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

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


I went to Stanford. Well, ok…not in the traditional way. Like I didn’t go there for university. But I did go there to see The Manic Monolgues, a storytelling project I assisted with. 

True stories may be the most powerful stories there are. When I perform my theatrical keynotes about my lived experience with bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis, I see the immediate positive effect on the audience. I personally feel the benefit of sharing as well.

If you’ve been touched by mental illness and are considering writing about it, please do. It doesn’t matter if you share your story publicly or not, but it’s amazing the hope and freedom it can bring just by writing it. 

I’d heard of Stanford. I knew that it was an impressive university to go to and that it has some of the brightest minds studying there. 

In Winter 2018 and Spring of 2019 I had the pleasure of working with several of those bright minds. I’d add to that, bright hearts too. 

Zack Burton and Elisa Hofmeister, Stanford students, created the Manic Monologues by bringing together actors and non-actors, writers and non-writers, all to create an evening of storytelling. An evening dedicated to sharing experiences of mental illness, both of recovery and adversity. 

In May 2017, Zack had his first psychotic break and following, bipolar diagnosis. During those first few frightening months, Elisa and Zack failed to find relatable, hopeful stories from those who had been through a similar struggle. They decided to create The Manic Monologues to humanize and normalize mental illness.

I was involved as an advisor to help gather stories and offer some guidance to those writing pieces. I also had an excerpt of one of my plays performed by a local acting student.

I flew to Palo Alto. There, I spoke on a mental health panel at the university and attended the productions three-night run. Each night was raw, moving and funny. 

Standing ovations followed each performance. 

“We received feedback from those brave individuals who shared their stories with us,” Zack explained, “that writing down their experience was extremely cathartic, in some ways liberating.” Zack goes on to say that “one of the storytellers, who was able to attend the performance, came up to us after the show. They shared that providing their story for The Manic Monologues allowed them to open up with a family member who they had not spoken with about their mental illness in many years.” 

In chatting with the actors involved, I learned that some who had not been touched by mental illness, learned and grew, both in compassion and understanding. Those who had lived experience felt empowered. “The audience,” Elisa commented, “was deeply moved by the performance. Laughter and tears filled the evening.”

5 of the 18 monologues were written by students of the course I led “Truth be Told: Storytelling for people living with mental illness and their communities” in 2018. That program ended in a community storytelling evening as well. It too was incredibly healing for both those in the audience and on stage. 

It was so wonderful to see these beautiful Truth be Told pieces shared again by a new person and to a new audience. 

Shout out to the White Rock/SS – Mental Health Substance Use Services team and especially to Leah Kasinsky, my co-facilitator for the wonderful support they offered.

I witnessed again the power of creativity and storytelling in the free Catalyst for Creativity and Courage: Intro to Telling Your Stories webinar. Attendees learned strategies to kickstart their creative juices and their bravery. They received tools to help write their personal stories.

I was moved to hear and see how freeing it was for people.

Comments included: “I have felt so alone in the stigma of mental health, and this was very empowering to learn additional tools, and to know that there is a person out there that has had a similar experience.” ~ webinar attendee

“It gives me so much hope.” ~ webinar attendee

Writing your stories and giving voice to your experiences can be particularly liberating. Whether you share them with a public audience, a close friend, or leave them for yourself to enjoy, the written word has the power to heal.

The more we shed light on those hidden, what we may feel are taboo items, the more we can free ourselves. As the elegant lyric from the Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem reads: 

“The is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Help the light get in. Start by sharing a tiny part of your story. 

© 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



Wabi-sabi. (Whah-bee/Saw-bee). C’mon say it with me. I know you want to. 

Just saying it makes me feel a little better. These two strange words and the concept it encapsulates, has changed the way I look at failure, my mental health, my life, humanity. Seriously. I was introduced to it by the same dear friend who sent me the link of the Thich Nhat Hanh recording about bringing kindness into mindfulness which I wrote in this post.

Yes, she is one wise woman, this friend of mine! You know who you are. 

What is wabi-sabi? Contrary to what I thought it was, it’s not related to wasabi or sushi. Though it is of Japanese origin. 

Derived from Buddhist teachings and ancient Japanese philosophical ideals, wabi-sabi is a world perspective centered on the acceptance of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. 1

Doesn’t that bring you a little bit of relief just reading that? 

Another term for it is ‘flawed beauty’. The modern translation might be ‘perfectly imperfect’. 

The Japanese art form, Kintsugi reflects it brilliantly. Kintsugi is the process where cracked pottery is repaired with gold lacquer to highlight the beauty of the imperfection or damage rather than hiding it. 

