Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

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

Lisa Becker Has Patience for the Patients

"I've been treated rough by the police. Not Kelly Thomas rough, but rough enough."

The slender redhead surveys her audience, whose attention is rapt.

"Yes, I'm mentally ill," Lisa Becker says. "Joy is extreme joy. Pain is extreme pain. I have crazy, out-of-control feelings. I don't sleep much; I'm constantly thinking about the past. I have been dangerous and out of control. I suffer every day. I have nightmarish imaginings. There's a war going on in here." She taps her head.

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

At the back of the room, her father, Dale, wipes his face.

"But it's controllable," she continues. "It's not all a sad story."

She looks at the audience and decides to take the tension down a notch. "I like to start with a joke. So this cop pulls over a guy and says, 'Your eyes look bloodshot—have you been drinking?' The driver says, 'Your eyes look glazed. Have you been eating doughnuts?'"

The crowd groans but gets the joke; every member of the audience is a cop.

They are listening to Becker because it's part of the program at Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which is held each month at the Orange County Sheriff's Department on Katella Avenue in Orange, a stone's throw from the Honda Center and Angel Stadium. Walking through the parking lot to the conference rooms, you pass an armored truck and bomb-demolition vehicle. The crack of firing on the pistol range rings out. In this unlikely setting, minds are being changed in how law-enforcement personnel see the mentally ill people they have contact with nearly every working day.

Becker doesn't look mentally ill. She's well-put-together in a smart pantsuit, her hair a moderate but flattering length. But the story she tells will be familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of mental illness, 5150s (police jargon for involuntary institutionalization), drug and alcohol dependency, county jail, and the streets of Orange County.

"I've been violent, screaming at cars and people, breaking bottles," Becker says. She used to wander into parks to rob homeless people and once was nearly beaten up by a large, female transient who didn't appreciate being targeted. "I lived in my car and walked the streets all night," she adds. "I stole an American flag and drove around town with it. I'd get my car out of impound, then abandon it. It finally got donated to the city of Costa Mesa when they towed it away. I've never been Tased, but I've been thrown on the sidewalk and slammed against the hood of a cop car."

Yet this same woman is now helping Orange County law enforcement—as well as future lawyers, social workers and others—understand mental illness from the inside out. "I'm not a bad person," she explains. "I was just a sick person doing bad things."

Becker also has her own, very ad hoc charity that she self-funds (no foundation, no website, no donations), Project Q-Tip. She hands out to Orange County's homeless people hundreds of little baggies with the cotton ear cleaner, a mint and referrals to service organizations.

Kelly Thomas was killed in July 2011 by six Fullerton police officers who apparently had little idea of how to interact with the schizophrenic man. Kelly's father, Ron, himself a former OC sheriff's deputy, applauds the effort behind CIT. "It's invaluable to get the perspective of someone who's mentally ill or has been homeless," he argues. "There's some cops you just can't change. But for most, it would help. Once you understand it's the disease, not the person, you won't overreact. It could prevent what happened to Kelly. And once they go through the training, you can hold them accountable."

* * *

The day she cracks the cops-eat-doughnuts joke, Becker is speaking on the "consumer panel" at a CIT seminar. A spokesperson explains that "consumers" is the politically correct way of referring to people with mental illness, those considered to be "consumers" of mental-health services. The training program, run by Golden West College, covers many topics, from understanding types of mental illness to "suicide by cop." There are about 25 officers in attendance, including a burly, bearded biker and six women.

The speakers include Frank Woodard, an attorney and realtor; Scott, a former police officer who preferred to not be identified by his last name; and Becker. Each has a story.

Woodard delivers a number of disturbing statistics. In 2009, 20 percent of prison inmates were found to have severe mental illness. Neuropsychiatric ailments such as mood and thought disorders account for 45 percent of disabilities in people from ages 16 to 25.

This provides a natural segue to the story of Woodard's son, a high-school student who worked at Carl's Jr. Diagnosed as schizophrenic on his 17th birthday, later that year, he had his skull cracked in an unsolved beating. For a while, he didn't know who or where he was. "An Anaheim officer talked to my son for an hour after his injury and got him to a hospital," Woodard says. "He told me, 'I know it's not your son; it's his disease.'"

Now 26, Woodard's son has had seven hospitalizations. "We've had the police at my home more times that I can count," he says. The young man is starting to read more, using his computer and trying to quit smoking (he's gone from four packs per day to one). He still laughs uncontrollably, which makes people uncomfortable, Woodard says. Still, he's become compliant with his medication. "He's stable; with schizophrenia, that's all you can expect. It's truly a day at a time."

