As my husband and I move past the 40-day mark of staying at home due to COVID-19 (egad!), I thought another excerpt from my ‘work-in-progress’ memoir might be a nice diversion. Not much context is needed for this. Gentle feedback welcome. Email me at victoria@victoriamaxwell.com or leave a comment. Happy reading!


For years I tried to manage without help from the medical system. I put up all the clichéd roadblocks: I don’t trust big pharma. Doctors just want to push their agenda, their pills. I don’t have mental illness. I didn’t have psychotic episodes. I had spiritual awakenings. I don’t like the labels. I don’t want the drugs. I want to treat it, heal it the ‘natural’ way. Read: the ‘healthy’, morally superior, spiritually evolved way.

I tried everything from colour therapy, primal therapy, aromatherapy, psychotherapy (you gotta wonder why they call it “psycho”-therapy – pretty insulting if you ask me), astrology, numerology, reiki and pranic healing. I saw channelers, tarot card readers, psychics. I studied A Course in Miracles, the Alcoholics Anonymous’ big book. I went to halfway houses, support groups, 1-day workshops, weekend retreats. Did muscle testing, moving meditation, insight meditation. Got acupuncture, shiatsu, massage. Took flower remedies, Chinese herbs; did affirmations, journaling, morning pages, automatic writing, body work, dream work, aura cleansing, aura reading, chakra balancing, chakra clearing. Joined AA, OA, OY-VEY.

 You name it. If it was New Age, Self-“Yelp” or somewhere on the shelves of Banyan Books (Vancouver’s oldest new-age bookstore), I had read it, paid for it, trained in it, practiced it, meditated over it, ingested it, sniffed it, got fleeced by it. And none of it, not really, super down deep, was enough to keep me well.

 My last resort? Enlightenment. See, I thought if I got enlightened, I wouldn’t feel depressed anymore. I wouldn’t feel anything anymore.

I have more trouble telling you I went to India to visit a guru to get enlightened than I do admitting I ran down the street naked in a euphoric psychotic episode and ended up in the psych ward. 4 times.

I don’t know why. Maybe because the perfectionistic overachiever that I am, is ashamed I failed to reach my goal. I am definitely not enlightened. Maybe because mental illness is common. Enlightenment not so much, and what’s the point of it, really? It’s not like being enlightened is practical or even attainable. Mental illness however, now THAT’S attainable. Though mental illness isn’t all that practical either. Practically fatal, perhaps.

Spiritual searching (more like lurching in my case) is…embarrassing.  My fervent hunt for enlightenment revealed my desperation. Granted, it kept hope alive and as a result, it kept me alive.

Depression led me to question everything. Like paint thinner, depression denatures our lives of purpose and point. Living with dramatic despair and mangy meaninglessness, I spiraled into an existential crisis. Over and over and OVER again, I was caught in an Escher-like maze of questions: “What is God? Why are we here? What’s the meaning of it all?”

On a cloudy North Vancouver day, my dad sat beside me on my springy mattress in my bedroom. Both of us looking at the floor, him shaking his head as I rattled off those questions that ricocheted between my temples. With that furrowed brow of his, he sighed and grunted “Man has been asking those questions from the beginning of time. If you keep that up, you’ll go crazy.” More prophetic than either of us knew.

Instead of focusing on a traditional way of combating my malaise by going to my doctor, treating the symptoms or continuing with counseling, I assumed if I discovered the meaning of life, I’d be fine! Enlightenment, the end of suffering, the Buddha said. What’s not to love? Those contemporary gurus seem pretty chill too, right?  The Dalai Lama is pretty much always giggling. Eckhart Tolle – though a bit creepy in an elfish kind of way – seems fairly content. Thich Nhat Hanh – now that dude is laid back. Pema Chodron? My rock star. She exudes equanimity while also readily embracing her messy humanity. I put all my energy into seeking the answers to life. Because that was the real root cause of my suffering. Not this thing called mental illness.

The new age movement says the psychoses I experienced were spiritual emergencies and awakenings. I didn’t need to ‘resort to’ medication or medical treatment to heal. The medical system has one perspective: mental illness is a disease; a complex interplay of genes and environment. I hadn’t experienced God. 

It’s a blessing OR a curse. I was caught in a psychiatric “Sophie’s Choice”. Choose the spiritual perspective: suffer. Choose the medical perspective: suffer. But over the course of 25 years since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve discovered, it’s not that clear cut. It never is.

