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Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

The bipolar activist wants to cure OC's problem with the homeless who are mentally ill

"Lisa's done it all," Ron Thomas says. "She's been there in the streets."

* * *

Becker was born in Dearborn, Michigan, and moved to Orange County when she was 13. Her family lived in Costa Mesa, and she attended Newport Harbor High. She was a social girl with a lot of friends, but she had poor grades. "In art, I was great; everything else was below average," she recalls. "I was talking a mile a minute. I couldn't concentrate. I was always talking. I did horrible on tests; I'd get so worked-up."

Lisa Becker: "There's a war going on in here"
Riley Kern
Lisa Becker: "There's a war going on in here"
Becker's Project Q-Tip in action
Riley Kern
Becker's Project Q-Tip in action

The teacher would tell her parents, "Lisa is delightful, but she doesn't let the other students do their work. we have to remind her to be quiet."

"People always thought I was crazy Lisa, over the top," she says. Although obviously bright, she admits she "graduated by the skin of my teeth."

Her real passion was bodybuilding and weightlifting. "I can pinpoint a lot of manic tendencies from all the exercise. I worked at a health-food store and was bossy-manic about how you could lose weight or get stronger," she says. "I was always preaching to people." Working out helped to keep her manic thoughts under control. When she was almost beaten up by a group of girls, this only motivated her to hit the weights even harder. But nothing could stop the racing thoughts and anxiety that often characterize bipolar disorder.

In retrospect, there may have been other warning signs. "I'd do major purges, not wanting to be tied down with a bunch of stuff," she recalls. "I got upset at my mother, boxed up years of my panda collection and gave them away. It's sad because I've lost things—special things, meaningful things—that all went out the door." She viewed dating boys the same way. "If they said or did or acted another way than I'd like, or I was not feeling the love, I'd say, 'See ya.'"

At age 16, Becker started working at a party store, where her bubbly personality helped Newport Beach women plan kids' parties. A stab at computer graphics at Orange Coast College was short-lived. She stayed with her parents into her twenties while working various office jobs.

"I was kind of drifting," she says. "My parents and friends thought, 'If she looks okay and acts okay, she's probably okay.' I kept them engaged in my enthusiasm for life; I was funny, I was social, I was generous." Later, after her breakdowns, those friends would drift away. "Your friends want to hear about you doing well," she observes. "They don't want to hear the sadness in your heart."

In her twenties, "I went to a lot of dance clubs, like the Empire Ballroom, Bacchus and the Thunderbird. I had VIP status at the Shark Club; I'd walk past the line," she says. "I thought I was the ab queen, so I'd wear halter tops, sleeveless shirts that highlighted my midsection. I pretty much drank for free. I'd get dressed up and go out dancing for hours."

Becker eventually settled in with a boyfriend, who was also a drinker. "I liked to dance and do art while drinking; he just liked to watch sports. When he would go out of town, I'd have parties with all these strangers in his two-bedroom apartment. I was bored with him, exhausted with waiting for attention, not sleeping and not eating."

Soon enough, she says, "I lost it."

* * *

To date, Becker has experienced two manic episodes. The first occurred around New Year's Eve 1999, when Becker became angry that her boyfriend had left for a Jimmy Buffett-style Key West vacation without her. "I set things on the grill in our apartment and burned sweaters," she recalls. "I tried to cook a turkey, then pretended to slaughter it, stabbing it with a knife. I put on his $800 suit, his shoes and a tiara and started walking the streets, having fun. I think I broke up a rape, four guys and a screaming girl. I ran up to them waving my arms; everyone ran off in a different direction."

Leading up to this episode, Becker had broken her ankle roller-skating at midnight. She'd written graffiti all over the inside of her car and encouraged all her passengers to do the same. She'd also go days without sleep. "I started cutting my hair and put it under rocks in the neighbor's yard," she recalls, adding that she finished the pre-Brittany Spears head-shaving job in her car, outside a bar. Someone called the police. Three police cars blocked her vehicle. Spotlighted by a helicopter, the police arrested her with drawn guns.

Becker was arrested for DUI, although she insists she hadn't been drinking. She spent the night in a cell, where the police watched her maniacally perform sit-ups and pushups all night.

The journey continued with transport to the notorious Royale Health Care Center in Santa Ana. "It was my first 5150, for danger to self, others or gravely disabled," she says. "I got my first ride on a gurney there. It was a zoo. The police could drop anyone off there.

"I felt scared out of my mind, which translated into more crazy behavior," Becker continues. "I'd take people's things. I'd answer the patients' phones, 'Good afternoon, Royale Country Club.' For doing that, I'd get dragged down the hall, four-pointed on the bed and shot with drugs."

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