I’ve been talking to strangers from foreign countries on-line. Wait. It’s not what you think. 

They have prevented me from falling into depression, helped me avoid perfectionism, boosted my productivity, decreased my loneliness and reduced my procrastination. 

Are they therapists? Nope. One has been a journalist, a computer programmer, another a business school student. Even more surprising we actually barely talk and they have no idea they’ve helped me in these ways. 

So how is this happening? With a free on-line tool called Focusmate.1

This is going to sound strange. Bear with me. In a nutshell you schedule a virtual on-camera co-working session with a stranger.

The tool wasn’t designed as a mental health tool, but as Taylor Jacobson, Focusmate Founder and CEO explains, “it was on our radar. Yes, it was designed with productivity in mind, but both myself and my friend who (first) tried this out have had mental health journeys.

It was created to “help independent workers break free of the shame and anxiety caused by chronic procrastination…(and) connect with like-minded individuals committed to holding each other accountable…for the actions contained in those to-do lists, productivity tools, and goal trackers.”

At the first signs of depression my head gets foggy and full, lethargy starts to seep into my body, and a feeling of isolation and dread places its foot on my chest. Perfectionism increases, as does self-critical thoughts which fuels the perfectionism which further drives avoidance. Working productively is difficult. Working period is. Focusmate unknowingly helps counter these things for me. 

Note: I am not affiliated in any way with Focusmate. I just really like the tool and thought you might too.

The Co-Working Model

It’s based on what’s called a virtual co-working model. 

What is co-working? Think back to when you were in school. Some of you may have had study buddies. This is the same thing, except we’re not 12 (or in a school library shooting spitballs through a straw).

Instead you’re in front of your computer for 50 minutes. Camera and sound on. A concrete task to complete (usually a dreaded one) and your “study buddy” from another country set up in the exact same way. 

Whoa…you may be thinking. Me too. When I heard about this, I thought about all the ways this could go wrong. Very wrong. A video session with a complete stranger to do what together? You know where I’m going. But of the 20 and counting work meetings I’ve had all of my work mates have been nothing but dedicated to getting their crap done. 

Jacobson has strict but friendly community guidelines. For some reason, it attracts similar people. Individuals who have work to do, who want to get it done and find it effective having someone working alongside them. 

A Typical Session 

At the start there’s a short but friendly introduction and declaration of what task or tasks each of you will work on. I often write mine in the chat box too. There’s usually some good luck wishes exchanged and then you’re off! 

I sometimes update the chat box when I’ve completed a task. But there’s no other talking. 

50 minutes later, a bell chimes. You check in: “How’d it go?” The answer may be “pretty slow” or it could be “great”. Doesn’t matter. You say goodbye. That’s it. Strange I know. But I can’t emphasize it enough how good this is for both my mental health and my productivity.

My Interview with Founder of Focusmate, Taylor Jacobson

I interviewed Taylor to hear from him how he would describe the sessions and the potential, though unintended, mental health benefits.

Mental Health Benefits I’ve Experienced

1.Combating Lethargy and No Energy:

The 50 minute length is long enough for me to get something done but not so long that I start to tire.

2. Reducing Isolation and Loneliness:

Working alongside a ‘live’ person reminds me that I’m not alone in our oh so very virtual world. The sessions aren’t for conversations, but the quick exchange of words at the start and the end of the call adds an encouraging human touch to my strong sense of isolation that creeps in when I’m beginning to feel depressed. Social contact has long been known to help alleviate depressive symptoms. See research at the end of this article.

3. Keeps me moving and out of bed (not to mention dressed and showered):

This may seem small – but in depression, getting out of bed and having a shower can feel monumental. Having committed to a specific time and to another person, I don’t want to let them down. The scheduled sessions motivate me to get up, get clean and honour my word. It’s only 50 minutes. I can show up for that and go back to bed if I want. But I haven’t yet. 

Note: It’s amazing – There’s no pressure to look marvelous or have awesome video quality. The objective is to show up and get one task done.

4. Teaches me Realistic Goal Setting and Sets Me Up for Success:

That brings me to the next reason I like Focusmate. It helps me set realistic goals and experience success. I’ve got 50 minutes. What task can I do in that time frame?  In order to create a little sense of success and help my lagging self-esteem, I aim to accomplish one or two very small tasks. When I accomplish it, I get evidence that counters all my negative self talk.

