"So what does one wear to a gathering of law enforcement and mental health professionals?" I texted my sister Amanda, only half joking.
"Hmm, jeans, a cute top, and heels?" she suggested.
"Good call," I said.
A few minutes earlier, Officer William Kasberg of the San Antonio Police Department's Mental Health Unit had invited me to attend a presentation he was giving the following morning. "I think it could be a lot of help to you," he said over the phone. "What do you think?"
Knowing nothing else about it, I said, "Sure! That sounds great."
"I'll text you the address," he said.
This unexpected addition to my week was set in motion last Friday, when I met my friend and Pilates instructor, Sarah, and her fiancé, Brian, for a walk at Friedrich Wilderness Park. Sarah had been telling me how much she loved the park (which is, incidentally, where two of my characters meet, though when I wrote the scene I'd never been there), and we'd been trying and failing to make it happen for a few weeks. That afternoon was a cloudless seventy degrees, and we both shifted our schedules to enjoy it.
Note to anyone who's considering working out with someone who is a lifelong athlete and owns a fitness studio: make sure you can keep up. It wasn't long before I realized that Sarah and Brian's "walking" pace was akin to my jog, and I scrambled along at their heels, trying to avoid the gnarled tree roots and loose stones on the unpaved path.
"Perhaps now's the time to tell you I'm clumsy?" I panted at Sarah.
"Are you joking?" she threw back over her shoulder, casually running down steep rock steps.
"Definitely not," I said.
Soon, Sarah took the lead, Brian made up the middle, and I tried not to let an embarrassing distance expand between his footfalls and mine. Though I'd said a quick hello to Brian once or twice at the studio, this was the first occasion I'd spent any time with him. He's a commanding presence and seemed like the take-no-shit type, immediately teasing me for the dorky schoolgirl look of my Camelbak, but he was also clearly used to looking after others' wellbeing--every so often, he glanced back at me and asked, "How you doing back there?" Brian is a detective, I learned, and immediately my writerly interest was piqued.
"Actually," I gasped, running behind him, "maybe you can help me."
In short, truncated sentences, I told him about a scene I was working on, in which my main character jumps off her second story balcony to prove to her husband that she's already dead. I knew what I wanted the outcome of the scene to be: there would be an emerency detention, and she'd be held for seventy-two hours to ensure she wasn't a danger to herself or others. I had done a good deal of research into the Texas Mental Health Code, and I cobbled together additional information from past work with Oconomowoc Residential Programs (ORP), a client of RTC's that provides specialized services for children, teens, and adults with special needs. But as I wrote the scene, the details evaded me: when would the Crisis Intervention Team arrive? What would they be wearing? How would they approach a woman claiming she wasn't trying to kill herself because she was already dead? Would they need to cuff her when they took her away? Did a judge need to sign any kind of paperwork approving the detention?
As we ran (well, I'm sure Sarah and Brian wouldn't call it "running"), I peppered Brian with questions, and he answered each one thoughtfully and patiently. Then he said, "Actually, a good friend of mine is part of that unit, the Crisis Intervention Team. I could put you in touch with him if you want."
"Sure!" I said, thrilled and nervous at once.
I think I'm what's considered an "extroverted introvert." Social, but also deeply shy. In the beginning of my career with RTC, when interviewing people was growing into half my job description, I shook for half an hour before each call and for half an hour after. My heart, speedy as it is, jumped to what I now know to be around 160 at the start of each call, taking ten minutes or so to calm down. Just pretend, I'd tell myself. Pretend you're someone who doesn't get nervous like this. Pretend until it's true.
The truth is that I love talking to people. I love asking questions and hearing stories. So after the initial nervousness of each call, I'd inevitably sink into a comfortable space: we were always just two people, after all, having a conversation. Bridging what might otherwise be a divide of age, geography, experience, wealth, gender, or race. Forging a connection. The beauty of that always (eventually) overrode the discomfort, making me feel glad and alive.
But. I still get nervous. As I called Brian's friend William Kasberg, my hands shook and my heart pounded. When he didn't answer, I was a little relieved. I left him my name and number and told him what I was calling for, and though Brian had told him about me, I had doubts that he'd call back. His specialized unit is comprised of only six officers. Six, for a city of 1.4 million. So I figured he'd be pretty busy.
Less than a day later, William called back. He was open and friendly, interested in my book, excited to help. Immediately, I felt at ease. Then he invited me to his presentation the next day and the nerves immediately started up again.
Recently, when Adrian and I were in Yosemite and I was sitting alone on a gondola as it climbed higher, higher, higher, my first thoughts were: Holy shit, what am I doing? There's only one way down and I haven't done it in a dozen years! Then a calmer, more defiant voice said, You know what? I am afraid and I'm doing it anyway. I like that I am a person who does things that scare her. I want to do it more often.