Maybe I have a hard time telling you I went to India to sit with a guru and “wake up” because I think my seeking actually led me into the foul spiral of mental collapse. Maybe. Just maybe – I feel like I’m to blame for bringing my mental illness on myself. Or that I failed myself. If I had just been more grounded, more prepared, that massive burst of energy that coursed through my body on that particular evening in a meditation room wouldn’t have resulted in me believing that I saw my own grave and that I could drive my car with my thoughts. Maybe just maybe I’m disappointed in myself. That somehow, I could have harnessed that moment into permanent liberation, instead of plummeting me into a fight for my vision of spirituality and for my mental health.

Does mental illness and spiritual experiences have to be mutually exclusive? That’s what I felt the medical system was telling me. That’s what I thought my spiritual community was telling me. It was one or the other. But I needed it to be both. Both. For me to stay alive, I needed to find a way to be spiritual and crazy.

To be continued…

© Victoria Maxwell



I’m struggling a bit right now with anxiety and depression. So I’m practicing what I preach. I’m being as kind to myself as I can and simplifying what I need to do. Instead of writing a full blog post and long newsletter, I’m sending out this mini-mental health memo to you.

A cute animal video. For your viewing pleasure, here’s Justin (baby) Beaver.

One of my tactics when I’m in this uncomfortable place is to watch cute animal videos as therapy. And guess what? It really is therapeutic. Scientific studies show watching cute videos is good for our brain and mood. We release all sorts of feel good chemicals when we see something cute – we’re wired to positively respond to cuteness. 

So go ahead, click on a couple or five. No need for guilt. Watching cute videos is scientifically proven to raise mood! Read this CBC article to learn how it happens.

I hope Justin Beaver brings a moment of joy to your day. Be kind to yourself my friends.

© Victoria Maxwell


I love this initiative. Rob Osman from Bristol in the UK, who has struggled with social anxiety and depression, created a dog walking group for guys to gab about their feelings and struggles (if they so choose). He did so after he found walking his dog, Mali, was such a huge help for his own mental health. 

For anyone, but for men especially, ‘let’s go for a walk’ is so much more appealing than ‘let’s have a talk’. 

Dudes & Dogs Walk & Talk he calls it. Don’t you just love that? 

The program is there to make it easier for men to talk or, even just to join in and go for a walk with another dude and a dog. No pressure or requirement to say a thing.

In a Somerset Live interview, Rob Osman says “”It [walking a dog] is a good way (for people to relax and drop their barriers) because you do not have to look at each other in the eye and are in an open space.”

I talk about how to create an encouraging space for folks to talk in my most recently developed “keyshop” (combo of a keynote and workshop) Creating Comfortable Mental Health Conversations at Work

When you’re talking to someone about a potentially delicate issue (like mental health, or simply feelings), you want the individual to feel safe. You don’t want them to feel cornered (as in a hallway) or too exposed (in view of co-workers in the break room) or threatened or defensive (like sitting across a table or a desk even).

I suggest the very initial ‘how are you doing?’ questions happen while casually walking through the parking lot away from others. Strolling from one job site to another is another good place to start a conversation. 

Osman continues: “It is at their pace and there is no expectation for them to have to talk – it could be that they just listen the first few times.” 

Men and women relate and express their feelings in very different ways and environments. We women sit across from each other, looking supportively into each other’s eyes, drinking tea or coffee and talk, and talk and TALK. 

I can call a girlfriend who I will be seeing that same night, talk on the phone for an hour or more during the day, and still have things to say to her in the evening. My husband just shakes his head and wonders how on earth could we have so much to say to each other. That’s women for ya.

Men on the other hand, so I’ve been told, open up when they are side-by-side doing things together. None of this eye contact kind of stuff. They watch ‘the game’, sit around a fire, go for a hike, or as Osman knows, go walking with a dog. Then talking flows from the activity.

We need our men to talk. The stoic ‘I-can-tough-anything-out’ is killing them. 11 people die every day by suicide In Canada. Most of them are males. That doesn’t even capture the individuals who attempt it. 

We need to normalize talking and explore ways of sharing that’re comfortable so men are willing to participate. Having women suggest ways ain’t gonna fly too far. Role models are the best way to create change. Rob Osman is one of those who is pioneering new methods to get his brothers in arms to stop suffering in silence and instead get into nature, with dude and dog, and share some of the tough stuff. 

When men find healthy ways to express themselves and their struggles it positively impacts their families, their workplaces, and their communities. And THAT is something definitely worth talking about! 