The occasional tragedies that occur when the police interact with the mentally ill are well-known. But the panelists talk of the opportunities the police have to make a positive impact, such as recommending where the individual can get treatment or the family help. As Scott puts it, "Communicating with family members can avoid possible police-brutality-complaint situations."

Scott, 54, was a homicide investigator with the Royal Canadian Mounties. At 40, his life changed thanks to PTSD and bipolar disorder. "I would be outside in the rain crying; you couldn't tell in the rain. Shania Twain songs had special messages for me. I was on a blessed mission from God to root out all evil. Not good if you're packing a semiautomatic pistol under your arm."

The speakers emphasize that society has pushed its mental-illness problem onto the police. "The hallucinatory voice can suppress the real one," Scott notes. "You're giving commands, and they can't hear you. It can sound to them as if you were talking through Jell-O." He argues that if police can properly identify mental illness in the field, they can reduce their own caseload and avoid tragic outcomes. "Early intervention is key—get them help when their behavior is a two instead of a nine."

The police in the audience are curious, engaged. One asks Woodard, "What was the first sign you saw in your son?"

"Disorganized thinking," he answers. "When customers at Carl's Jr. said, 'please,' he wanted to know what was the hidden meaning behind 'please.'"

Becker is the last speaker. Her sincerity, her story and a certain amount of sex appeal transfix the mostly male audience. "I tell them they have a tough job; we wish we knew what to tell you," she later explains. "I always shaped up when I saw them coming, but some people are combative and don't want to comply. Someone who's psychotic has to be taken to the hospital, whether they want to go or not. Mentally ill people can be tricky and unpredictable.

"You guys—law enforcement—get to deal with that guy screaming at the light pole," she tells the audience. "He's sick, he's high, he's hurting. You're going to see the mentally ill at their worst. You're going to run into the drug addicts and alcoholics who are mentally ill. I went from being quirky to annoying to dangerous. I ruined cars, got drugged, got kicked in the face. Losing control, losing my mind, didn't make me entertaining."Her father's eyes close. "But you're in a unique position to help," she concludes. "Everyone you meet under the bridge has a history. You can save those people. I was saved."

Becker estimates she's had "zillions" of forced hospitalizations. "I've been thrown down on the ground and had guns pointed at me," she says. "And not a lot of the hospitals that take 5150s are nice places. Underpaid mental-health-care workers who are sick of crazy people. You lose your clothes, your phone; I learned to memorize all my phone numbers. I've suffered and gone into trauma. I'd rather sleep under the stars than go into a mental hospital."

She tells the cops that one key to dealing with mentally ill people is simply to listen, as people living on the streets are often lonely. "If you run into a bipolar person, let them talk your ear off for 10 minutes. Sometimes, I'd get ahold of the police when I was lonely and wanted to talk. Be patient, deep-breathe, repeat their name to engage them."

The cops in attendance seem energized. Tom Byrd, of the OC Probation Department, says her presentation gave him insight into mental illness among his probationers. "More information can only help."

Another officer, who asked that her name not be used, says, "Awareness helps. Maybe I can get them referred to the right places." Working with juveniles, she says, "We try to determine whether they're actual criminals or if there's something else going on. Juvenile hall should be a last call for some."

"I think it is invaluable," adds OC Sheriff's Department Lieutenant Dan Dwyer, a watch commander. "On foot patrol, you know the people with mental-health issues. I've seen firsthand the devastation with the family unit. 'What's wrong with our son?' We go talk to them. Family members may not be aware their child has a mental issue—it may not be meth. We're not going to be the ones for the long term. But we have to deal with the person in crisis."

Dwyer believes the key to successfully handling mentally ill people in domestic situations is to not escalate the turmoil. "In one of my patrol areas, a family had a son with issues, so we'd take it slow, talk him down, get him evaluated," he explains. "Most will go cooperatively—the 5150 is the exception to the rule. If someone's running in the street, yelling, action has to be taken. But the key is communications before escalation. Try to build a rapport. Talk them down."

While police have become the tip of the spear in dealing with mental illness, they hardly remain unaffected. Yet the stigma is still so great the officers often feel they have no one to talk to. Becker says hard-bitten cops often pull her aside. "They'll say, 'My wife is acting funny' or, 'My sister is bipolar.' At one CIT, this guy pulled me outside. He told me his girlfriend was bipolar; she had to stop taking her meds because she was pregnant and was acting crazy."

"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."

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."

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.

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.

"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."

Show Pages