So yesterday I set my alarm for 6:45, picked out a black top and a printed pair of jersey pants, and drove to a church called Hope Rises. I was five minutes early, and as a few others arrived, I giggled to myself: it wouldn't have mattered what I wore. I wouldn't be blending in.
Inside, it was just me and twenty-five police officers, firefighters, and first responders, half of whom were in uniform. I sat in the back row, fidgeting, blushing with anxiety at the quizzical stares I was getting. Everybody knew each other, it seemed. There were eight women and twice as many men, and they greeted one another with laughter and pats on the back. Spirits were high for eight a.m., and I still had no idea exactly what kind of "presentation" this was.
"Hi," someone said behind me. "I'm William."
I turned and recognized him immediately from my Google stalking--I mean research--the day before. I'd watched him give a TedX talk, demonstrating how to employ active listening and emotional labeling in a situation in which a teenage girl is at risk for committing suicide.
I shook his hand, desperately relieved to be spoken to. "Hi, I'm Katie."
"Oh, you're Katie!" he said. "Right, hi!" (I wondered then whether, like the host of a party, he'd seen an awkward girl who didn't seem to belong and thought to either make her more comfortable or find out whether she was in the wrong place.)
"Well, at least you're close to the door if we bore you to tears," he said, then introduced me to his partner, Jesse Treviño. In the few minutes before breakfast arrived (a happy surprise), he introduced me to Dr. Melissa Graham, the police psychologist, and Linda Aguero, clinical liasion at Laurel Ridge Treatment Center, a nearby psychiatric hospital where William and his team often take adults with mental illness who are in crisis. "Tell them what you're working on," William said.
I explained that I'm writing a novel about an extremely rare mental disorder known as Cotard's delusion. I waited, in case anyone had heard of it, but even Dr. Graham shook her head.
"It's estimated that only two or three hundred people in the world have it at any given time," I said. "It's a bit of a spectrum--some people are convinced they're missing vital organs, like the brain or heart or stomach. Others believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they're dead."
The group's eyes widened, and they nodded appreciatively. I told them about the scene I'm working on and that I was there to learn more about crisis intervention. Then breakfast arrived, and we gravitated toward aluminum trays of scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits, and gravy.
"I want Tom Cruise to play me in the movie," William said. He poked Jesse in the shoulder. "Hey, who do you want?"
"Robert DeNiro," Jesse said definitively.
Linda crinkled her nose. "Nah. You're more of a Richard Gere. Don't you think?" she asked as Melissa approached. "That he's a Richard Gere?"
Melissa laughed. "Sure, I guess."
"Nah," Jesse said, raising a forkful of scrambled eggs to his mouth. "I'd want DeNiro, for sure."
Linda said, "Well, then, I'm Salma Hayek."
I laughed. "Good choice."
"We're all delusional, in case you can't tell," William said. "We're not even in law enforcement!" he joked.
"Well, considering my book is about the most extreme delusion possible, that's totally appropriate!"
As it usually happened, my nerves had faded. Now I was just enjoying bacon and banter.
William soon issued a booming, "Alright, let's get started!" and everyone trickled back into the church hall from the entryway where we'd been gathered around food and coffee.
The church was a peaked aluminum structure, and the group was divided evenly on both sides of a narrow aisle. A projector screen was front and center, above the stage where a drumset, keyboard, and three podiums with attached microphones stood empty. William and Jesse stood below the stage, right before the first row of chairs.
In front of me, a woman with long blond hair twisted around. "Hi," she said. "I'm Louise. Who're you with?"
I gave her a nutshell version of my spiel, then admitted that I wasn't quite sure what this presentation actually was.
"Oh," she laughed. "It's a refresher course. We all went to the forty-hour one, so this is an update. We'll be here all day."
"Oh," I said, startled. "So this is more of a training? Are you with the mental health unit, too?"
"Oh, no," she said. "Homeland Security." She introduced the two men and woman beside her. They were criminal investigators for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, focusing, I was told, on the big guys: the cartels. Two of them work in Laredo, my hometown.
As the training commenced, I pulled out first a notebook and then my laptop.
"Crisis intervention models should take cultural backgrounds into consideration," Jesse was saying. "I'll give you an example."
He told a story about a woman in her thirties whose parents called the Crisis Intervention Team because she was displaying extreme paranoia. When paranoia is the only symptom, Jesse said, meth is usually the culprit. But not in this case. Officers arrived at the family's home, where the woman, who was deeply malnourished, ran to the back of the apartment. While a counselor attempted to interview her (she was guarded and withdrawn, insisting that she was fine and didn't need medication or a doctor), Jesse looked around the apartment. There was no food in the refrigerator or cupboards, only an empty twelve-pack of soda. Then he spotted several religious flyers. Does she go to church a lot? he asked the woman's parents. Oh, yes, they said. Every day. Jesse went to the woman's bedroom, where there was hardly room to move for the religious paraphernalia. Have you been sleeping? he asked her. A little, she said. Do you pray? he asked. For the first time, the woman's demeanor changed. She prayed all the time, she told him passionately.