© Victoria Maxwell


I’m writing a book. There, I said it. Not quite sure if it’s going to be a straight-up memoir. Perhaps titled, as someone joked, “Not Another Bipolar Memoir”. Or, the book might be a combination ‘memoir/personal-essay-with-action-tips” kinda book. Either way, as I write it, I’m going to, from time to time, share excerpts with you. I love the idea of having a friend like you (‘cause that’s how I think of you) getting a peek into what I’m thinking and what I’m writing. 

I don’t have a date set for the final draft, or a publisher (if I go that direction) in place. But as a valued reader, I value sharing these pieces with you. If you have thoughts about them, resources that might be helpful as I get closer to publication, people you think I should contact or just general cheerleading comments and encouragement – email them my way! 

This piece is pretty self-explanatory. If it’s not, then I need to do a major rewrite! Read on and hope you enjoy it.

Cute Guy in the Psych Ward

One month in on A2 at Lion’s Gate hospital – A2: the acute psychiatric ward. By the way, there is nothin’ cute about a psych ward.  I’m following this blue line down the middle of the hospital hallway. It leads to the smoke ‘garden’. That’s where all the chain smokers hang out. I never smoked before until I got here, but the cute guy from room 17 lights up every 35 minutes. I won’t see him otherwise. I don’t think he knows I’m alive. I must be invisible. Oh, don’t ever say that to your doctor: ‘IN-VISIBLE’. Red flag phrase for psychiatrists.

Anyway, I’m in the smoke ‘garden’ wearing those regulation blue hospital PJs, sitting on one of those flimsy white plastic patio chairs.  One leg is shorter than the others, so I’m trying to find my balance and at the same time trying to be all flirty while I look at Sam. That’s his name, Sam, the cute guy (red hair, pulsing biceps) who undoubtedly has a girlfriend. I know his name because we’re all assigned orderlies for the day and it’s posted on a white board with our names listed under them. Wednesdays I’m with Liam. So is Sam. Isn’t that cute? We’re a couple without even trying. This is my manic hypersexual ‘super’ logic. 

“Can I have a light?”  I lean towards him, careful not to topple over. A silky hand carries his Bic lighter close to my mouth. I inhale, the flame flares and cigarette ignites. I cough. “Thanks.” And I cough again. Not quite the impression I wanted to make. 

Despite the giant hedge of fir trees running the circumference of the unit, the grass of the smoke garden and beyond is scorched. Rays of late afternoon summer sun lasers through the foliage onto the top of Sam’s head. His red hair lights up like sparkles in a snow globe. 

And then? Out of his mouth comes poetry, snippets from his therapy journal. His words make me think of tangerines and the smell of sandalwood. He says these things and I just laugh. Like a lunatic. NO. I mean really like a lunatic. And he looks at me like I’m crazy or something “‘cause,” as he tells me “it wasn’t supposed to be funny”. And there I am with my burning butt of a cigarette feeling like an idiot, a crazy woman, thinking about the tie-dyed sunsets of India. And then, guess what Sam does? He leans back, takes a drag of his cigarette and smiles.  For the next 5 minutes, we sit in comfortable quiet, staring at each other, waiting ‘til our smokes die.

© Victoria Maxwell

I’ve noticed perfectionism hits me hardest at work. Or maybe it’s just easier for me to recognize it in that area of my life. I procrastinate tasks because I’m scared I won’t do it ‘right’. I start getting sleepy, not because I’m tired, but because I’m avoiding a job responsibility I feel has to be done flawlessly. 

When perfectionism is running roughshod all over me and my (now) mushy mind, one way I manage it is by creating my own mantras. These little reminders help put things into perspective, pivot my thinking and reassure me the sky isn’t falling. They help me get out of my head and into perfectly imperfect action. I write them on sticky notes and plunk them all over my desk. 

My current, self-penned “progress-not-perfection” prompts are the following. See if any help kick your perfectionistic paralysis to the sidelines.

1.Don’t overthink it

Sometimes I find myself rewriting and rewriting and rewriting AND rewriting blog posts, emails, even text messages. This ‘don’t overthink it’ quip tells me I can take things less seriously and trust myself (and other people). I’ve learned I can send off that email more quickly, do only one or two revisions of my posts (yes, including THIS one!) and trust my texts don’t have to be eloquent or even intelligible (not for friends anyway). 

2. Good enough really IS good enough

Those of you who’ve been reading my posts, or following me for some time, know this is my touchstone. It’s a comforting and truthful mantra. It reiterates what I often forget: other people don’t care as much about the mistakes I make, most won’t care at all, some won’t even notice them. Good enough, helps me get to done. Voltaire and Confucius are considered cool cats for a reason. They both understood the importance of good old ‘enough-ness’. Voltaire said, “The best is the enemy of the good” and Confucius, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without”. Maybe it should be perfect is the enemy of done!?

