01:29 - Source: CNN
Actress uses comedy to fight bipolar disorder stigma

Story highlights

Victoria Maxwell had her first psychotic episode when she was 25 years old

Maxwell was committed to a hospital five times before accepting her bipolar diagnosis

Her one-woman shows shed light on living with mental illness

(CNN) —  

Victoria Maxwell had her first psychotic episode, ironically enough, after attending a meditation retreat.

“I wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping – there was financial stress, interpersonal things. It was like this perfect storm, and I went into a psychosis,” she recalls.

She says she was “screaming at the top of my lungs with my 61-year-old Dad chasing me, I was yelling, ‘I’m Sam Kinison.’ I was running around a parking lot. ‘I’m Meryl Streep!’ “

Little did Maxwell know that her breakdown would become material for her one-woman shows more than 20 years later.

Her shows seek to educate audiences about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder, a mood ailment marked by periods of mania, depression and extreme changes in behavior that affects nearly 6 million Americans.

Victoria has bipolar I, the more severe form of the illness that includes hallucinations.

A confessional about living with bipolar disorder

Speaking to an audience that includes families of those living with mental illness, Maxwell describes what happened when her father, scared out of his mind, drove her to the emergency room after that first breakdown.

“I end up lying face down on a gurney. Left wrist locked, leather cuff. Right wrist locked, leather cuff. And my butt, cold as arctic ice, hanging out of what must be the most humiliating piece of clothing ever made, the backless, green hospital gown.”

Victoria Maxwell, left, with a friend in 1991 two months before her first psychosis.
PHOTO: Victoria Maxwell
Victoria Maxwell, left, with a friend in 1991 two months before her first psychosis.

The audience chuckles.

The 49-year-old is a natural entertainer. As an actress, she worked with David Duchovny in “The X-Files,” John Travolta in “Look Who’s Talking Too” and Johnny Depp in “21 Jump Street.”

But acting would take a toll on her.

“My auditions got worse, I wasn’t able to focus well. I was never psychotic in an audition but certainly really depressed,” Maxwell recalls.

The native of Vancouver, British Columbia, ended up a hospital psych ward five times, the first time when she was 25.

What started out in college as binging and compulsively exercising turned into monthlong bouts of depression.

“Catch the crazy woman!”

Maxwell shares, “more and more when I would wake up, it would be just really, really dark thoughts like ‘What’s the point of life? Why am I here?’ “

Then it got worse. She began to have hallucinations. At one point, she imagined warplanes were rumbling overhead.

Another time, Maxwell ran down a street naked and, in her words, “looking for God.”

Despite her experiences, she still wouldn’t accept treatment for her bipolar diagnosis, fearing a stigma that was reinforced during one psychosis when a nurse yelled, “Catch the crazy woman!”

“One of the things that I think I would want people to know: Just because I am floridly psychotic, I’m still a human being,” says Maxwell.

It wasn’t until her last hospitalization that she was willing to admit she had a mental illness. A nurse gave her the respect she was seeking and recommended a psychiatrist.

“In order to function really well, I need medicine”

The doctor “was a beatnik in the ‘60s,” Maxwell recalls. “There was immediately some rapport … and that’s when I decided I could agree to work with what I saw as the medical system that I had resisted for so long.”

Victoria Maxwell and her husband near their home in Vancouver, British Columbia.
PHOTO: Victoria Maxwell
Victoria Maxwell and her husband near their home in Vancouver, British Columbia.

After two and a half years of weekly therapy, the two, working together, found a medication and a dosage that worked.

It changed Maxwell’s life.

“There’s a big stigma about being on psychiatric drugs, that somehow, it’s like, because I can’t cope I’m on medication. And no, it’s because I have a certain kind of system and in order to function really well, I need medicine,” she says.

Her life stabilized. She and her therapist agreed that acting’s instability – the odd hours, stressful auditions and uncertain paycheck – was not good for her. It’s widely accepted that people with bipolar disorder do best when they have routines. Maxwell took what she calls a “boring” office job and got even better.

“Escapades of a Bipolar Princess”

As fate would have it, Maxwell came across a flier in 2001 advertising a disability festival. She wrote up a monologue. It was a hit.

“Part of me knew that I had good copy. … I’m gonna milk it for everything that it’s worth,” she muses.

Today, she performs her critically acclaimed shows “That’s Just Crazy Talk” and “Crazy for Life” throughout North America for families dealing with mental illness and health professionals. She even won the Moondance International Film Festival’s award for best foreign stage play.

Maxwell also gives workshops to corporations trying to understand what it’s like for employees with bipolar disorder and writes a regular blog for Psychology Today called “Escapades of a Bipolar Princess.”

In 2009, she was named one of British Columbia’s Top Ten Entrepreneurs with Disabilities.

Victoria Maxwell hugs a supporter after her speech to the Collier County, Florida, chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
PHOTO: Amy Chillag/CNN
Victoria Maxwell hugs a supporter after her speech to the Collier County, Florida, chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In December, Maxwell gave the keynote speech for the National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter in Naples, Florida.

Gathered were families of those with mental illness and supporters.

“I wish my parents could’ve been here to hear that, and I wish everyone could hear how it truly feels to live with mental illness,” said Mary Campbell, a board member with NAMI of Collier County.

“The stigma of mental illness was just so demoralizing at the time when I was diagnosed that I couldn’t come out. I couldn’t really seek the treatment I needed. It just took a lot of self-advocacy,” Campbell says.

She adds, “Until more people are more vocal about what it is, there’s always going to be that stigma. I think it’s just education and awareness.”

Maxwell says she hasn’t had a psychotic episode in 20 years. She still sees a therapist and takes two drugs every day: an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer.

“I need to be around people that care about me and I care about them,” she says.

She has a message for those who hesitate to seek help:

“There’s a reason people feel shame. It’s because it’s still in our society. There is judgment, there is discrimination. It has changed a lot, but if we recognize it for what it is: mental illness is a condition, it’s learning to manage it.”

Maxwell’s face brightens.

“To me, it’s about really rediscovering joy in your life. And a lot of people don’t ever find that chance, even if they don’t have a mental illness.”

For more information on bipolar disorder, you can go to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.