Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

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

After a few weeks, she was released. "I was such a handful that they said, 'Yup, this one's bipolar—moving on.' Although her boyfriend had called her at the hospital, he was afraid of her, and it didn't help that she pounded on his door and broke his flower pots. "By March, I'd run him out of the state," she says. "I scared the daylights out of him. I was so impossible; I was such a monster. I was broken and bald, and all I had was my mom and dad. Everyone else had left me."

Becker was prescribed the antipsychotic medication Haldol, which turned her into a zombie. "I'd go for a walk and look like an invalid," she recalls. "I spent a good year without any friends or interactions. I tried to drink every time I could, thinking it would change the way I was feeling."

Gradually, though, she started feeling better, grew some hair, got a job and a new boyfriend. She kept drinking, however. "Even with the drinking, I'd still get really angry or weepy or high-energy." Her friends and parents urged her to take her meds, but she refused. "You're not going to listen when it makes too much sense," she reasons.

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

Becker's second manic episode occurred in 2005. A friend was ill with colon cancer, so she went to see him. She found him dead. "It was disturbing, so I thought I'd sit until the people from the funeral home got there. When I finally left, I was overwhelmed," she recalls. "I pulled over to a bar. I sat there drinking a Greyhound, crying."

Perhaps precipitated by the shock of her friend's death, another manic episode began. (Doctors believe they can last three to four weeks.) "I started buying the newspaper at 3 a.m. and making calls at 4 a.m.," she says. "I'd reorganize my father's business office. One day, I got into an argument with my mom; the neighbors in the office complex called the police, and the policemen remembered me from 1999. I went to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon and yelled that they needed to send us business. Someone called my mom and said I needed help."

She met her current boyfriend, Curtis Waldschmidt, now 38, during this manic period. Driving by the soup kitchen, she saw him and said, "You're cute; get in my car."

A former professional ballet dancer, Waldschmidt shared Becker's alcohol issues. When she picked him up, Waldschmidt recalls, "She was cute; it was fun." Of course, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. "She was very spontaneous," he says. "I thought she was just a wild-and-crazy chick. She'd be having a blast one minute, in tears the next. I'm a lot more educated now as to what was happening."

Becker was convinced she would give jobs and money to the mentally ill homeless, a textbook case of the grandiose thinking that often accompanies manic episodes. "They weren't listening to me," she says. "So I started setting fires in Lions Park [in Costa Mesa] to get their attention. I snatched someone's blanket, set it on fire in a barbecue pit and dropped it in a field." (She later encountered her homeless victim in a 12-step program and apologized.)

During a brief moment of clarity, Becker ran up to a police officer and told him, "You better 5150 me." The police took her to the hospital but cited her for arson. She was released after two weeks in the hospital and moved into a homeless shelter.

On the night before her next court appearance, she and Waldschmidt walked all night to the courthouse; they arrived too late the next morning.

"They put me in jail for 10 days over Thanksgiving," she recalls. "I was crying my eyes out. After my parents reunited with me over the phone, they hired an attorney who understood mental illness." The judge let her go with a stern warning to take her medication and stay out of trouble.

"I don't know why the magic bell went off, but it did," says Becker. "Jail really got my attention. I started a drug regimen that worked; a little weight gain, a little hair loss. It makes me appreciate how good I have it, in terms of the illness. I haven't gained 80 pounds. I don't twitch; I don't mumble."

Becker also sees a therapist and goes to 12-step groups. She and Waldschmidt talked a little after her jailing and hospitalization but drifted apart. "She wasn't as together as she is today," he says. "She was much more in denial about being bipolar. She wasn't into therapy or taking her meds. I was drinking and struggling to find work."

They reconnected five years later at a meeting. "Now that we're sober, there's a lot more communication," he says. It's amazing how candid she can be; it's kind of magical." Both have now been in recovery for more than three years.

"She's definitely the person I'd like to spend my life with," Waldschmidt adds. "Yes, I know the red flags. I'm there for the whole ride."

* * *

Through her escapades, her 12-step programs and Project Q-Tip, Becker knows street people. Institutionalized people. Jailed people. Indeed, she has been one of them. But a large number of people with mental illness are at home, with a group of unpaid and unsung heroes. Sometimes it's their parents, a spouse, a caring sibling or another relative. Sometimes it's a friend. But for Becker, that anchor has been—and continues to be—her parents.

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