3. What if… I let myself be happy? 

When I start to spin my wheels, or launch into a whirligig of negatives ‘what ifs’, I ask myself this: ‘what if… I let myself be happy?’. I think about this. Really think about it, just… letting myself be happy. Relaxing and letting myself trust I can do whatever is in front of me while letting go a bit. Whatever the task, I can experiment doing it without fear or worry. When I do this, I start to feel a little lighter, a little happier even. I also forget about why I should hang on to my white-knuckle control. Try it. It’s not a question we often ask ourselves. See what happens when you do. This little glimmer of happy helps me be more productive with less emphasis on doing things impeccably.  *Note: this isn’t when I’m in an arm wrestle with depression or acute anxiety – that needs a different approach and sometimes an appointment with my therapist or doctor.  

4. Leave it ugly. Let it be messy. 

I have a hang up about making documents look pretty. Documents that don’t need a design flair. Documents that don’t even get seen by the public. Like colour coordinating my brand colours in my on-line to do list I share with my virtual assistant, or neatly entering data just so with proper punctuation in my CRM. Yes, it looked nice. But it took me forever and to what end? I fretted over bolding titles, changing font colours instead of just getting the task done. It was a sneaky way to feel productive. Now I leave things ugly and let them be messy. 

5. Try it and see what happens

This one really took me a long time to really get in my bones. Indecision has been a comforting friend and way to avoid uncertainty in an ass-backward way. But the experimenting approach has brought the most fruit and a lot of relief. Indecision masked my fear of failure and belief that one wrong move would collapse my career. “Trying it” simple as it sounds, wasn’t exactly simple. Not for this ‘risk-adverse-need-a-guarantee-it’ll-all-turn-out-ok’ kinda girl.  I started by taking micro-sized healthy risks and seeing what the outcome was. Then gradually took on bigger and bigger ones. This is all relative. For example, first it was writing a cold sales email to a potential client. Then it was choosing to do a follow up phone call (egad!) to a client instead of another email. Instead of postponing my webinar again until I knew exactly what topic people wanted, I chose to do one that I was excited about and tried it out. 

These action steps might be easy for others but for me they were huge. Perfectionism is an insidious, heavy and often sneaky culprit. What were the outcomes? Phone calls were nerve racking but effective, and actually welcomed by some clients. The “Catalyst for Creativity and Courage”: Intro to Storytelling webinar was…well it WAS! It happened and was a success.  

With these aphorisms I experience less anxiety and self-criticism. They help me get my work done, get more done and get it done more easily. The momentum of caring less about perfection carries me to a place of completed good work rather than almost perfect but never done work. 

Now that is pretty perfect. Not that it needs to be. 

© Victoria Maxwell


I took several mental health days off this past week and will take one today, too. 

I didn’t even lie to my boss and say something like, “I think I’m coming down with a cold”. My boss is pretty understanding. I work for myself.

After a nudge from my lovely husband and gentle curiosity from my new psychiatrist, I gradually recognized what they already saw. That, yes, I’ve been depressed and I needed a bit of a break. I’m usually pretty good at knowing my warning signs, but this occasion, not so much. Sneaky little *bleep* — this depression beast. It still can do a doozie on me.

Taking time off and practicing self-care made me think. How can I take care of myself, but still honor my work responsibilities? I have emails to return; this blog post and a newsletter to write; clients to follow up with. I also need to keep it simple for myself and keep the pressure off.

Solution: pare down to only the essentials. There’s only one pressing email I need to return. Even while experiencing this brain fog and insecurity, I can manage one email. My client follow-ups aren’t set in stone. Waiting a day and a half won’t collapse my business. Refusing to rest and practice self-compassion just might. For my newsletter, missing my deadline will make me more anxious, meeting it will create some relief. I’ll make it easy and share a piece I wrote a while ago but never published. I won’t, on the other hand, set myself up for failure and attempt what currently feels like the herculean task of writing completely new content. It’s about kindness today.

To boot, this post I’m using is meant to bring some laughter. Another self-care tool I use.

If you’re feeling good, well this will hopefully just make your day that much brighter.

If you’re fighting the dynamite of depression like I am right now — I’m about two-thirds of the way out of the woods — well, I hope it does at least one of three things. It might, a) make you smile a teensy weensy bit, or b) distract you from any negative self-talk if only for a couple minutes (depending on how fast you read), and/or c) help to read something positive in nature as opposed to all the crap the news has to bring.