I go deeper into much of this, like realistic goal setting and strategies for a balanced life and mind in my workshop Creating Wellness and Reclaiming Self-Care.

Some Science Behind My Experience: 

According to an article in Medium, Patricia Arean, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington says: “People with major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder can find it difficult to motivate themselves because of what researchers call ‘cognitive burden’, when your brain is overloaded with distracting thoughts.” 2

I see this tool as a protective factor in preventing depression. Choosing to get up, keep my word and have a work session when I’d rather crawl back into bed is part of a DBT strategy called ‘the power of opposite action’. You take steps in the opposite direction that your depression is telling you to go. Despite your low mood, you still get on with your life and don’t let depression run your life. It’s a technique to help you change how you feel. 3

Research has shown consistently depressive symptoms can be alleviated by interventions that increase social support and contact. 4,5 

Some precautions: 

I suggest this is for those who noticed the warning signs of depression or mild depression. If you’re in a major depression this tool, I believe, wouldn’t be as helpful and could potentially backfire.

Research is needed: 

I have only my experience to go from and anecdotal experience from other users. Focused research needs to take place (sorry no pun intended) to determine if this is indeed true. 

Productive and Possibly Preventative

Focusmate can help us be more productive. But it may also alleviate mild depressive symptoms, act as a protective factor preventing depression from occurring at all, prevent relapse and improve our overall mental well-being. 

Whether you work at home or in an office, it could be a great asset. By increasing social contact, creating experiences of small achievements, and using the power of opposite action as described in DBT, Focusmate might be not just a productivity hack, but a recovery hack to add to our wellness toolbox.

© Victoria Maxwell


References

  1. Shout out to Marie Poulin of Oki Doki, who introduced me to this fab tool.
  2. Productivity Hacks Don’t Work When You Have Mental Illness https://elemental.medium.com/productivity-hacks-dont-work-when-you-have-mental-illness-4635239860c6 
  3. Opposite Action – Marsha M. Linehan https://vimeo.com/101373270 
  4. Feeling connected again: Interventions that increase social identification reduce depression symptoms in community and clinical settings https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032714000573 
  5. Social group memberships protect against future depression, alleviate depression symptoms and prevent depression relapse https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953613005194

Last February I wrote the post “10 of My Favourite Quotes that I Live, Learn, and Love From”. I ended it with a call for readers to send in their go-to, must-remember, ever-inspiring quotes. And send them in you did!

Words can’t cure mental illness or alleviate stress, but they can make it more comfortable as the pain passes. Below you’ll find further hope-filled sentences helping us to breathe a little easier and guiding us when the path gets rough. Thanks to all of you who contributed! 

1.“Love conquers all (Amor Vincit Omnia).” – Roman poet Virgil; painted by Caravaggio; sung by Deep Purple (anonymous submission)


2. “The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.”  – Bertrand Russel (submitted by Amir A.)


3. “Peace begins with a smile.” – Mother Teresa (anonymous submission)

4. “Bad things happen not to go through, but to grow through.”  – Prince EA (submitted by Terri L.)

5, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” – EE Cummings (anonymous submission)


6. The Peace of Wild Things – a poem

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.  

– Wendell Berry (submitted by David G.) 


7. “Honor your future self with good habits.” – Terri Lawrence (submitted by Terri)

8. “I can tell you that whatever you are looking for is already inside you.” – Anne Lamont (submitted by Suzanne T.)

9. “To the bird, a nest; to the spider, a web; to man, friendship” –  William Blake (submitted by Shelley P.)

10. “If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.

If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe.

If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand.

If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another.” – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (submitted by Roger S.)


11. “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift…which is why we call it the present.” ― Bill Keane (submitted by Sylvia P.

Keep those quotes coming! I love discovering new ones. Which ones of the above is your favourite? Enquiring minds want to know. Or at least this enquiring mind wants to know. 

© Victoria Maxwell



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



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

Supporting a loved one with mental illness can be trying. I’ve witnessed the toll it takes on my husband. I’ve experienced it as a daughter of a mother and father who both had psychiatric conditions. A chronic mental health condition is like addiction. Even when well managed, its presence is still felt in the relationship.  

My husband has taught me a lot about what it means to support someone. With practice, I do it more and more for myself. Some I already knew, some I only discovered by being with him at my most vulnerable, my most messy.

