Peace of mind

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June 13, 2005 // UPDATED 1:55 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Michael Metzger
Michael Metzger

Many of Downtown's homeless are veterans with mental illness. One World War II vet shows what some may be feeling.

Richard Saholt looks fragile and distracted. He has lived his entire 81 years, as far as he can tell, suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He has heard voices in his head since he was a young boy; unheeded voices that urged him to kill his abusive father; distracting, disruptive voices that interrupt his thoughts to this day.

Yet he perseveres. Sometimes he even triumphs. Saholt has created dense, seething collages that serve as artistic maps of the diseases plaguing him. They might be more coherent descriptions of paranoid schizophrenia than any definition from a doctor, scientist or philosopher.

For four decades, Saholt meticulously, obsessively searched for print graphics with a zeal fueled, in part, by his bipolar disorder. He precisely cut photos, illustrations and words out of magazines, books and newspapers and carefully pieced them into large, intricate collages serving as windows into the jumbled mosaic of his mind.

Saholt even managed to shift his creative focus at times from the clatter in his head to other topics, piecing together vivid patchworks on subjects as diverse as alcoholism, Pope John Paul II, serial murderer Wayne Williams, the Vietnam War and Halloween.

Saholt's series of collages on homelessness will be part of a community forum on Wednesday, June 15 at 6:30 p.m. at Wesley United Methodist Church, 101 E. Grant St. Mayor R.T. Rybak will speak at the "Framing Homelessness" forum, as will Michael Dahl, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, Father John Estrem of Catholic Charities and Monica Nilsson, community development director of Bridge for Runaway Youth.

Permanent war

Homelessness is one problem Saholt hasn't had to face; he lives in Southwest Minneapolis with Doris, his wife of 53 years. However, like many on the streets, he is a veteran with mental illness.

Stooped by age and old war injuries, Saholt shuffles from the crowded living room to the kitchen of his modest house. "This is what keeps me alive," he said as he opened the doors to a cupboard jammed with plastic bottles of B-complex and other vitamins and herbal supplements.

"Richard says 'I would rather think the way I think without drugs than to have drugs and not think the way I want to think'," Doris said of his refusal to take antipsychotic drugs. "He wants to say what he wants to say - the truth, not to be masked up and pretty."

Her husband has taken a beating in life. He has overcome a stammer that rendered him virtually unable to communicate, caused by the childhood abuse he suffered at his father's hands.

Determined to prove himself to his father and a doubting world, Saholt enlisted in the army in 1942, serving as a sniper, scout and point man with the 10th Mountain Division fighting the Nazis in Italy.

"I wanted to get into the toughest outfit there was," he said.

He did prove himself, but the price was enormous. A shell-shocked Saholt (who still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder) was discharged in 1945 after suffering back and leg injuries, as well as two severe concussions (he still has blackouts, too). He had also been awarded the Bronze Star for single-handedly capturing 13 German officers.

"When I got into combat, all these voices were always telling me to charge, charge, charge. I had to fight this off all the time. Finally, I did charge and then I got the Bronze Star. So there was a lot of crazy stuff that I had to put up with that I didn't have no understanding of. I didn't know what the hell was going on."

He emerged from the war evenmore damaged.

Despite the speech difficulties that hampered him, as well as his untreated schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, he waged a decades-long battle with the Veteran's Administration over disability benefits, ultimately achieving a Pyrrhic victory in the 1970s, he said, when the VA granted him some benefits that didn't include any of the money denied him for more than 20 years after the war.

Saholt said he can't let go of his bad memories. He can't let go of what he said the VA did to him following his discharge. He can't let go of what various incompetent doctors and shrinks have done, or failed to do for him, over his life. He can't let go of how he's been relentlessly ridiculed and harassed for his speech problems and illnesses. And Saholt can't let go of the memories of his abusive father.

"He was one mean son of a bitch," he said in a clear voice and with an unwavering gaze. "I've got that hatred burning out of me, and it will burn out of me until the day I die."

That inability to let go of the anger and memories isn't uncommon among his peers, he said.

"One thing you've got to know about schizophrenia," he said. "Schizophrenia has a lot of different possible symptoms. One of the worst ones is that a schizophrenic can never turn off on anything that has been painful for them. That suicides out a lot of them."

Voices

Saholt said his father, who had suffered his own shellshock in World War I, beat him for years to try to change the left-handed child to a right-handed one. "He couldn't stand that," Saholt said.

His mother and four siblings weren't exempted from the violence either; two sisters also suffer with schizophrenia.

"He ruined everybody. He ruined my mother; he ruined all the kids," he said.

At some point, the battered child began to hear voices urging him to kill his father. "I must've heard that a million times," he remembered. "The voices were the hardest things to deal with. They were the hardest to deal with when I was a kid and I didn't know what it was all about. 'Where are these voices coming from?' So it's been that way ever since. And so this story, it's all there. I've put it all in [collages] now."

Said Doris, "I think the artwork has made him better, settled him."

Her husband, she said, is a gentle man, but life with him has been, naturally enough, pretty rough.

"It's been a long journey trying to help him recuperate somewhat," she said. "It's been hard. It hasn't been easy, let me tell you that."

"She's the best thing that ever happened to me," her husband said. "But if I had known I'd been schizophrenic at the time, I'd never have gotten married. Ever. Schizophrenics don't have nothing to offer. You know that."

Doris doesn't seem to know it, however.

"He's got ups and downs, but he's a good man," she insisted. "He gives himself credit for nothing."

Said Richard, "Nobody else would've stood by me. If she would've pulled out, it would have been the end of me for sure. I couldn't have handled it. I did the artwork; that's all I can handle."

His collages on the homeless were made in the 1980s, he said, partially because so many homeless men are veterans or suffer from mental illnesses.

"The public, whenever they go to see artwork, they always want to know who the artist is. They want to know who he is. I do myself. If I go and I see something I like, I want to know everything I can know about that artist," Saholt said. "That's where the connection is [to the homeless]. It's from what I've been through and how I put this artwork together. I did it and it was right from the inside out."

Richard Saholt's 22 collages on homelessness are on permanent display at Wesley United Methodist Church, 101 E. Grant St. You can contact the church at 871-3585 or www.thewesleychurch.org.