Side note: I want to make my opinion known. It shouldn’t be called ‘news’. It should be called ‘BAD news’. That would be accurate. Then it would also make it clearer what we’re actually feeding our minds when we peruse it. But, I digress.

If you’re feeling the twinges of any mental health issues, this is my wish: that you take care of yourself like you would if you had the flu. Take it easy on yourself; adjust your expectations for a bit; celebrate the little wins; see a doctor if you’re really ill and reach out and connect with a friend or partner. Let yourself be helped. And, read this post to feed your mind and soul with something that’s on the lighter side as you pass through this tough patch. Because, as the cliché goes: this too will pass. And it will. Meet you on the other side.article continues after advertisement

If you know someone who might need a boost, please forward this to them.

© Victoria Maxwell

The holiday season is here, but the joy of it may not be, especially at work. Maintaining good mental health on the job can be a challenge at the best of times. Maintaining it during the holidays can seem impossible.  

The pressure of the holly jolly season along with regular workload can give rise to feeling even more behind than usual and increase anxiety and poor mental health. Like I’m sort of feeling right now. 

Can you relate? Strategic planning for the next year, year end reviews for this last year. Project deadlines that were due…oh like a month ago. Those damn people who take vacations during December (how dare them?!). The obligatory staff/client/shareholder events that mean you get home after the kids have gone to bed and spent more time with your co-workers than your family – again. Add your own to the list.

To find a little relief and decrease triggers for anxiety and depression, I suggest capturing mini-moments of joy. Think of moments of joy like moments of silence – but without the focus on dead people. Personal, brief and meaningful. 

Now after you finish rolling your eyes and before you click another link, wait. I promise this hack is doable and effective. It won’t change your life. It might not even change your mood. But it will give you momentary relief from the hell-bent chaos and burden you may be feeling right now at work. The more often you do this simple exercise, the more it will build upon itself.

Finding these mini-moments of joy goes deeper than intellectualizing gratitude. It moves into a mind and body experience of micro-sized feelings of appreciation and simple pleasures. 

First, what is joy? See if you can guess.

Joy is…

1.Not a feeling in response to a fortunate event, but a condition of spirit. 

2. The name of my neighbor 2 blocks over who has 11 cats & wears big hats.

3. A brand of perfume. 

4. Extreme gladness, delight, or exultation of the spirit arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.

5. A mediocre movie with Jennifer Lawrence about some Tupperware woman.

6. Sorry, what? I nodded off. I need more coffee

The answers are 1, 3, 4 and 5 (and potentially 6 if I’ve caught you before your morning coffee). Joy is: a feeling, spiritual condition, perfume and a movie. Now THAT’S what I call versatility!  

The American Psychological Association defines it as “a feeling of extreme gladness, delight, or exultation of the spirit arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.”

I like Existential philosopher James Park’s take on it: joy is “not a feeling in response to a fortunate event, but a condition of spirit”. It is the basis of our being. Often latent it is our basic nature. Now isn’t that optimistic? 

The mental health benefits of joy are real.  

When we experience joy, the brain releases the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. People with depression are known to have lower levels of serotonin.1 

Positive emotions, like joy, can decrease stress hormones and build emotional strength.2

But how to bring this joyful nature out? The easiest way is to become aware of the tiniest feelings of joy that arise naturally while you’re at work. I’m not talking about feeling states extending for a period of minutes. I’m talking about seconds or nano-seconds of joy that occur throughout the course of a day. Focusing on these tiny slices will ‘prime’ your body and mind to see and feel more of them. I take a deeper dive into joy in my workshop “Creating Wellness and Reclaiming Self-Care” with some fun, interactive exercises.

The Hack: How to Capture Mini-Moments of Joy to Improve Mental Health at Work

1.Make a conscious decision to be open to itsy-bitsy bits of joy at your workplace for one day (or even a half a day). 

2. Define what joy feels like for you. What does it feel like in your body, your mind and your spirit? Typically, these are small bubbles of positive emotions or sensations of relief or comfort in your body. 

For me, I know I’ve hit a blip of joy because the corners of my mouth give rise to a slight smile. I feel a little lightness in my body like my muscles have relaxed. The stream of (often negative) thoughts and worries stop for a split second and I am in the present (for like 1.5 seconds). 

3. When something triggers an inkling of joy, pause. Experience it. Notice it. Breathe with it.

4. Note what, if any, physical sensations go along with it and where those sensations occur in your body.

5. Notice what triggered said moment of joy. You can track it to see if it consistently elicits joy for you.

6. Take another gentle and conscious breath and go about your business.

It’s that simple. 