Why have I found this idea so powerful? Because in our curated Instagram lives, it celebrates imperfection that inevitably is part of life. That’s my kind of world view. 

When recovering from mental illness, or an addiction, or let’s face it, just plain living life, mis-steps are part of the process, not an exception to it. Like the saying goes: Progress not perfection. Its approach to beautiful messiness is a pragmatic and compassionate one. An approach that, particularly with the creative process or the onslaught of depression, can be sorely absent.

I introduce this concept in my creativity playshops. You’ll also have a chance to experience it in my *FREE* webinar Catalyst for Creativity and Courage: Intro to Telling Your Stories on October 25.

I partner wabi-sabi with an improv exercise that underlines the very essence of it. No, we don’t thwack each other with blobs of gold paint or break glasses and put them back together again with glitter tape. It’s called the Failure Bow.

The Transformative Power of the Failure Bow

The ‘failure bow’ hails from the world of improv, but has wider applications than just on the stage. It, along with understanding wabi-sabi, can reframe failure as part of success and the creative process.

The idea of celebrating mistakes has taken off even in corporate settings. You can find variations of it at MomsRising’s “joyful funerals” for failed projects or FailFest as organized by DoSomething.Org. Beth Kanter’s article explains them in more details. 

Innovation and creativity die if stifled by the fear of failure.  Recovery can be stopped in its tracks, and the joy of living can too if perfectionism isn’t tamed. 

Here’s the exercise. Do it and I guarantee you’ll feel a little happier.

 ‘Failure Bow’ (takes less than 30 seconds) 
1. You can do this alone or in a group.

2. Stand in a ‘super hero’ pose. You know, we all have one – even if we haven’t done it since we were 10. Feet hip width apart; hand on hips, chest out, head up and an ear to ear grin.

3. Then lift your arms in the universal “V” victory position and happily, shamelessly, proudly say: “I failed!”

4. And… you guessed it…take a bow (don’t shy away from it – full on bow, bending at the waist – several times if the spirit moves you).

5. Then if you’re in a group, everyone else around you claps, whoots, and hollers for you, celebrating your gaffe with you.

Variations: 

In the Moment Failure Bow

As soon as you’ve noticed you’ve made a mistake – immediately do the failure bow to counteract any self-judgment that might rise. The smile alone will help.

Intentional Snafu Surrender Bow 

  • Before you get into your super hero pose, think of a mistake you made that you’re still hanging onto (big or small doesn’t matter). 
  • Get in your super hero pose holding that mistake in your mind.
  • As you lift your arms, imagine the energy of that snafu running up your arms to the tips of your fingers.
  • As you yell “I failed” and bend over to take a bow, imagine all the energy and emotion of that mistake drain out of your hands and surrender into the earth. 

Why does it work? 
1. It helps us redefine failure, Ted DesMaisons, Stanford University instructor, suggests, it can “(lead) us to more productive action or more empowered choices going forward.”

2. According to a Beth Kanter’s 2013 Harvard Business review article it “alters our physiological response to failure by removing the demons of self-doubt and self-judgment. Without those holding us back, we can be more flexible and improve results and learning.”

3. Both the wabi-sabi ethos and the simple failure bow exercise gives a positive view of mistakes preventing us from falling into immobility and self-condemnation.

4. They offer a psychological and physical approach to fully embody failure as part of creativity, success, work and life. 

Through wabi-sabi and the failure bow we can learn, flub by flub, to take ourselves and our mistakes less seriously and increase our self-compassion.

Here’s a filmed version of me explaining the Failure Bow. Send me YOUR failure bow videos.

Let’s unite in the love of our failures and create a FAILURE REVOLUTION! The world will be a kinder, softer, more perfectly imperfect place because of it.

© Victoria Maxwell


1 Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-12-4.

September is fast approaching. In light of this, I thought it apropos to write a post regarding accommodations for students with mental health issues in a post secondary setting. 

Creating accommodations help students who have mental illness reach their academic potential. Whether you’re advocating for yourself, or helping to advocate for someone else here are points to keep in mind.

1. Accommodations are a right, but are negotiated.

2. Determine what changes would be most effective for your specific illness or illnesses. It may take some experimentation.

3. Role-play asking for the accommodations to gain confidence before actually requesting them.

 With few exceptions, teachers and schools are very amenable and experienced in accommodating students with disabilities. As part of the American Disabilities Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act, they have an obligation to fulfill reasonable accommodations requests.

Dr. Sarah Helm, Diversity and Inclusion expert, cites “according to the National Center for Education Statistics, individuals with depression, mental, emotional, or psychiatric conditions now represent approximately 24% of college students with disabilities and have become the largest cohort of post secondary students who identify having a disability” (Helm, 2012; NCES, 2009).

