Profile in Brave: Actress Victoria Maxwell talks on the intersection between spirituality and mental illness

Courtesy of Victoria Maxwell

“I went into a blissful state with powerful insights which led to a florid psychosis,” she said. “But the medical system pathologized the entire experience and didn’t give me space to tell them about the beginning part which was personally profound.”

Victoria Maxwell

Canadian actress Victoria Maxwell was quite the accomplished actress in the nineties acting and producing such films and television series as 21 Jump Street, the X-Files, MacGyver, Spin the Bottle, and acting alongside David Duchovney, John Travolta, and Johnny Depp. 

At 25, her life and career took another twist when she had a psychosis brought on by a meditation retreat, and was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

One time during a mania she ran naked through the streets, and now she’s sharing her story to help others feel they are not alone. She began writing and performing skits for a Canadian disability arts festival on her story. And now, created a career speaking and performing these short plays to audiences around the world. 

She calls herself the Bipolar Princess, which is coming full-circle to where she was twenty-five years ago cycling in and out of hospitals in denial of her illness. She turned her illness into her superpower using her skills as an actress to guide her. She doesn’t do television and film acting anymore due to the stress of rejection and financial instability of the career. 

Her short one-woman performances include Crazy for Life and Funny You don’t look crazy, a performance about working with mental illness. These are available for viewing on her web site for purchase but you can also find a trailer for Crazy for Life on Youtube

Her trip through insanity began at a meditation retreat. She had never done any yoga or meditation so her body and mind were quite unprepared for the insights she would receive. 

“I went into a blissful state with powerful insights which led to a florid psychosis,” she said. “But the medical system pathologized the entire experience and didn’t give me space to tell them about the beginning part which was personally profound.”

For this reason, she refused to accept her illness and cycled back through the hospital system frightened that this would be her life.

She finally found a psychiatrist who helped her see that she could have a spiritual experience and still have a mental illness. She was lucky to find this man. In Canada, due to universal healthcare, psychiatrist fees are covered but there is a waiting list oftentimes and not as much choice in who you see. 

“This was the first time I trusted a psychiatrist who said I didn’t have to let go of insights into meditation but could also take care of my mental health needs.”

Her psychiatrist happened to be a beatnik from the sixties. He told her it sounded like her experience was an altered state. He didn’t lump it in with being negative. 

“I was still experiencing a lot of depression and anxiety. He invited me to see if medication works and how it affects you and we’ll go from there. This was quite pivotal for me.”

Medication did work for her. Although, she’s had to play with the dosages over the years. Now at 55, menopause plays a role in her moods too. 

She describes her insights from meditation the way Maslov described peak experiences. There’s a separation from the ego and you feel one with the universe. She saw her own identity as I am not my thoughts, feelings and mind. 

She believes she had the psychosis because “I hadn’t created enough space in my psychic container. I hadn’t done any yoga or meditation before so it was impossible to hold these insights and sustain them.” 

Also, trauma from her childhood started to come up. Maxwell grew up an only child in a home where both parents had mental illness. Her father undiagnosed and her mother was diagnosed bipolar and got little help. 

Today, she meditates daily but she has to titrate her spirituality into small steps instead of great fireworks displays. Meditation for her is learning to be present in her body, watching her breath and scanning her body. 

“Sometimes when trauma and anxiety are triggered, meditation can make me more agitated. Sitting meditation is unhelpful then. Sometimes I need to be physical and not just sit on a cushion watching my breath stewing in anxiety.”

During these times, she’ll go for a run, dance in her kitchen, walk outside or in the forest, or pet her dog.

Other things she does to cope with her anxiety and depression besides meditation are exercise, chi gong like tai chi, talk therapy, Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), accepting her situation and knowing what her values are and taking the next right action. 

She values her work that allows her to be of service, friendship she makes sure to reach out to people, and making sure she has self-compassion, which is sometimes the hardest thing for her. She has to give herself a lot of kindness. 

“Sometimes my inner critic is mean to me,” she said. She sometimes feels she is doing something wrong to be feeling like this. Then, she remembers it is just an illness.

Her bipolar and trauma feed each other. “Trauma can affect my body chemistry and because I have a susceptibility to mood and energy shifts it can feed off each other if I have a trauma reaction.”

“It’s easy to dissociate then to be safe and present in my body,” she said. “It’s like peeling the onion. We learn so much about ourselves and then there is another layer.”

An apt metaphor for someone who fancies herself a lacoto-ovo vegetarian and is always trying to vegetarian recipes. 

“I feel the more I do, the more I remember who I am.”

Healing from trauma puts us in survival mode and we don’t have the luxury of hobbies. Maxwell gets to be introduced to what she likes and doesn’t every day. 

She’s becoming avid about sewing on her 1960s Singer sewing machine. Her next project is a pair of pajama pants.

In her job as a writer, speaker and performer, she understands her limitations and with self-care skills has figured out how to transcend them. She sticks to the things she’s good at and doesn’t try to be someone she’s not.

In early recovery, she worked a 9-5 office job. It was helpful for the stability and structure but she craved to be more creative. This is when she wrote a few scenes about her psychosis and read them to the disability arts festival. Over the years, she kept doing this and it blossomed into the career she has today.

She writes skits for CRESTBD, a Canadian research team, who studies the psychosocial and quality of life issues in bipolar disorder. They commissioned her to write her experiences with stigma and perform them to audiences. The research proved that narrative theatre reduces stigma and discrimination. I told her about the This is My Brave organization in America which uses theatrics and storytelling to do the same thing. 

She is also working with the Canadian health authority to tell the stories of people with dual diagnosis who have experienced the criminal justice system in three animated videos. This is a three-year project. She’ll be posting the videos on her web site soon.

Today she blogs for Psychology Today, BPHope.com and others, and writes plays and keynotes on her story with mental illness to inspire and educate others. She has won 14 awards including the Entertainment Industrial Council PRISM Award, SAMHSA Voice Award, best foreign stage play at Moondance Film festival, and she’s one of the top ten entertainers with disabilities. You can find her at www.victoriamaxwell.com.

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