Example of mini-moments of joy are: 

  • Completing a task on your to do list
  • Petting your co-worker’s dog (that is of course if you like dogs. I’m a sucker for them.)
  • Laughing at a joke said in the staff meeting
  • Seeing the winner of the staff’s ugly cookie decorating contest
  • When your computer screen unfreezes
  • Seeing birds fly by your office window
  • Sipping coffee or tea on your break
  • Getting through to the tech department within a minute

Being open to and paying conscious attention to the mini-moments of joy can, even in the most stressful day, bring you out of your head and into the present moment. This gives both your body and your brain a break before you dive in the flurry of work that’s waiting for you. 

I use this hack on a daily basis at work. Even during my most stressful work days, noticing mini-moments of joy clears my head and reduces my anxiety. It re-energizes me even when I’m in a rotten mood. Try it and see what happens for you. Happy joy hunting at work for a little bit better mental health.

© Victoria Maxwell

  1. Carrie Murphy https://www.healthline.com/health/affects-of-joy#9 
  2. Create Joy and Satisfaction https://www.mhanational.org/create-joy-and-satisfaction 

Until recently, I never identified as someone who went through childhood trauma. Dysfunctional family dynamics – oh yeah. But trauma? No. Until I started learning about it and talking to my counsellor, Andi. 

She knows my psychiatric diagnoses but also all the juicy details of my childhood to adult history. “What you experienced is called complex or relational trauma.” She told me. 

“But trauma is,” I piped in, “physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect, right? Like I need to be the recipient of it to ‘qualify’.” 

“Not exactly. What you described are examples of trauma, but trauma encompasses more than those.” Huh? This was news to me. 

What is Complex Trauma?

Andrea Schneider MSW, LCSW quotes Dr. Ron Doctor, psychologist: “complex or relational trauma can arise from prolonged periods of aversive stress usually involving entrapment (psychological or physical), repeated violations of boundaries, betrayal, rejection and confusion marked by a lack of control and helplessness.1

Oooh-kay…maybe I’ve been wrong. 

Still, I tend to dismiss what I experienced. Sure, as a child I witnessed daily rage and emotional abuse between my parents. But I wasn’t the target of it. 

Both had mental illness, but my dad was ‘only’ depressed and anxious. Yes, my mom had bipolar disorder and talked to me about wanting to die. But she never attempted suicide. 

My parents lived in a pretty much loveless marriage, but I felt loved, in a precarious kind of way. I felt scared most days, but loved at the same time. 

Ok, that does sound pretty uncomfortable and confusing even to me.

But it’s been years since all this happened. I’ve done lots of therapy.  It can’t be running my life STILL? 

Others had real abuse. You know like getting hit, sexually molested, living in poverty. Others had it way worse.

Ron Doctor’s definition describes trauma in a new light. One that makes sense to me. One that validates why I still feel haunted by the basement cobwebs of my past. 

It’s true, others suffered abuse I can’t even imagine, but that doesn’t mean what I underwent was any less significant or painful to me.

I’m cautious though. There’s a danger of overidentifying with being a victim of trauma. It can unintentionally perpetuate the learned helplessness I want to escape. 

Regardless, to create a calmer, healthier life and more positive relationships I’ve discovered I need to face the pain without clinging to it and find new behavior patterns.

Attachment and Healing

As a result of trauma, wounding to secure attachment can occur. PsychAlive explains that attachment is “the particular way in which (we) relate to other people. (It’s) formed at the very beginning of life, during the first two years.”2

Though I felt loved, and I was taken care of in a haphazard manner, this didn’t protect me from developing what is called an insecure attachment style. Oh, gawd. I know, more labels. But it has actually helped me create a coherent narrative.

There are different types of insecure attachment, and often we are a combination. I discovered, I have a mainly avoidant style. There’s also what’s called disorganized attachment. Though I don’t fall into this form, I relate to how this kind of attachment originates. 

Dr. Lisa Firestone, Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association explains “Disorganized attachment arises from fright without solutions. A child may experience repeated abuse, neglect or scary behaviour from a parent or caregiver as life-threatening. 

The child is stuck in an awful dilemma: her survival instincts tell her to flee to safety, but safety may be in the very person who is frightening her. The attachment figure is thus the source of the child’s distress. In these conditions, children often disassociate from their selves. They may feel detached from what’s happening to them. What they’re experiencing may be blocked from their consciousness.  A child in this conflicted state develops a disorganized attachment with their parental figures.” 3

As an adult, at times I feel overwhelmed, swallowed up by my feelings (no wonder I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder). I disassociate easily. Terror comes up when I face anger or even disagreement. 

