Curled up with her giggling toddler, Victoria Becker plays the I-got-your-nose game. "I got it," Becker says, air-pinching her daughter's nose as the girl squeals and tries to steal it back. Becker had just finished serving breakfast. Hot Pockets, fruit juice and gummy vitamins shaped like princesses. She made sure her daughter brushed her teeth before snuggling with her in a chair. This is life for Becker who, at 20, is a mom to two girls ages 3 and 1. Hers is a world of coloring books, scheduled nap times and kid music. It's the life she wanted as a child but says she never seemed to find. Her girls are still too young to hear her story. They don't know that their grandma committed suicide or that as a preteen, Becker attempted to do the same. They don't know she used to experience blackouts or that she made headlines for holding her brother underwater in the family bathtub, leading to her arrest in 2006.
Right now, the girls know she plays with them and gives them hugs, that when they wake up in the morning, she's there, smiling and ready to get them dressed.
When they're older, she'll use her past mistakes as teaching tools. She'll watch for signs of the illness that robbed her of her youth. Bipolar disorder defined Becker's mother, but she vows it won't define her or her girls.
"My mom wasn't a happy person," Becker says, watching as her youngest takes wobbly steps across the floor. "I remember (her) just sitting in the dark, rocking me in a chair. I didn't want to be like that."
• • •
Becker's childhood is a study in contrasts.
She recalls happy times chasing chickens on her parents' Pasco County farm.
She also remembers the fights. She says her father drank. Her mother lashed out at the kids. Becker, who was born Victoria Rupple, and her three siblings ended up in foster care.
She was 9 when her mother relinquished parental rights. Her dad, Shane Rupple, gained full custody of her and her brother Mikey. Becker's two half siblings, not fathered by Rupple, went to live with other relatives.
Becker and Mikey lived with their dad and his live-in girlfriend. Becker says the woman was verbally abusive and often didn't let her brush her teeth or her hair. Once, the woman made her sleep in the dog's room, and she routinely limited Becker's time in the bathroom to two minutes.
"She was harsh, but I wouldn't call it abusive," Shane Rupple said in a recent interview.
To cope, Becker counted the days before visits with her mom. They read books and went to the park. The meetings often ended in tears. Becker wanted to stay with her mom.
"She would say things like, 'I feel like eating a bullet every time I see you cry,' " Becker said recently. "Now, I know that's not a normal thing to say to your kid."
• • •
The day before Becker started seventh grade, she learned her mother was dead. Becker's mother overdosed on prescription medication and left multiple suicide notes for her sister and other relatives. Not one was addressed to Becker.
"I felt abandoned," Becker says. "Everywhere I went, I thought I saw her."
It was the first time Becker experienced what she calls a numbing sadness. Her thoughts became erratic. Sometimes, she saw her mother looking back at her in the mirror.
One afternoon while her dad and brother were at Busch Gardens, Becker drank household cleaners because, she says, she wanted to die. She took pills to mimic her mother's death.
At the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute in New Port Richey, psychiatrists diagnosed her as severely depressed. She would be a patient there off and on for two years, and would later learn her mother had spent time at the same hospital.
Becker logged four months in therapeutic foster care and went to family counseling.
By the time she turned 14, her dad had a new live-in girlfriend. Things got better at home but on the inside, Becker says she felt broken.
A boy at school made her feel loved.
• • •
At Wesley Chapel High School, Becker dressed in head-to-toe black and smoked pot.
Her boyfriend saw through it.
"I knew not to judge people by their problems," Robby Becker said, looking back. "I liked her because she was nice."
Becker acted outgoing around Robby and other kids at school. She got good grades, mostly A's and B's.
Outside of school, her mom came to her in dreams. Becker read her mother's diary, which mentioned bipolar disorder, and identified with the writings.
Becker thought she heard voices. Then came the memory lapses. Once, Becker called her dad from Tampa, unable to recall how she got there. She told him something was wrong inside her head. He thought she just wanted attention.
"He didn't understand how bad it was," Becker said.
• • •
Becker and Mikey played video games the morning of Aug. 12, 2006. They wrestled and horsed around. Then, Becker says, a fog formed like a veil before her eyes.
She doesn't know how they got to the bathroom but she left Mikey, then 9, convulsing in the tub. She ran out of the house.
"I remember feeling my legs moving," she says. "I was just running. I think I threw up outside a church."
