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"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.
"To to see how sad and upset they were—'Look what we created.' I wanted to prove to them that I was okay," she says of them. "Now they see me eating, exercising; they hear the pill bottle rattle." When her friends drifted away, perhaps afraid of catching whatever she had, her parents hung in. "I'm an only child," she explains, laughing. "They have to love me."
But her parents did change the locks on her during her darkest days, and they were close to selling their Costa Mesa house and leaving her with nothing. Becker still feels guilty about what she put her parents through. Now, her parents joke that they live with her, rather than the other way around. As Dale says of having a child with mental illness, "Until you've been through it, you have no idea what it's like."
When Becker was on the streets, she spent considerable time with her homeless and mentally ill buddies in Lions Park, locally known as "airplane park" for the concrete Navy F9F Panther jet in the playground. Now, she says, there are no more barbecues in Lions Park. The awning that sheltered the homeless in inclement weather is gone; people can't smoke, and bikes have to be registered. Despite the new rules, there are still plenty of homeless people in the hideouts they know so well.
Costa Mesa recently gained fleeting infamy when Mayor Eric Bever called soup kitchen Someone Cares and the charity Share Our Selves "nuisance businesses" that attract homeless from across the country. The soup kitchen, winner of OC Weekly's 2010 nomination as Best Charity, did a survey and found that 86 percent of those it fed—elderly people, homeless, mentally ill folks and an increasing number of families—came from Costa Mesa.
Becker once ate at Someone Cares and now points people in need of help toward it and other services in the city. She's even mending fences with the police who arrested her in the past. When a Costa Mesa cop told her she might actually address the department, she joked, "It would be like a high-school reunion!"
Because of her past behavior, Becker was banned from Lions Park. Yet a park ranger recently asked her to talk to a young homeless couple there who were refusing speak to anyone. "They seemed to trust me a little," she says. "The road to normal living was baffling to them. I told them to let the social workers take over. That's what they live for, to make a difference in someone's life. They get hurt and disappointed so often."
In a world in which mentally ill people are often seen as burdens, victims such as Kelly Thomas, or—even worse—killers such as Colorado's Batman shooter James Holmes, Becker is well-aware she is lucky to have been able to keep her condition under control. But she fears falling off the track. "I'm always checking to see if I'm talking too much," she confesses.
She has reservations about assisted-outpatient treatment such as Laura's Law, which allows parents of a mentally ill person to have their child involuntarily committed for up to 72 hours (see Michelle Woo's "Out of Care," March 22, 2012). "If my mom has a bad-hair day, do I end up in a mental hospital?" Becker wonders. "You can use history against a person. If you have a bad day, will your parents go to the police and say, 'She's been in the hospital 30 times'?"
Becker averages three talks per month, each time promoting Project Q-Tip. "Who doesn't love a good Q-Tip! When I was running around the streets, I didn't have one," she says. "It makes you feel better. People need a mint, a Q-Tip and a map of where to go next." She finances this not-for-profit outreach program out of her not-very-deep pockets. "I call it a ministry. I wish I could do more."
Aside from enjoying her free time with Waldschmidt, she works at being a "poster girl for mental illness" and being "happy, healthy, cheerful." She has also written a manuscript about her life titled Crazy: Bipolar Diaries.
Becker hopes the book can help other mentally ill people understand their condition. "I'm passionate about sharing my story and helping others," she says. "I'm here to entertain, inform, scare—it's just part of my journey. What helped me the most in my recovery was realizing there were other bipolar people like me who had war stories like mine. We're not all crazy nut cases costing the state money and time. I'm trying to give hope."
Michael Goldstein is working with Ron Thomas on a book about the life and death of Kelly Thomas.
This article appeared in print as "Patience for the Patients: Bipolar activist Lisa Becker has a cure for the problem of OC's homeless who are mentally ill."