Despite this, fellow students and teachers still can lack understanding, sensitivity and patience. The more comfortable you are with your mental health needs the easier it will for you to communicate with teachers. In the classroom, you are not required to disclose what illnesses or disabilities you have. But you will need to be able to discuss what accommodations will be helpful. You can, if you choose, to disclose voluntarily. But that is a decision that is very personal, and should be made carefully.

There are both informal accommodations (strategies students can implement on their own) as well as ones that are formalized through disability services on campus. Two people with the same condition may not need the need the same classroom strategies. Here are a few examples of formal accommodations:

– Due date extensions

– Time extensions on exams

– Quiet and/or alone place for taking tests

– Ability to complete work at home

– Advance notice of course expectations

– Study buddy or academic coach

– Alternative forms for assignments

– Alternative types of study resources

– Pre-arranged breaks to get fresh air and move around

Dr. Helm explains “counseling centers and disability services offices have been increasing their level of support for students with psychiatric disabilities; yet despite these existing support structures, students are not seeking assistance from disability services offices due to fear of disclosure and the negative stigma” (Collins & Mowbray, 2005; Helm, 2012).

So it is imperative students with psychiatric disabilities understand they have a right to reasonable accommodation as well as protection from discrimination stemming from stigma. Colleges need to recognize that insidious stigmatizing attitudes towards those with mental illness have subtle yet far reaching ramifications. On-going dialogues about mental health and mental illness on campuses are crucial so stigma and it’s consequences are lessened. In doing so, students can be propelled from the fear of disclosure and requesting support to the freedom of accommodation and academic success.

 An excellent resource is the Higher Education Support Toolkit: Assisting Students with Psychiatric Disabilities from Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.article continues after advertisement

© Victoria Maxwell


 References:

Helm, Sarah PhD Career Development Experiences and Employment Concerns of Job-Seeking Students with Psychiatric Disabilities PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2012 http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/1304

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2009). 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 08). Computed by the Data Analysis System (DAS-T) Online Version 5.0 on June 29, 2009

Collins, M. E., & Mowbray, C. T. (2005). Higher education and psychiatric disabilities: National survey of campus disability services. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75 (2), 304-315.


Music plays a big part in my life. Sunday mornings you’ll find Gord, my husband, and I listening to Ramsey Lewis Trio, maybe Amee Mann or better yet, the sound track to Garden State. We’ll eat our French toast with (real!) maple syrup and I’ll be tapping my toes, savouring both the music and the company.

Gord has set up a great stereo system in our kitchen/living room so we can play our favorite vinyl while making dinner.

But music is important to me for a different reason as well. It’s one of the wellness tools I use everyday to help manage my mood and symptoms.

When I’m dealing with mild symptoms (what I like to call mental illness ‘light’) music helps alleviate said symptoms to a point where I feel back to myself. It helps grounds me when I’m edgy. It comforts me when I’m mildly depressed. It calms me when I’m anxious.

When I’m in the midst of severe symptoms, it doesn’t reduce them so much as help distract me while I’m enduring them. It’s a pleasant, adaptive distraction, rather than an unhealthy, risky one (such as drinking too much, sleeping too long or shopping on-line).

Distraction is an underrated coping strategy. It gives me a focus other than my rumination. It’s important for me to choose the ‘right’ kind of music however. Listening to sad, sloppy blues, or vitriolic death metal won’t lift my mood or shift my focus where I need it.

The music needs to be positive and uplifting. It needs to be something I enjoy – even if I can’t feel that enjoyment with the current state I’m in. Even if I did enjoy heavy metal or lonely emo, I suggest finding other genres to enjoy – at least for the time being.

Listening to music while I work doesn’t distract me, but ironically helps me focus. With mood changes, particularly the upswings, music keeps the beat and rhythm that I can’t stay in tune with.

My fave kind of music is old and new jazz crooners, both male and female. Think Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, Julie London, Peggy Lee, Norah Jones and Diana Krall. I like the simplicity of the sweet 70’s like Hall and Oats, Las Vegas Turn-a-Round, Cat Stevens, Roberta Flack. It’s corny, I know, but I think it’s that naivety that gives me hope when I’m down. Coffee House music is another one. I also love yoga and meditation music, particularly if lyrics of any sort trigger me.

I subscribe to Spotify (a digital music service). It’s the best $10/month I spend. I’ve discovered multitudes of songs and artists I love. If you like a song, you can click to find the ‘radio’ associated with it that has similar music. Besides the typical genre search, you can use a search word like ‘comforting’ or ‘happy’ or ‘gentle’ and get a plethora of excellent choices.