It can trigger me and render myself and my needs invisible. In order to find some semblance of internal safety and relief from the tsunami of fear, I’ll capitulate to others needs and wants (whether they are asking me to or not). 

But this is changing. And the good news is it CAN be changed. 

I’ve healed some of the behaviors and continue to transform the ones still hanging around. It doesn’t serve me or those around me to stay stuck in patterns of unresolved trauma and unhealthy coping tools. Is it messy, hard and painful work? Yup. But it also feels essential to free myself from what has unconsciously been driving me. 

I get impatient though. Do you? I’ve been doing this thing called ‘talk therapy’ for years now. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do it. Shouldn’t I be further ahead? Shouldn’t these patterns have dissolved already? But I know the answer. 

Clichéd but accurate: it’s like a snake shedding its skin or peeling layers of an onion. Though I’d rather have less slithery, stinky metaphors. How about…a rose bush? Stay with me. 

Healing trauma or recovering from mental illness, or both, is like caring for a rose bush year after year. Each season, buds bloom. Then the plant is pruned (parts no longer needed are removed) so that next year’s flowers are even more lush. 

In the tending of the roses, the thorns may still prick but over time both the flowers and the plant get healthier and more lovely. That’s what I hope anyway. That’s what I’ve been told. That’s what I’m beginning to experience. So I keep the faith and continue gardening.  

© Victoria Maxwell

References:

1 Schneider, Andrea  (2018, January 22) “What Is Relational Trauma?: An Overview” retrieved November 29, 2019 from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2018/01/what-is-relational-trauma-an-overview/ 
2 PsychAlive “What’s Your Attachment Style?” retrieved November 29, 2019 from https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/

3 PsychAlive “Disorganized Attachment: How Disorganized Attachments Form & How They Can Be Healed” Retrieved September 7, 2019 from https://www.psychalive.org/disorganized-attachment/

December is almost here and the pressure to have the perfect holiday experience can come along with it.

Not only that, but we live in an aspirational, Instagram-curated world. Maybe we always have (minus the social media bit). The “great American dream”, “the pursuit of happiness”. Capitalist culture is based on the quest of bigger, better, MORE. 

Because of this, I didn’t recognize the part perfectionism is still playing in my life. I thought I was a rather “recovered perfectionist”. Oh, our blind spots! I thought I had left most of those tendencies behind or at least were aware of them when they popped up. Afterall, one of my most popular posts on Psychology Today is “How To Escape the Vicious Triangle of Depression, Anxiety and Perfectionism”.

My favourite quote is: Good enough really IS good enough.

I actively use it to remind me to send that email after revising it only twice – instead of 11 times; to finish that (or this) blog post even when I have the urge to do just one more rewrite; to NOT research 15 different types of dog beds before choosing one.

Perhaps because I got some distance from my perfectionistic patterns, I started to think of perfectionism as harmless, like an annoying party guest. “Oh, yeah, I’m such a perfectionist – I have to have everything just so or I just can’t relax.”

But in his TEDMed talk “Our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse”, social psychologist Thomas Curran explains perfectionism has been on “an astronomical rise over the past few years.” It conceals, he goes on to say “a host of psychological issues that can lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation”.

It erodes good relationships by setting unattainable standards. It cuts accomplishments, never allowing any celebration or feelings of gratitude. The very feeling of which in fact supports good mental health.

Far from being merely an annoying party guest, if left unfettered, perfectionism can become a destructive live-in monster.

Interestingly, perfectionism kept me sane and safe when my world as child wasn’t even close to that. When things around me were exploding, it was easier and less terrifying to (unconsciously and erroneously) believe it was my fault.

The belief gave me hope. If I could just behave better, be better, do whatever it was more perfectly then maybe I could stop the chaos around me. In essence, my striving for perfection as a child and youth gave me a sense of control, even if it never worked.

As an adult now, my drive for the ideal, works against me. Knowing that, however, doesn’t mean it’s a simple decision to let it go.

There’s some hardwiring that needs to get well, rewired. The good news is our brain is like a neurological Gumby, flexible and malleable. Rewiring our thinking and re-routing past patterns of behaviour is possible.

Slowly (and I mean very slowly) I have started that rewiring and begun to embrace the perfectly imperfect.

