By Laura Stovel
Imagine your worst fear. Now imagine what it would be like to go through that terrible experience and come out the other side as a stronger, more confident, more self-aware and more creative person.
That’s exactly what happened to comedian Victoria Maxwell. “I’ve gone crazy,” she said. “The fear of running down the street naked in a psychotic episode: I’ve done that. So everything else doesn’t seem so bad. I can deal with poverty, or divorce or argument or death. I climbed a mountain and I fell off a mountain and I survived.”
Maxwell, who lives with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, will be performing at the Revelstoke Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm on Tuesday, September 22. Her comedy performance is sponsored by WCG Services, the company that jointly runs Work BC in Revelstoke. The event corresponds with the Province of BC’s Disability Employment Month.
“WCG Services is hosting tonight’s performance as our way of celebrating and raising awareness about the potential for people with disabilities in the workforce,” said Work BC manager, Otti Brown. “I, personally, have been inspired and touched by Victoria’s energy and performance. This is a dream for me to get her here to Revelstoke.”
Maxwell’s story is one of fear, denial, reaching a low point, then coming to terms with mental illness and coming out stronger and much more self-aware. “People with mental illness are some of the most resilient people, sometimes with the biggest sense of humour, the best insight and the best bullshit detectors. A lot of times that’s because we’ve been marginalized,” she said.
Her own struggle dates back to when she was a teenager experiencing anxiety and depression. At 17 and throughout university she battled an eating disorder in which she was binging, restricting her diet and obsessively exercising. “It was a way of distracting myself from how I was really feeling,” she said.
After university she entered “the real world of acting,” taking roles in films and TV, working with David Duchovny, Johnny Depp and John Travolta. But the experiences of rejection and instability of an actor’s life exacerbated her depression.
She began to explore alternatives to going to a psychiatrist, including meditation. On her first meditation retreat she first experienced psychosis at the age of 24. “I had no preparation. I had never done meditation or yoga or anything like this. This is not to say that meditation causes mental illness. It’s quite the opposite. I think it can really help. But because of my already existing depression, and lack of sleep, I went into a psychosis.”
During the retreat, Maxwell started “having delusions. Seeing things. Hearing things. And it was also intertwined with some really profound spiritual insights. It was a really complex mix of psychotic features and liberating insights, so I ended up going home and that night I escalated into a more severe psychosis.”
Maxwell was taken to the hospital and was diagnosed with brief, reactive psychosis. The psychiatrist gave her medication but because of her spiritual experience she didn’t believe she had a mental illness.
“I didn’t accept treatment at all. And part of it was that no one asked me about the important aspects of what I went through. They pathologized my entire experience. So I didn’t feel that I had a partner in recovery. I resisted for five years,” she said.
“I would have liked them to ask me – and this went against traditional treatment – ‘what was it in the psychosis that was so important’ or ‘why don’t you want to call it a psychosis? What do you believe happened?’ I really felt there had to be a choice between a spiritual awakening and a mental illness and I don’t know about you but a spiritual awakening seems a heck of a lot sexier than a mental illness. And so my life kept unravelling.”
Even when she ran down the street naked, in Point Grey, Vancouver, “looking for God” she didn’t accept her mental illness.
Maxwell’s life turned around when she found someone who really listened to her and didn’t force her to choose between her spiritual experience and needing medical help. After a psychotic episode, a nurse listened to her story of spiritual awakening and said, “You know, when you touch that limitless part of yourself in meditation it can be overwhelming.”
“In that short couple of sentences it made me feel that she understood what I had gone through,” Maxwell said, “yet she wasn’t eliminating the possibility that I could have a mental illness as well. And I felt that she empathised. She really, really empathized and understood my dilemma and so I confided in her. I asked her if she knew a psychiatrist who would be as open as she was.”
Maxwell was referred to a psychiatrist, a former Beatik in the ‘60s, who understood her experience. “He was really, really old, with white hair and a little Mr. Roger’s cardigan and I thought ‘He’s never going to get this.’ But after I told him what happened, he said, ‘Wow, it sounds like you really went into an altered state.’”
“It was the first time where someone hadn’t said, ‘We don’t want you to meditate. We don’t want you to go down that path again,’”
With the support of her doctor and family, Maxwell began the difficult but rewarding process of recovery.
Part of the challenge was finding the right medication. Maxwell’s mother had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and lithium had worked for her so that was prescribed for Maxwell. “I felt like a walking piece of chalk. I felt that I was behind a glass wall. I couldn’t see well, couldn’t feel well. So I said, ‘I’m not in the hospital with psychosis but this isn’t living.’”
With her father’s encouragement and help, she advocated for different medications. At first she thought “That’s as good as it was going to get,” but her father recognized her continued depression and said, “’There’s got to be something better.’ He encouraged me to advocate for my well-being. I think that’s what we have to do for anyone, regardless of age or severity of symptoms.”
With the right medication, Maxwell could focus on understanding her situation and developing the skills and insights to work with it. “The medication gives me a basis and a foundation so I can do more of the emotional work. It gives me stability. It’s like being on a boat. If you’re trying to make a delicate dish while the boat is swaying, it’s very difficult.”
Therapy went hand in hand with medication. “Someone who has medication, their symptoms might diminish but I needed the life skills,” she said. “I needed skills to have good interpersonal relationships. I needed to understand what my triggers were. What are my warning signs? What am I going to do if I start going into an episode?” Through peer support she began to learn how to “become responsible for (her) own wellness.”
“Sometimes that comes with time because I didn’t know what my triggers were initially because I kept feeling that I was being blind-sided by depression or mania or psychosis,” she said. “And also my point of reference was depression and anxiety. I didn’t know how to feel any other way. When I started to feel well, I kept asking ‘What is this feeling?’”
People in a state of mania can feel very creative. When asked whether medication took away from her creativity, Maxwell responded that they do not. “What I found was that when I was in a hypomania especially, the precursor to mania, I can be very productive and my ideas can be very creative and of good quality,” she said. “That doesn’t last very long. And then when I’m in mania I think I’m creative and I think my ideas are great but they’re usually really, really bad.”
“Research has found that when people with bipolar are on the right medication the quality and output of their creativity is increased. I’ve noticed that I sustain my creative energy longer, the work that I do is better, and I’m not burning bridges. So the medication I’m on doesn’t feel like it takes something away. It actually makes me feel like it helps me bring out who I am,” she said.
Maxwell now works as a popular keynote speaker and comedian. She feels that comedy helps people feel more “comfortable with uncomfortable topics. It breaks the ice. Sometimes people don’t know whether to laugh at some of my jokes. I hope that people don’t feel that they have to be politically correct around me.”
The show will be followed by a question and answer period. Service providers, including the Canadian Mental Health Association, will be available after the performance to chat with people about the supports and services that are available for people with disabilities and mental health concerns.