I’ve downloaded playlists to my phone so I can play them when I travel. Pop in earbuds and voila – your very own portable wellness tool. Comfort on the go. Music you can listen to almost anywhere. Yoga – not so much – you can’t do that just anywhere. And frankly I don’t want to.

Here are links to four of my fave playlists:

Lazy Dazy Groovy music:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0y3LfKOgCtXgtwNJH3r6X5

You Make Me Swoon:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/562KCt3dddvASURiIZkm3N

Serenity Music with Water:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5WSFvC61QphFAg6JgQ6rsN

Happy Perky Music:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7vKTdfITavm97oQBLz545x

What’s your go-to song that gets you back to centre? Care to share? I’d love to know.

© Victoria Maxwell



Diagnosis doesn’t equate acceptance (as many of you well know). I certainly took my sweet time in accepting my conditions. Mental illness, particularly psychosis, wasn’t something I had been striving for in my 5-year life plan.  

Below are questions and approaches my family, psychiatrist, other health professionals and my friends could have used to help me become more aware and more accepting of what I faced.

A caveat however. If someone is experiencing a psychosis or a severe lack of insight (anosognosia*) these suggestions may not be appropriate or at the very least will need to be adapted. For tips about how to communicate with someone in a psychosis these videos might be helpful. Though neither is a psychiatrist they have good information (suggestions start at 6 minutes 48 seconds).  I don’t like his finger pointing (which you’d think he’d know isn’t a good way to communicate). Some advice and examples are a bit flip and graphic, but some information is excellent.

Another video to watch is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ss_CMUdH2U She makes an excellent point about being a ‘comforting force not a challenging force’.

Here are 10 strategies that could have helped me feel understood, empowered and more willing to investigate the treatment and help being offered:

1. I wish…someone asked me exactly why I didn’t want to accept the diagnosis. Why I didn’t want to take medication. When the reasons for resistance are shared, erroneous assumptions can be discussed, potentially corrected and new actions can take place*. E.G: I believed medication was a ‘cop-out’ and meant I was weak. I believed if I did enough therapy and got to the ‘root’ of the psychological reason I was depressed, I wouldn’t experience it anymore.

2. I wish…someone validated and empathized with me regarding my resistance to medication instead of trying to get me to see it their way. That doesn’t mean agreeing with me but it meant acknowledging my position. Arguing with me and telling me to take it only made me feel more misunderstood, and forced me more into myself.

3. I wish…someone validated and empathized with me regarding my resistance to medication instead of trying to get me to see it their way. That doesn’t mean agreeing with me but it meant acknowledging my position. Arguing with me and telling me to take it only made me feel more misunderstood, and forced me more into myself.

4. I wish…someone helped me understand the truth about mental illness, and showed me how to investigate those objections, allowing me to come to my own conclusions. That is, do some basic stigma busting with me.

5. I wish…someone asked me if I wanted to talk about my psychoses. Because I did want to talk about it. I wanted to, needed to make sense of it.

6. I wish…someone validated and explored with me the profound, life-changing spiritual elements of my psychosis. It’s important to note, not all aspects were negative and not all were meaningful. Instead, what happened was my insights and experiences were labelled as pathological and part of the illness, something to be discarded and forgotten. It wasn’t until I met my psychiatrist, Dr. Dillon, who discussed my experiences with neutrality, curiosity and compassion.

Questions like these would have helped:

  • What did I learn?
  • What was it like?
  • What happened?
  • What aspects did I want to talk about, but was afraid to? And why?
  • What am I sad about? What did I lose? What do I need to grief?
  • What am I afraid of, concerned with and how can it be addressed?
  • What am I confused about?

7. I wish…someone could have helped me integrate a medical model with a spiritual perspective sooner and explained to me that it is possible to have both a spiritual experience and a mental illness; that one does not negate the other.

8. I wish…more people praised my scepticism; it meant I was deciding things on my own and the choices I made were intrinsically motivated.

9. I wish…someone informed me sooner the severe negative and anxious feelings I was experiencing could be part of a mood disorder not just a set of emotions and low self-esteem.

10. I wish…someone had explained cognitive therapy more clearly. When I was told my thinking creates my feelings, I felt I was being blamed for my depression.

Kay Jamison states in her book ‘An Unquiet Mind’ that we don’t know why some people walk through the door of acceptance or walk through it easily and others don’t. We also don’t know when people will do it. What I know for sure is, when we meet people where they’re at, when we’re curious and respectful, it helps people feel safe. People who feel safe are more willing to take risks and try things. That’s what happened for me at least.

