Life in the Spotlight With Bipolar Disorder
Actress and playwright Victoria Maxwell took her bipolar story on the road to educate and inspire others about mental illness.
By Regina Boyle Wheeler
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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As a young adult in the 1990s, actress Victoria Maxwell, now 48, was living her dream of working with A-listers like Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street and John Travolta in Look Who's Talking Too. But soon bipolar disorder would turn her world upside down. What she never could have predicted, though, was that acting and bipolar disorder would cross paths years later and lead her to an unexpected but fulfilling new calling in life.
Maxwell, of Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia, is one of about 35,000 Canadians with bipolar disorder, according to the . In the United States, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance estimates that there are nearly 6 million people with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder causes extreme mood swings, from huge highs called mania to the extreme lows of depression. During mania, a person with bipolar disorder may feel so invincible that he may make risky decisions. He may have hallucinations or delusions. Depression can leave a person feeling worthless and possibly suicidal. These mood extremes can last for hours, days, weeks, or even months.
Victoria Maxwell’s Bipolar Story
Maxwell’s life started unraveling when she was in her mid-20s. Depressed and doing poorly at acting auditions, she went looking for spiritual help. The levee broke during an intensive three-day meditation retreat that Maxwell admits she wasn’t prepared for. She describes it as the perfect storm because she was under a lot of financial and emotional duress and a newbie at meditation.
Although she enjoyed the meditation itself and gained a lot of spiritual insight, Maxwell also began seeing and hearing things that weren’t there. “I was running around parking lots, yelling at the top of my lungs that I was God,” she says. Her father committed her to a psychiatric hospital, where she was diagnosed with stress-related psychosis. She was stable after about six weeks and released.
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But over the next few years, she was in and out of the hospital because of psychotic experiences and manic behaviors. “I was drinking more than I usually would and making really poor choices,” she admits. A real eye-opener came when she ran down the street naked, thinking she was about to meet God. “I met the police and the ambulance drivers instead,” she recalls.
Even after she was properly diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder 1, epilepsy, and generalized anxiety, Maxwell fought the diagnosis for years and refused treatment. Most of the psychiatrists she encountered said her spiritual awakenings were part of the mental illness — something she didn’t believe. The doctors urged her to stop meditation.
The epiphany came one day in the hospital when a nurse tried to give her medication. Maxwell refused, explaining her struggles reconciling spirituality and mental illness. The nurse said, “Well, sometimes when you touch that limitless part of yourself, it can be overwhelming.” That statement opened a conversation that helped Maxwell realize she could have her spiritual beliefs and still be treated. She started medication and began psychotherapy with a psychiatrist the nurse recommended.
Modern therapy can help prevent mood swings in a person with bipolar disorder, reducing them by 50 percent, says Chris Aiken, MD, an instructor in clinical psychiatry at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Treatment Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “A good therapist can help you modify your lifestyle, repair the damage that bipolar brought to your relationships, and, most importantly, find yourself again,” he says.
The combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy put Maxwell on the road to recovery.
Taking Bipolar Disorder on the Road
Maxwell started an office job once she was stable enough to work, but she craved a more creative outlet. So she started writing vignettes about what it’s like to be a person with bipolar disorder. One thing led to another, and her vignettes blossomed into a poignant yet funny one-woman show called Crazy for Life.
That was more than 10 years ago. Today she performs four one-woman shows as part of mental health workshops in the United States and Canada that inspire and educate people with and without mental illness.
Maxwell considers herself in recovery and stays healthy by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and keeping up with medications and therapy.
She wants others to know that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about if they have a mental illness and encourages them to get help.
“It takes far more courage and bravery to reach out for help in our society than it does to pretend and try to deal with it on our own,” Maxwell says.
Video: THE DAY MY LIFE CHANGED: MY FIRST BIPOLAR MANIC EPISODE
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