Mental illness runs deep in the Becker family. His father, Channel 7 weatherman Dick Becker, suffered from bipolar disorder, and clinical depression goes back at least three generations in the family tree. Becker's paternal grandmother's bipolar disorder was treated with shock therapy, and both of her parents were also mentally ill.
Becker's sister was deaf and received most of the family's attention. In order to get noticed, Becker acted out with comedy and used his humor to forge a bond with his father. When Dick was briefly hospitalized for depression in the early 1960s, Becker's own downward spiral began.
As a teenager, Becker was hospitalized after a bad LSD experience, and diagnosed as having teenage schizophrenia. He briefly saw a psychiatrist, who suggested he try the recently banned drug ecstasy, which had been used as a therapeutic drug since the 1960s. Becker continued to use drugs to self-medicate, and believes ecstasy later aggravated his condition. "It was like plugging into the heart of the universe," Becker says of his experimentation. Whatever its consequences, Becker's early drug use seemed to enable a creative streak, and he began writing poetry and was active in student theater at Denver's Lincoln High School.
"They had this little clique of kind of the weirdo kids," says Pamela Clifton, a Denver actor and director who attended East High but met Becker through mutual friends when they were 16 years old. "They were the artists who smoked and went to the coffee shop and waxed philosophical until all hours of the morning. Donald was always just like he is now, bitingly funny. He would hold everybody's attention by just being so witty and satirical."
Having discovered his comedic gifts and thirsty for attention, Becker, the class clown, turned to the burgeoning Denver comedy scene of the early 1980s. Despite his comedic gift, Becker's deep depression and psychosis grew progressively worse. By 1986, he was teetering on the edge.
A week before his 32nd birthday, Becker broadsided another car. Although he was unharmed, the accident triggered the thought that he was going to die—and that he was going to kill someone else in the process. He had just begun taking lithium, prescribed by his psychiatrist to help ease the wild emotional swings of bipolar disorder. He was not, however, being treated for psychosis, the accompanying delusions and paranoia that were part of his mental condition. With lithium in his system, Becker's psychotic delusions in fact intensified—he even became convinced that if he didn't lose an arm he would die by the time he turned 32.
"Donald had always kind of gnawed on his arm," says Clifton, recalling a high school friend's account. "I guess these voices always had this arm thing. 'Get rid of the arm' or something."