Think psychosis. Think oozing self-loathing. Think unrelenting anxiety. I know. Yuck.

What Works

Someone who…

  1. Walks beside me on the journey
  2. Watches a movie with me
  3. Can stand my company even when I can’t
  4. Listens without fixing
  5. Listens and helps me problem solve
  6. Sets boundaries and let’s me know when he’s reached his limit
  7. Reminds me it’s ok to take my beta-blockers; that I DON’T always have to tough it out
  8. Talks with me about ‘trivial’ things that have nothing to do with how I feel
  9. Requires honesty
  10. Tells me to un-pretzel myself when I’m in my most challenging yoga pose. You know that one of navel gazing and head up my butt. It’s surprising how long I can hold that posture.
  11. Helps me name things I’m ashamed of – like when he asks ‘peeled grape’ day? Yes – that’s how I feel, frequently, more frequently than I’d like to admit.
  12. Explains naps are good medicine and gives him a break too!

What does your partner do that helps you when you’re in struggle mode?

What do you do as a partner to help your loved one?

© Victoria Maxwell



There are many reasons why people don’t accept a diagnosis of mental illness.

I received an email the other month from someone whose spouse had psychotic experiences and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, the spouse believes they had a powerful spiritual experience.

The spouse has agreed to see a psychiatrist, and continues to see their counsellor, but won’t take medication.

I’ve been in that very position, refusing both the diagnosis and medication. Understandably. The experiences I’ve had (two, quite recently) from a science approach typically are called psychosis. I like to call it non-shared reality. Regardless how you describe them, elements of these experiences are profound for me.

I’ve always had difficulty with the ‘either/or’ perspective. Either my experience is an illness as seen through the medical model OR it’s strictly a spiritual experience as seen through alternative perspectives such as the anti-psychiatry movement or transpersonal psychology.

What I experienced was more nuanced. To cavalierly categorize it as either only alienates me from potential help.

But what to do?

In my case, I encountered a brilliant psychiatrist who helped me understand what I experienced could be both. Or, more accurately, they could exist simultaneously.

I had undergone (and continue to undergo) spiritual experiences meaningful to me. While at the same time I have a mental illness that would benefit from some medical assistance.

I’ve come to understand the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis does not diminish the importance of these personally transformative events. Mental illness and spiritual awakening are not mutually exclusive.

This was life-changing for me. It allowed me to embrace the spiritual path I held so dearly while also accepting much needed treatment for psychiatric disorders which were, in no uncertain terms, ravaging my life and relationships.

I am of the belief, for some people, we need to blend both approaches, spiritual and medical. If either one excludes or denigrates the other, it won’t be helpful. For me, the litmus test is this: does the person have the quality of life they want? Is the approach they are using causing them more suffering or less?

I wanted to be someone who didn’t need to take medications. But I’m not that kind of person. Some people don’t need to or can manage without. For me, I needed to be open to the possibility of needing meds and not needing them. I needed my support circle to be on board with that too. Or to be honest with me about any bias they had. That built trust. Trust in the end is the best bridge to help build a life worth living.

Allowing for ‘Both’ rather than forcing an ‘Either/Or’ stance made getting better, well…better. I am able to comfortably hold both my spiritual and medical model perspectives. It’s a fine line, but that’s fine with me.

The following are resources to help those of you grappling with the ‘either/or’ situation. Whether you are supporting someone who identifies only with the spiritual, even to their detriment, or for those of you given a psychiatric diagnosis and trying to reconcile it with your profound experiences, I hope these shed some light and offer insight.

1. Visions Magazine – This edition focuses on spirituality and how it related to mental illness. Visions is an award-winning magazine that brings together many views on mental health and substance use.

https://cmha.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/visions_sprirituality.pdf

The following I wrote or created in partnership with others. Each describe in different ways my journey integrating both a spiritual perspective and medical model approach to help my life come into balance so I could begin to flourish.

2. Bridging Science and Spirit – a 7-minute documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXq9B9a3sOI

3. Does God* Have A Place In Psychiatric Treatment Plans? – blog

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/crazy-life/200910/does-god-have-place-in-psychiatric-treatment-plans

Note: I use the word ‘God’ but don’t mean it in the strictly religious sense, per say. I use it interchangeably with Love, the Divine, Universe, Spirit, Goodness, what-have-you. Please replace it with what you are most comfortable with.

