SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Lisa Beecher locked eyes with the woman in charge at the secure psychiatric hospital, trying to make her understand the situation’s extreme gravity.
Beecher, a Portland police officer, had just coaxed her husband, Jamie Beecher, also a police officer, into the facility. Jamie Beecher was experiencing a frightening, paranoid break with reality. With her husband convinced he was in danger from unseen forces, Lisa Beecher feared for the hospital personnel’s safety.
“Your staff may benefit from knowing he has a brown belt in karate and is a devoted student of jujitsu,” Beecher told the woman at the desk. “He’s also a member of Portland Police Department’s Special Reaction Team. That’s the department’s special weapons and tactics unit — their SWAT team. Jamie is highly trained to maneuver through exceptional circumstances and come out the winner.”
The woman’s eyes widened as she began to see the full picture.
“There’s one other consideration,” Beecher said. “He’s a United States Marine.”
With that, the woman bit her lip, laid down her pen and vanished down a hallway.
The vivid scene, like something out of a Hollywood movie, is the opening act in Lisa Beecher’s crackling new book about her husband’s long struggle with severe bipolar disorder. Titled “Living with Mr. Fahrenheit,” it chronicles her first responder family’s journey through failed treatments and psychological trauma, where secrecy and shame retain an influential grip within the tight-lipped law enforcement community.
Jamie Beecher’s psychotic break and subsequent diagnosis seemed sudden at first, Lisa Beecher said. But, in retrospect, she believes they were the product of her husband’s severe, untreated childhood trauma, coupled with the countless psychological wounds that come with police work.
Beecher would know.
She was chief of the University of Southern Maine police department for 12 years before retiring in 2010. Prior to that, she spent 21 years at the Portland Police Department as a detective specializing in relationship violence and hate crimes. Her husband had a 17-year police career of his own before his illness put an end to it — and nearly his life.
The 300-page book, Beecher’s first, is clear and concise. Beecher manages to turn her heavy subject matter into an easy read. Her prose is lean, like a “just the facts” police report but with a heavy dose of character-driving dialogue. If not a true story, readers might not buy the outrageous plot twists and turns. The underlying truth is that the Beechers have gone through hell and their journey isn’t over yet.
“Living with Mr. Fahrenheit” is available online, through Lisa Beecher’s website and can be ordered through any independent bookstore in Maine.
This week, Beecher, a mother of two and grandmother of 10, took a break from her full-time job caring for her husband to sit down in a coffee shop and talk about her book.
BDN: This book is unvarnished and frank. Were you at all reticent about sharing so much of your family’s personal struggles?
Lisa Beecher: I figured if I was going to write it, I was going to be honest, not swerve, not take the easier route, not do a light dusting. I was going to tell what really happened.
BDN: Has your husband read the book? What does he think?
Beecher: He’s read it cover to cover, seven or eight times. He said he learned a lot about what the rest of us were going through — which is more than what he was aware of at the time. He’s concerned about what people will think of him, but, so far, we haven’t heard anything negative. He pretty much stays at home. He’s medicated. He works out three mornings a week, four hours with heavy weights, and he taught himself Krav Maga — an Israeli form of hand-to-hand combat.
BDN: Who did you write the book for?
Beecher: I wanted to write it for my family. I wanted us to see it all in one place. Because we lived it, minute by minute. And so my kids could maybe start to feel good about portions of what they’ve been through, how they survived. Their own kids would never know what their parents went through. I wrote it for the family.
BDN: And you also wrote it to raise awareness of the kind of psychological trauma first responders are subject to all the time?
Beecher: Yes. More police officers die of suicide every year than are killed in the line of duty. My husband was suicidal at times. The book became a labor of love. It’s a book, not just for my family, but for anybody on the frontlines, first responders, medical people, military, anybody who’s got one of those very stressful jobs.
BDN: You believe your husband’s childhood trauma, plus the stress of his police duties, helped bring on his initial illness?
Beecher: Yes. He was 37 and he’d been a police officer for 14 years. That’s all those calls, all that trauma — you can go through several, every shift. All that, piled onto the pressure from things he hadn’t resolved.
BDN: Do you think most first responders find it difficult to ask for help with mental illness?
Beecher: Yes, and maybe this book will make it easier for someone else to tell their story. And pretty soon we’ll have a bunch of stories and everybody will start to realize, “hey, this is pretty normal,” and then it gets normalized. And then more people can feel comfortable doing whatever they need to do to make their lives better. For those families dealing with a loved one’s mental illness, maybe parts of this story will resonate with them and they’ll know they weren’t alone — that they’re not alone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.