More than a teenager struggling
David began attending a private, progressive, liberal arts school in Olympia, Wash., Evergreen College. Susan remembers, "It was a challenge for him, and the first year one of his female instructors told him he just might not be the type of person for college." Though David struggled mightily with the academic discipline of the university, he still had his moments. He was popular among his classmates, had a serious girlfriend and established the schoolwide composting program, which still exists.
In 1985, after completing a survival skills and mountaineering training course in Colorado, he participated in an ascension to the peak of Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina. He even talked Evergreen into giving him credits for it. After the climb, while the rest of the group returned to the United States, David stayed behind in Argentina, hitchhiking around the countryside for a couple of months.
But things began to unravel again in the spring of 1986.
He had gone to Arizona to work with Native Americans there, and even though he was upset by what he saw as organizational infighting, he couldn't decide whether to stay or go back to Evergreen. He started back to Washington several times, always by train, which was his preferred mode of transportation, but aborted the trip each time. Finally he did make it back to Evergreen and completed the quarter.
In the summer he went to work on a farm in Virginia run by some Oberlin classmates of his father, Sam. The friends called Sam, concerned by some of David's behaviors, and David himself wrote to his father that he was hearing voices -- the plants were telling him not to chop or hoe them. David abruptly returned to Nevada and hospitalized himself in Reno. His mother was stunned to see that he had lost 40 pounds.
Sam recalls, "It was during that period that I became conscious that it was more than a teenager struggling. There was something more wrong with him. They didn't diagnose him at that point as having mental illness per se. They gave him some kind of tranquilizers but they weren't really clear what was going on. He bounced back from that fairly quickly. But then he just couldn't keep it together."
Susan says, "At that point the diagnosis from the Reno psychiatrist was, 'I don't know what's going on. It could be any number of things.'"
David eventually, reluctantly, went back to Evergreen in February 1987 with Sam driving him up to the campus. In April, one of his college housemates called Susan saying David had disappeared one rainy night with just the clothes on his back. There was no word from him for two weeks. From a flophouse in Portland he called his sister Katie, who was then married and living in Los Angeles. He said he had been living on the street, eating out of Dumpsters. He somehow ended up at the Sacramento Airport, where Katie's then-husband Randy Thomas came and retrieved him.
While staying with Katie he would barely eat; he told her he felt "unworthy" of bathing and wouldn't use soap in the shower. One time when she took him to the movies he tried to give his shoes to a homeless man they passed in the street.