4. I Went Off my Meds to be More Spiritual: Spiritual Growth and Psychiatric Medication – an oxymoron?  http://victoriamaxwell.com/i-went-off-my-meds-to-be-more-spiritual/

5. Crazy for Life – My theatrical keynote (aka one-person stage show) focusing on my struggle to reconcile the mental illness diagnosis with profound spiritual experiences. In it, I describe how medication, for me at least, needs to be part of my wellness tool box. Not the only one, but one nonetheless. View a clip from the show here (watch at 1min 25sec): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-CU5DaOl74&t=7s  Also available for download purchase. http://victoriamaxwell.com/product/crazy-for-life-a-story-about-accepting-help-for-mental-illness/

Have you had spiritual experiences within your mental illness? Do you think it is one or the other? I’d love to hear from you to learn about how you made sense of it.  

© Victoria Maxwell

I do it. You do it. Even birds do it. No, not that. I’m talking about sleep.

Anyone with depression or bipolar disorder, including loved ones of those with the conditions, knows how important consistent good night sleeps are to staying well1. They cultivate equilibrium in mood, mind and heart. Sleep is important for everybody. But, doubly so for anyone with a mood disorder.

Lack of sleep (or irregular sleep patterns) can both trigger a mania or be a warning sign of one.2

With Spring, worm moons, new moons, time changes, and solar flares, along with everyday ups and downs, good nights rests have been hard to come by for me lately. Not a good thing.

When I’m hypomanic (I prefer my personal term: the “Spazzy-McGuinty”* phase) I sleep only five or six hours a night. and still I wake up all bright eyed and bushy tailed. But if that goes on for too many days (more than three) it’s a red flag. Luckily, Spazzy McGuinty usually calms down on her own accord within a couple days. *The exact origins of “Spazzy McGuinty” remains unknown. However, I do know it is a ‘special’ term of manic endearment created by my husband Gordon and I.

When dank depression hits me, I sleep too much. I easily log (not necessarily sawing logs) 10, 12 even, 13 hours of sleep each night but still awake leaden and lost. It’s awful. Sleeping too much is part of atypical depression, which ironically, isn’t atypical at all. It’s actually very common. For others, insomnia is the beast of burden when their depression descends.

So how can sleep become a balm, instead of a bomb in your life when you’re living with a mood disorder?

Commonly referred to as “sleep hygiene” (good sleep habits), below are some of my tricks for consistently getting a good nights’ rest. For the record, I never thought my sleep was all that dirty. Who knew? Okay, well maybe the occasional dream, but still…

 Tips to change your sleeping from a bomb to a balm:

 1) Go to bed and wake up approximately at the same time every night and morning. I usually turn out my lights at 9:00 or 9:30 P.M.(sometimes even 8:30 P.M.). Yes, I proudly embrace my inner grandma. I wake up around 5 or 6 A.M. 8 – 9 hours is ideal for me. I can manage on 7 hours but only for a few days. This may seem like a luxury to sleep that long. But, trust me, it’s a necessity. I also don’t have kids – so it’s actually realistic.

 2) Create a pre-sleep ritual. As is the nature of rituals, I do mine in much the same order every night. These cues tell the brain that sleep is coming and accordingly, the brain begins to wind down.

 This is my pre-sleep ritual. Around 8:00 P.M.:

I change into my jammies, take out my contacts, take off my make-up (on a good night), put on my glasses, floss then brush my teeth and take my medication (mood stabilizer and anti-depressant). Then I snuggle into bed with my hubby. I write tomorrow’s to do list, jotting down anything I need to remember or do the next day so I don’t have it in my head to prevent me from falling asleep. I read for about an hour. Then I turn out the lights around 9:30 P.M. If I’m lucky, and I usually am, Gord gently strokes my forehead or arm as I fall asleep. My hubby probably doesn’t know this but he’s the most important and best part of my sleep hygiene.

 3) Keep the room cooler than normal. We keep a window open, just a crack, even in winter.

 4) Block out as much light as possible. Even light from under a door or from a clock radio can make going to sleep more difficult.

5) Use ear plugs and/or an eye mask. Put them on before you turn out the lights or if you wake up in the early morning when you need to get back to sleep. In hotels when I travel, I turn the clock away from me so the glare doesn’t disturb me and unplug the bar fridge so it’s as quiet as possible.

