mood swings, while counseling can help convince those with the disorder to chart their daily symptoms, sleep patterns and disruptive events that might trigger full-blown episodes.

Sticking with a treatment routine can prove difficult, however. Some patients miss the good feelings and sense of unlimited energy associated with the manic episodes. Not taking medication does not automatically result in criminal behavior, of course.

'Maybe if a person is criminally inclined, he might be more likely to commit a crime during a manic period. But only a small percent of all people with bipolar disorder are criminally inclined, like the general population,' says Ben Dobeck, a Seattle psychologist who has treated Yandell for several years.

Living a life he'd want to read

At first glance, there does not seem to be anything abnormal about Yandell. With his shaved head, blue jeans and cowboy boots, he could be just another local middle-age hipster.

He also is a musician who occasionally entertains others with original compositions at various places around town with a piano, including Holman's Restaurant at 15 S.E. 28th Ave.

But when Yandell starts to talk, he quickly reveals an uncommon level of intensity. His conversation comes rapid-fire, jumping from tales of his life to observations of the city and back again, sometimes in no particular order.

He also can rattle off details of current events drawn from the three newspapers he reads every day and the local TV news reports he records and plays back when he cannot sleep.

Yandell also has an unusual outlook on life. He does not describe himself as someone performing charity work. Instead, he calls himself an 'artist' and considers his activities such as the turkey giveaway to be his 'body of work.'

'I'm trying to make my life a book I would want to read,' he says.

Yandell was born in San Mateo, Calif., on Nov. 30, 1960. His parents separated, and he moved to Portland with his mother when he was 2 - the same year his father died.

Yandell says he does not remember much before he turned 8 but believes that his mother brought him to psychologists when he was a child because he was so hard to control. Although Yandell cannot recall the counseling sessions, he remembers some of things he did that prompted them.

'One of my earliest memories is breaking the picture tube in my mom's TV with a hammer,' he says.

Yandell said he was sent to MacLaren, the state institute for male juvenile delinquents, in June 1975. Although Yandell's juvenile records have long since been destroyed, his memories of the youth facility outside of Woodburn are vivid.

He talks about being bounced in and out of the facility throughout his teen years, occasionally being sent from MacLaren to foster homes, then running away from them, being caught and returned to MacLaren. Yandell said after fleeing one foster home, he stole a car, got involved in a high-speed police pursuit, was convicted of auto theft and sent back to MacLaren for 16 months.

'Basically, I was a runaway, incorrigible and out of control,' Yandell says.

Street life leads to school

In fall 1978, Yandell was paroled to a foster home in Portland, then released from state custody when he turned 18 a short time later. For most of the next two years he lived in inexpensive downtown hotels, hanging out with a tough crowd of street kids and transient adults who lived on the edge of society.

'I saw a lot of bad things. People I knew prostituted themselves for money. A lot of them are in jail or dead now,' Yandell says.

One of them was a girl who had served time in Hillcrest, the state facility for delinquent juvenile girls. The two married in June 1980. Their only child, a boy, was born in poor health in August 1980 and died in Yandell's arms in the hospital the next April.

'Dave has never gotten over the death of his child,' Smith says.

The strain of the death ended Yandell's marriage but motivated him to do more with his life. Yandell says he worked as a counselor at a Portland nonprofit social-service agency for several years, using his 'street cred' as a convicted criminal to reach homeless teenagers. But, Yandell says, he had trouble following the agency's rules and eventually was fired.

'I just needed more room than they allowed me,' he says.

Yandell enrolled in Portland Community College in 1985 and transferred to Portland State University in 1987, graduating five years later with degrees in psychology, sociology and political science.

Looking back on his college and university years, Yandell says, 'Most likely I was in a manic state all those years, although I had a series of depressive states, too.'

Looking for work

Shortly after graduating, Yandell discovered a knack for generating publicity. Convinced that he had no chance of landing a conventional job because of his criminal record, he rented a former downtown movie theater marquee to advertise himself as a PSU graduate looking for work - resulting in several news stories but no job offers.

Undaunted, Yandell thought of other ways to get press. At one time, he announced plans to launch himself from Washington Park in a lawn chair suspended by hundreds of helium balloons.

He bought advertising on a TriMet bus bench to promote himself as an eligible bachelor looking for a wife. Identifying himself only as 'Dave,' he was interviewed by one TV station with a paper bag over his head to protect his identity.

Today, Yandell says he thought the stunts would lead to a job in the creative-services field, such as advertising or event promotions.

'I thought someone would say, 'We can use a guy like that,' ' he says.

When no job offers materialized, Yandell went to work at Radio Cab, driving shifts when it suited him. He did not earn enough to repay his college loans, however, and the state secured a judgment against him for around $21,000 in 1995.

'If I had the money, I'd pay it, but I don't,' Yandell says.

That same year, Yandell was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of striking a former girlfriend when they were breaking up - a charge resulting in a sentence of 18 months probation. He has not been arrested for any crime since.

In 1996, Yandell says, he had a revelation. While dwelling on the death of his son, Yandell realized that he could use his knack for generating publicity to help families who could not afford Christmas. He talked Radio Cab officials into letting him launch a turkey dinner drive in the company's name, then raised enough money to feed 50 families.

Thus was born the first annual Radio Cab Turkey Project in 1996. Aided by a large group of company employees, the project grew into one of Portland's best-known holiday traditions over the following decade. Last year, the event fed more than 1,000 families.

Cabbies unite

The turkey drive made Yandell feel so good that he threw himself into other charitable projects when he was feeling manic. They have included collecting back-to-school supplies for low-income families, rounding up and distributing hundreds of bicycles for children who did not have one, scrounging up food for downtown soup kitchens, and persuading dozens of Portland police officers and firefighters to attend ice cream socials with children at Doernbecher.

Supporters include a number of well-connected Portlanders, including developer Homer Williams and his partner, Dike Dame. Last year Radio Cab employees formed a foundation to handle the funds.

'Dave is really amazing. He's got a lot of good ideas,' says Wade Rogerson, the company's communications manager and chairman of its foundation.

But in between the periods of fundraising and promotions, Yandell says his depressions have continued to worsen. This is typical of people with untreated bipolar disorder, according to the NIMH.

In 2000, Yandell volunteered to participate in a study on depression being run by Summit Research. Lithium worked for a time, but Smith had to stop prescribing it when Yandell developed a thyroid condition.

Smith is trying to find a way for Yandell to afford other, more expensive drugs to treat his condition. But in the meantime, Yandell says he 'cracked up' in 2004 and was admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital. Then, in January of this year, just after completing his most recent Radio Cab Turkey Project, Yandell said he crashed again and was hospitalized with major depression for two weeks at Adventist Hospital.

Despite not being treated with drugs, Yandell recently completed another project, his second annual Radio Cab Ice Cream Social at Doernbecher Children's Hospital with members of the Portland Police Bureau.

Today, Yandell said he is feeling slightly better and is pleased that he is once again driving a cab two or three days a week. But he still yearns for a time when he just works on his charitable projects.

'What I want, more than anything else, is for someone to recognize my skills and say, 'Here's a job for you, doing what you're good at,' ' he says - suggesting he may have multiple motives for talking about his condition, a notion that did not escape Smith.

'Dave is very complicated,' he says.

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