She stopped at a friend's house and asked to stay with them. She called her boyfriend, Robby, who would eventually tell her Mikey was in the hospital. He mentioned police and television news reports. She hung up the phone.
"I blocked it out," she says. "I knew that something had happened but I didn't know if it had really happened or if it was one of my dreams. I thought, 'Why would I do that? Could I do something like that?' "
Becker, then 15, hid for 45 days before a tip from friends led sheriff's deputies to her.
At the time of her arrest, she had cuts on her arms and legs. She'd stopped eating and talking. She wanted to punish herself, she says, not end her life.
• • •
Becker spent 11 months in the Pasco County Jail. Rather than send her to prison for holding her brother underwater, the court sent her to get help. She was sentenced to nine months at Still Standing, a halfway house facility for adults in St. Petersburg.
Doctors diagnosed her as schizophrenic. At the halfway house, she could come and go as she pleased as long as she met a curfew.
Looking for a distraction, she made friends with a fellow resident, an adult male. They started going out, smoking weed and having sex. Becker says she didn't think about consequences. Then, she failed her weekly drug test and tested positive for pregnancy.
She wanted to keep the baby. She was 16.
"When I found out I was pregnant I locked myself in my room," Becker says. "I only went to meetings and GED classes. I knew it wasn't about me anymore. I had to change."
Back in court for violating the halfway house's drug-free policy, Becker refused to reveal the identity of the father.
A judge sent her to DeSoto Dual Diagnosis Correctional Facility in Arcadia, a secure juvenile facility specializing in mental health treatment.
There, the judge explained, she would have to take responsibility for her actions. Becker says she committed to getting healthy for her unborn daughter.
Doctors at Dual Diagnosis diagnosed Becker as bipolar, not schizophrenic. They started her on a medication used to treat the extreme highs and lows of the disorder. Doctors also treated her for posttraumatic stress.
In therapy, Becker learned coping skills and ways to recognize her mood triggers: feeling rushed, addictive impulses, frustration. She replaced negative thoughts with drawing, reading and exercising. She opened up to counselors.
"I talked to them about my mom a lot," she says. "I cried about it a lot and I started letting that go. I became a stronger woman, in mind and body."
Becker gave birth to Kemiah while in custody at Dual Diagnosis. Within days, the baby went to live with Becker's aunt. Becker says she took comfort in photos and visits until her release in April 2009, when the court granted her supervised visitations.
If she completed her assigned case plan, which included a medication regimen, counseling, parenting classes and probation requirements, she could petition for full custody.
• • •
Coming back into society, Becker knew some saw her as unfit to parent. She questioned herself sometimes, too. She had to take her medication. She had to cope with her fear of failing to stay well.
But Becker says she believed she could become a good mom. The medical community agrees.
"It is not uncommon for bipolar patients to succeed as parents," says Dr. Rahul Mehra, director of the Mental Health Care Center in Tampa, where Becker received outpatient counseling.
Mehra, who does not treat Becker, says medication and treatment are essential to maintain the stability necessary to parent. Becker's success, he says, is a testament to her personal strength.
For Becker, rebuilding a relationship with her family was as important as treatment. She reached out to her dad and to Mikey. Both forgave her. Uncle Mikey comes over to play with the girls sometimes.
"It took some time," her father, Shane Rupple, said. "But the past is in the past."
Becker also reunited with her high school boyfriend Robby, who maintained a friendship with her throughout her ordeal. In April 2010, they married at the courthouse. They moved into Robby's grandparents home in Carrollwood. Their daughter, Layla, was born in the fall.
Becker welcomed the sleepless nights caring for her new baby. She was relieved the state didn't try to take her away, even temporarily.
Last November, she gained full custody of Kemiah.
• • •
Relaxing after breakfast, Becker colors with her girls.
"My mom was an artist," she says, motioning for Kemiah to sit with her on the floor amid paper and markers.
Becker wanted to go to art school but couldn't afford the tuition. She recently got a part-time job as a receptionist. Her husband watches the girls when she works and plans to adopt Kemiah.
Becker aspires to work as a make-up artist. Robby doesn't yet know what he wants to do. They are still young, she says, and lucky to have family to lean on.
Becker says she is not afraid for herself anymore. Despite the potential for setbacks, she says she plans to keep improving, and not to look back. She worries for her daughters, though. That one day, they will start to feel sad inside. That they, too, will wrestle the monster that is bipolar disorder.
If it happens, she says she'll do what her mother didn't do. She'll remind them "there are reasons to be happy."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.