 6) Make it a TV/cell phone/computer free bedroom. This is a hard one from some people. But believe me. It works wonders to not have any electronics in the room. Some say even reading in bed is a no-no. But I’ve found it relaxes me.

 7) Don’t drink caffeinated beverages (if you drink them at all) in the evening. This includes black tea, soda like Coke and energy drinks. I rarely drink soda but do drink decaf coffee, rooibus or peppermint tea. I usually have only one cup per day. If I have more, I don’t have it any later than 5:30 P.M.

8) Exercise, even if only for 10 minutes a day. I do some form of movement every day. I practice yoga, go running or walk to the mailbox. Whatever I can muster depending on the day.

Experiment with these suggestions. See if any work for you. Put them into practice and do them consistently. When you do, your mood and energy levels will become more stable. If however, you’ve been struggling with insomnia or hypersomnia for some time without relief, please see your doctor. Remember: Poor sleep can wreak havoc in the life of someone who is trying to manage a mood disorder. More importantly though, is to remember that establishing regular sleep patterns can also be a heavenly balm.

© Victoria Maxwell

1. Kahn D., Printz, D., Ross, R., Sachs, G., Treatment of Bipolar Disorder: A Guide for Patients and Families; p. 6; Postgraduate Medicine Special Report, April 2000

2. Helmer, J. Slumber Solutions (add hyperlink: https://www.bphope.com/slumber-solutions/ ), bp Mag/ bpHope.com, Winter 2011

 

Feeling powerless over symptoms often goes with the territory when you live with mental illness. At least it can for me, particularly with anxiety and depression. This isn’t just the case for those of us diagnosed but also those who love and support us. They can feel at the mercy of these debilitating conditions when they’re at their peak.

Like a ragdoll in a tug-o-war between two kids or one in the washing machine (the ragdoll, not the kids) I can feel like I’m at the whim of my symptoms: negative self-talk, extreme fatigue, racing heartbeat, racing thoughts, incessant worry, rumination, lack of focus, aches and pains, hopelessness, emptiness – and those are just the pleasant ones. Kidding.

I enjoy feeling in charge of my mental health. Most weeks I am. But not always. Not by a long shot.

So what do I do? What can you do if you feel like this?

This is a strategy I’ve set up with my husband. It’s not a miracle solution, but it can help lessen the blows of bipolar disorder, psychosis and anxiety that I live with. It can help my husband better weather them too.

Let your loved ones help you. Enlist them into your wellness journey:

My husband knows me well. He catches signs of things shifting up or down better than (and before) I can sometimes. We all have our blind spots.

He’ll see me filling the Britta jug over the top line, or I’m getting up earlier (much earlier) than usual. Or like today, he’ll catch me making a grocery list and doing laundry at 5:00 in the morning. We’ve created a code word so to speak to signal I might be hypomanic. With kindness and enthusiasm, he’ll say ‘Oh. Spazzy Maginty is visiting us today!’

Another day, I fidget a lot in my favorite chair when we eat breakfast together. Or I won’t look him in the eyes when we talk. He might gently ask me ‘How are you doing?’ or more specifically ‘How’s your anxiety?’.

A different instance, he mentions my complexion looks grey and I’m sleeping longer than usual. Or he might recognize I haven’t run in a couple weeks. He’ll smile, look at me and ask if everything’s ok, knowing that likely it’s not.

His comments aren’t criticism but instead observation. Facts that I’ve changed from my baseline of wellness. It’s meant lovingly and delivered that way. It’s information I can use to my advantage. If I take steps to care for myself, I may prevent the anxiety, depression or hypomania from blossoming further. It’s not guaranteed, but it can reduce the intensity.

I’m not to blame for my conditions, and he’s not saying I am. I am however responsible for my health and reaching out for help when I need to.

My next steps are to be on the alert. Revisit and perhaps double up on my wellness tools. I check to make sure I’ve taken my meds and taken them properly. I’ll review and adjust my sleep patterns. Ask myself if I’m putting too much on my plate and if I need to, take things off. I’ll look at my exercise and aim to do a bit more, or do any if it’s fallen off the radar. I’ll call a friend and spend some quality time with them – phone or in person, doesn’t matter to me. As the incomparable Julie Andrews sings (sort of) these are some of my favorite (‘wellness’) things.

