BY BILL McKELWAY
Richmond Times-Dispatch

530dd892e1ecc.preview-300For a good while, James Gibson was a second-generation firefighter, a young man with pride in his heart while following in his father’s footsteps. He joined the fire department when he was just 17.

But there was also the smoldering ember of mental illness in his mind. It erupted eight years ago.

“At first, it was just trouble handling some subjects in school,” said Gibson, now 30. “There were only certain things I liked. I just couldn’t handle class work that much.” On Tuesday, dressed in a crisp suit and perfectly knotted tie and fighting off a nervousness that dried his mouth and trapped his breath, Gibson tried to convey what it’s like when you are losing your mind.

His audience was a group of Chesterfield County police officers engaged in crisis intervention training for the seemingly never-ending conflict on the streets between enforcing the law and dealingwith mentally ill people.

Gibson, who grew up in Northern Virginia, is a resident now at Gateway Homes Inc. in southern Chesterfield County, one of the state’s most successful residential facilities for people with mental illness. Hospitalized for about four years at Western State Hospital in Staunton, Gibson has been at Gateway for almost a year.

Police officers across Virginia have had access to crisis intervention training for decades, but the process is taking on a role of greater significance as mental patients are being transferred into community settings. There is also the gnawing reality of mass shootings by mentally troubled gunmen: Virginia Tech in 2007; Aurora, Colo., in 2012; Newtown, Conn., in 2012; and Columbine, Colo., in 1999.

“We want to stress that the level of violence among the mentally ill is no greater than among the general population,” said Lynda Hyatt, Gateway’s executive director and a longtime caseworker and administrator dealing with mental health issues in central Virginia. Chesterfield officers involved with CIT training have visited psychiatric wards in state and private hospitals and talked to mental health care providers, but the opportunity to talk with Gibson was a rarity.

Most police forces deal with simulated examples of what a mentally ill person endures. For Gibson, the opportunity presented a test of his own ability to examine his troubled life from the perspective of someone fighting for mental health and the possibility of a return to a less-sheltered life.

He talks the talk, both as a fireman and as someone fighting the mood swings of bipolar disease and the dissembling thought processes of schizoaffective disorder. “I knew everything on the pumper from where the three-eighths-inch wrench was in the cab to everything else to the rear bumper,” he said. He can talk about 2½-inch hose lines, trash lines, straight streams and fog nozzles, and how to ventilate smoke with water streams. Now he paints and does intricate pencil drawings; model trains are a passion. “Someday I want to own a hobby shop; I want to build train sets,” he told the officers. “When that will happen, I don’t know.”

He loves trips into Richmond, seeing the rail yards and trains rumbling between lanes on the Powhite Parkway. He keeps a picture of the triple crossing in Shockoe Bottom in his room. Gibson recounted to his audience his passion for public service and the thrill of being a firefighter. What he wasn’t prepared to handle was death.

In Prince William County, a fire call sent him rushing into a flaming home only to be stopped by the sight of two victims, one totally consumed, the other showing traits reminiscent of a store mannequin. “I froze,” Gibson, who has post-traumatic stress disorder from the incident, told the officers.

That night, fellow firefighters secretly placed a mannequin in his bed, Gibson said. “Later my dad would tell me you just got to suck it up, move past it. But I couldn’t.” “I see it now as a sort of hazing thing. Something that they thought maybe would help me get past things. But I couldn’t.”

Soon, the voices came screaming inside his head but “so close like they were right by my ears,” he told the officers. “I couldn’t take it. I didn’t know when it would start or stop.”

A few times during his talk, Gibson apologized for losing his train of thought. He pulled out his iPhone, offering to show his intricate artwork.

But he pressed on and recalled the day in Winchester when he tried to steal a fire engine. He doesn’t know why. But the voices were there. The screaming.

There were officers, too, that day, who recognized him as a troubled young man. He was sent to Western State Hospital instead of jail.

“I was there a lot of years,” he said. A prohibition on smoking drove the price of contraband cigarettes to more than a dollar each, he said.

He said he understands the plight of police officers, especially when they encounter an armed person. “Your own safety comes first,” he said. “Take ’em to the ground and do your thing.”

But he urged them to understand the years it takes to find the right regimen of medications to “control the hallucinations, the delusions, the anxiousness. I turn little things into big things.”

He stops the shaking that happens from the medicines by putting a weight on his forearm so he can do his drawings. The weight steadies his hand. There is no hope of ever returning to firefighting. “I miss the hell out of it. But it’s over. I’m done,” Gibson said. His mother and father have stayed in touch. “We talk every day.”

Chesterfield police Capt. Brad Badgerow said that Gibson’s account is “something our officers need to hear. It’s a perspective that’s important for them to hear to do their jobs.”

“I think I did OK,” Gibson said. “Did I do OK?”