© Victoria Maxwell


*NAMI defines anosognosia “when…someone is unaware of their own mental health condition or they can’t perceive their condition accurately”. Click here for information about it in the context of mental illness.


Anxiety has been giving me a run for my money. Diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I’m used to dealing with my uber easily triggered flight and freeze response. But in the last year anxiety has been screaming at a high pitch for long periods of time in my body and my mind. It is UNCOMFORTABLE. Side note: Having an anxiety disorder it’s rather ironic I chose to be a self-employed public speaker.

Working for myself, which consists of on-going financial uncertainty, and doing the one thing people fear more than death. However, that isn’t driving my current state of dread and sweat. Among other things, menopause has kicked me in the butt.  Since I’ve entered that oh so lovely transition, anxiety has spiked more than I’ve ever experienced it. I didn’t know anxiety was a symptom of menopause. I didn’t know a lot of things about menopause. It’s not exactly a sexy cocktail party topic. Regardless, my husband has been suffering through it with me.

Anyway…the big ‘M’ and other life ‘stuff’ has ratcheted up my adrenals and kept my system revved up for far too long. My usual wellness tools haven’t been working as effectively either. To find some relief, I signed up for a 6-week ACT group course at our local mental health and substance use centre. An ACT group. Sounds like it would be right up my alley, yes? ACT. I’m an actor (or actress depending on your preference) right? Well it’s not that kind of acting group. ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s developed from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (or CBT). Its basic premise is using mindfulness to become comfortable with (ie: accepting) your uncomfortable physical sensations and difficult thoughts and distressing emotions. Then use your core values to guide your actions so you can live the life you want.

What’s important to understand is that accepting them does not mean liking them. It means I give them room to ‘be’ without trying to change them. It was a mind stopper this one. Allow myself to be ok with feeling this intense anxiety? Not try to change it? Fix it? Fix me? One of the meditations recommended in the group was the 3-minute breathing space meditation. Three minutes of meditation. That I can do. At the outset it was wonderful. Each time after doing it, I felt peaceful, like a gentle parent holding me. But then weeks later, some proverbial crap hit the fan and I experienced unrelenting anxiety.

This 3-minute breathing space felt more like a 30-hour jail cell. I’d sit and immediately want out. Breathing, and allowing my anxiety, seemed only to magnify it. My heart beat faster, louder, or wait was that a skipped beat? No now all I could hear was the blood rushing in my ears and feel my stomach tighten – even more. I. AM. OFFICIALLY. GOING. CRAZY. Again!!! When the tail starting wagging the dog, and my anxiety overwhelmed me, this whole letting it be and noticing seemed like, well, a really bad idea. Until I listened to a podcast reminding me of one paramount ingredient I’d forgotten to include in my mindfulness practice.

A dear friend sent me a recording of a talk from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, and author of over 100 books. I’ve never been much of a fan of ‘Mr. Hanh’. Not that he isn’t wise, or walks his talk. He definitely is and he definitely does. It’s just that I’ve never quite jived with how he expressed his wisdom. Until this talk. Until, I guess, I needed it. Maybe it will help you. Using metaphor, he describes how mindfulness works. It broke open my heart and changed my practice.

Paraphrased from his dharma talk ‘You are Both Depression and Mindfulness’. This segment starts at around 18 minutes. “When depression manifests, we should invite mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness will recognize the energy of depression. There is no fighting between the two kinds of energy. Because the job of mindfulness is to just recognize things as they are. Then to embrace whatever is there in a very tender way, like a mother would embrace her child when the child suffers.” That is what got me. “The mother is working in the kitchen, but she hears the baby crying. She knows the baby suffers. She goes into the baby’s room and picks the baby up and she holds the baby tenderly in her arms. The energy of tenderness of the mother begins to penetrates into the body of the child. And after a few moments the child feels better. This also happens with the practice of mindfulness. With the practice of mindful breathing or walking we generate the energy of mindfulness. With this mindful energy we recognize the other energy (depression, anger etc.) and we can embrace the other energy with tenderness.

There’s no fighting. There’s only supporting, helping.” When I practice mindfulness, I simply watch what is going on inside of me. But instead of a clinical dispassionate watching, I add tenderness. The watching becomes an embrace of kindness. This way the sensations and thoughts are easier to stay with. A softening usually happens (not always, but often). This loving kindness I practice generating soothes those other energies within me. Like the wise ol’ Mr. Hanh said it would!

Try the 3-minute practice with the pointers from Thich Nhat Hanh yourself. Share your experience and thoughts. I always love hearing from you.

© Victoria Maxwell