 How? Here are 9 Strategies I use:

1.  Take it seriously. That’s actually the biggest one.  Realize perfectionism, as much as I scoff at it, dismiss it or even laud it as a motivating force in my life, has a corrosive and potentially devastating nature. That way it’s on my radar and I’ll attend to it as part of my self-care.

 2. I choose to recognize that perfectionism, NOT me is the problem. It’s a learned habit that served me when I was young, not a sign of irreparable damage. Note, I use the power of choice (over and over again) to see this problematic habit is not who I am. 

3. I bring my awareness to my patterns of perfection, particularly the negative self-talk that accompanies – or more likely precedes and drives – my perfectionistic actions. Notice when this type of behaviour is triggered and what activities are most involved with it. Examples for me are: writing blogs, emails, even texts sometimes! Decision making about my simple steps in my career, resistance to celebrate accomplishments.

4. Honour process and progress over impeccable outcomes. Yeah – sort of a bumper sticker ‘the journey is the destination’ kind of thing. But it’s a good mantra and reminder.

 5. Make choices that feed my soul, instead of fuel the ‘flawless’. I don’t use Instagram much. I watch “The Ellen Show” because she celebrates being human and laughs a lot. I go for runs in the rain and splash in puddles so I get muddy.

 6. Allow myself a temper tantrum when it’s not perfect. Paradoxically, it helps me realize it doesn’t need to be.

 7. Make my own decisions when normally I’d ask for help and see what happens. It builds trust that I can depend on myself even when I’m uncertain I’m making the ‘right’ choice.

 8. Similar to #6, take small, safe imperfect risks to prove the sky won’t fall. My friend, Leah Goard, calls it taking “inspired imperfect action”.

9. Finally, I repeat my mantra “good enough, really IS good enough” when I’m stuck in perfectionistic procrastination paralysis.

 These steps build my tolerance for perfectly imperfect imperfection, for uncertainty, and eventually cultivate more and more acceptance for myself, just as I am. Because like the quote I have on my vision board says “We were born to be real, not perfect.”What do you do when you notice you’re caught in perfectionism? I’d love you to send me your tips. Put them in the comments or email me at victoria@victoriamaxwell.com. I’ll put them in a future post so we can all live more comfortably and compassionately with imperfection.

© Victoria Maxwell


How do you support an adult child who has a mental illness? How do you as a caregiver hang in there when your adult child, who so clearly needs help, refuses it? I get requests from parents and caregivers just like this every week.

Some of you reading this right now may be facing these very situations. Your adult child may be struggling with addiction, maybe it’s a severe chronic mental illness, or maybe it’s both.

I wish there was a simple three step solution. Do this, this and this and your adult child will accept the help they’re being offered. Put these five strategies in place and the rehab program they’re in, the out-patient program they’re involved with will, all of a sudden, turn things around once and for all. 

But it doesn’t work that way of course. Recovery is possible. Recovery should be the expectation. But the cold truth is recovery isn’t guaranteed. Recovery is also relative. Recovery varies for each individual depending on myriad factors – especially how chronic, how severe the mental illness is that the person is dealing with.

There is still reason to hope. There are solutions, though the road may be arduous. 

With this in mind I want to share with you an issue of the Canadian Mental Health Association BC Visions Journal: Supporting Adult Children: Helping Them Find Their Way.

You’ll find first person experiences from parents and caregivers. Like Holly Horwood, whose daughter lives with severe schizophrenia. She describes what they have gone through as a family and explains what has helped and what hasn’t. 

You’ll read about the pivotal part support groups play in the lives of caregivers. Other articles offer strategies for setting and reviewing boundaries, how to hang in there as a parent when your adult child doesn’t want help and tools to support them when they do. 

You can learn about additional resources, and communication strategies to help your adult child in this Psychology Today post: “Help Your Loved One with Mental Illness with These Resources”.

In particular look at #6 and watch Dr. Lloyd Sederer’s TEDxAlbany talk ‘When mental illness enters the family’, where he describes key steps to help someone who doesn’t want help.

Watch how my parents coped and navigated my unwillingness (or perhaps better said my inability) to accept help in my theatrical keynote (available for purchase here should you be so inclined).

If you love an adult child with a mental illness and/or substance use issue, my wish is that you realize you’re not alone and as a result feel some relief and hope and also discover some new resources for your journey.

Visions Journal is a free magazine produced by the British Columbia Division of the Canadian Mental Health Association. Electronic subscriptions are free to anyone. Print subscriptions are free to anyone in BC. The cost is $25 for a yearly subscription outside of BC. Click here for more info.

You can view past editions here.

© Victoria Maxwell