With more probing, Jesse discovered that she'd been having an affair with the priest at her church, who was also a close family friend. Unfortunately, she wasn't the only one, and when he ended their relationship, she broke down. All she wanted to do was see him, talk to him, she told Jesse, but the church wasn't allowing her, and though her parents still had him over for dinner twice a week, she was forbidden from being there. Did he send you? she asked suddenly, both hopeful and suspicious. Did the church send you? Are you here to arrest me? Jesse reassured her that he wasn't, and after an hour and a half, he got the woman to agree to get checked out and stabilized by doctors.
"Now I have my own feelings about the church," Jesse said, "but I couldn't let her see that. I had to take her cultural background into account and set aside any personal judgment or bias in order to establish a rapport."
"What we have to remember," William chimed in, "is that mental illness is disorganized thought. What people are saying or doing might sound crazy to us, but it makes sense to them in the context of their disorganized thought. It's our job to get them talking, to try to understand where they're coming from so we can approach them in the right way."
They talked about how to tell somebody is experiencing auditory or visual hallucinations and how to approach that person; how to approach somebody, particularly a veteran, actively experiencing PTSD; when (and how) to physically close distance and when to give space. William reminded the audience that the fastest way to lose the trust of a "consumer" (an interesting word choice, I thought) is to use force. They rarely use cuffs, he said, and in his eight years since founding this division, he's yet to use his gun.
"I kinda feel bad," he joked. "The city keeps giving me guns and I'm like, 'What the hell do I do with this?'"
After awhile, the subject changed to the effect of trauma on the officers or first responders.
"We become desensitized to traumatic situations," William said.
In the row in front of me, Jose, an ICE investigator who had been transferred from Chicago to Laredo, was nodding. "Yes," he said. "Yes."
William told the story of a car crash he'd been to years ago, where there were five fatalities and four of them were decapitated. "There was a new officer on the scene," William recalled. "Bobby Decker. And he just kept walking around in circles, saying, 'I don't know what to do, man.'" (Bobby, Jesse would soon tell us, was actually murdered several years ago in a robbery--a bullet went right through the windshield and into his head.)
"But after that," William continued, "the abnormal becomes normal. How many people here have been to a completed suicide?"
On the right side of the room, where the uniformed firefighters and first responders sat, about half a dozen hands raised.
"And how has your perspective changed between the first one and now?" William asked.
One man, sitting closest to the aisle, said, "Well, I remember the first one. I always will. Don't remember the last."
Around the room, heads nodded. A matter-of-fact sadness pervaded.
I listened and took notes. On the criteria for emergency detention per the Texas Mental Health Code, on crisis intervention strategies, on the three phases of a crisis, on the difference between a Notification of Emergency Detention and an Order for Protective Custody. On the stories. On the people around me, who seemed both jaded and compassionate.
At noon, when lunch was served, I took the opportunity to ask William some questions specific to the scene I was writing. Then I asked whether I might talk to someone more about what actually happens during an emergency detention. Immediately, he steered me toward Linda. "I bet she can even give you a tour of the psychiatric hospital!" he said.
Sure enough, Linda (our future Salma Hayek) agreed, and we both pulled out our phones to schedule it. Tomorrow, I'll be meeting with her at Laurel Ridge.
"Thank you so much," I said to William. "For everything."
"I hope it wasn't a complete waste of time." He added, grinning, "Hey, I could've just been showing pictures of my pug!"
"You have a pug?" I asked, delighted. "So do I! Pug people are crazy, right?"
"Obsessed. So . . ." He leaned in conspiratorially, looking around. "Do you have pictures?"
"Oh, you know I do!"
And for the next few minutes, we exchanged photos of my two-year-old Lola and his eight-week-old Heidi, complete with a pink reflective harness.
I always say that one of my favorite things about writing is the constant process of learning. I don't agree with those who insist you should write what you know. I'd rather write about what I want to know and seek that knowledge in the process. Yesterday (and tomorrow, at Laurel Ridge, I'm sure) rejuvinated my love for this process, one that can be lonely and isolating, but can also force you away from your comfortable couch and into environments that are unfamiliar and fascinating and frightening. It was also a reminder that people are usually eager and genuinely excited to share their stories and expertise with someone who is interested, and that asking questions and being willing to follow where they lead is crucial not only to being a good writer, but to being a good human, ever evolving.
For more information on William Kasberg and the Crisis Intervention Team, you can watch his TedX talk here. And if you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis, you can reach him directly on his city cell at (210) 563-6827. (Don't worry, he said I could share it.)