Ideally this will result in the levelling off of my symptoms. This isn’t rocket science. But it’s amazing how if I don’t see my warning signs early enough, and make the needed adjustment, how off course I can really go. And I’ve gone off course. Really off course in recent months. Think psychosis (twice) and major anxiety. But with the help and delicate diplomacy of my husband and my own willingness to accept assistance, getting back on more stable ground is possible.

3 Step to Help Prevent Relapse of Mental Illness

Note: Do these steps with your loved ones while you’re well, not when you’re struggling with acute symptoms.

To set the stage ask yourself:

What are your cues? Be specific. Ask your friends and loved ones to chime in about the warning signs they see. Compare notes.

Who do you want to be your ‘cue companion’? How do you want your loved ones or friends to approach you? Decide who and what’s most comfortable for you. You don’t need a husband, or even someone who lives with you. Just someone who cares.

What will your next steps be when they mention something? Have a list of your most effective wellness tools that you’re willing to commit to. Then pick one and do it. Be honest and clear about what you’re willing to do when warning signs start to rear their heads. Set yourself up for success Think tiny adjustments.

Then:

  1. When warning signs arise, your ‘cue companion’ has permission to mention what they see.
  2. Review your wellness tool list (with your loved one if you like)
  3. Take action: add, adjust said tools as needed.

Sometimes I worry, even feel ashamed at times, how much focus it takes to ‘manage’ my mental illnesses; that I might be a burden with all my mental health problems. But Gord has told me when he’s asking me about them, he wants to know. It’s ok, more than ok to talk about my mental health. Go figure?!

I’ve come to realize that this little 3-step system is as much of a sanity saver for him as it is for me.

Try this out with your loved ones and let me know how it goes. Or, if you have a similar system already in place, let me know how that works for you!

© Victoria Maxwell

There is a vast difference between information and wisdom. I’m learning how to spot the difference. One fills my head and fuels my fears, the other feeds my heart and soothes my spirit.

I’ve made some pretty dumb mistakes. Don’t get me started about the time I became a frosted blonde – think ‘90’s – VERY 90’s, for an acting role. That I AUDITIONED for. But didn’t GET. So, as you might imagine, I could use as much help as possible to let go of stubborn patterns and to make the most of the present.

The following are ‘bon mots’ that I think are divine. I mean that literally. I believe words and their authors are often supernaturally (in the good sense) inspired when they’re writing and creating. When the words have wisdom you can feel they come from a place larger than the rational mind.

I discovered these quotes as I’ve done research, watched videos and read books. Some inspire me, while others help me cope.

My wish for you is that these unique strings of words cast magic in your life for now and always.

Let the ‘onslaught’ of insight begin! Umm… let’s soften things up a bit. How about: let the ‘onslaught of insight gently begin…yeah, that’s better. 

1. “Perfectionism didn’t lead to results. It led to peanut butter.” – Brene Brown (from her book ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’) talking about how ‘perfectionism diets’ led her to emotional eating.

2. “Violence isn’t a symptom of mental illness.” – Amy Willans, CBC radio interview 

3. “Let the good stuff in.” – Krystin Clark (from her book ‘The Grateful Jar Project’).

4. “While the world figures this all out, I’m going to continue holding doors for strangers, letting people merge in front of me in traffic, saying “please” and “thank you”, saying “good morning”, being patient with children, the elderly, the waiter, the customer service rep at the other end of the line, and smiling at strangers. I will not stand idly by and let children live in a world where unconditional love is invisible….. Find your own way to swing the pendulum in the direction of love. “ – Molly Strongheart (saw this first on a friend’s Facebook page – can’t remember who, but thank you!)

5. “To be successful you need to have a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.” –  Reba McEntire

6. “I believe that all behaviour serves a purpose. It just may be that we don’t understand what that purpose is.” – Dr. Lloyd Sederer (TEDx talk ‘When Mental Illness Enters the Family’) reflecting on how unhealthy actions are an attempt to cope. His is a great video with very practical tips for loved ones that emphasizes working WITH, not AGAINST the person who is unwell. (watch at 8 minutes 30 seconds).

7. “If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, than the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.” – adaptation of Meister Eckhart teachings from the movie ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. Trigger warning: the movie is quite scary and intense (but also powerful). Viewer discretion is advised.

8. “Fall down 7 times, get up 8.” – Japanese proverb

9. “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 from his book ‘Letters to a Young Poet’.

10. “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll still get hit if you just sit there.” – Will Rogers

Comment below with YOUR favourite quotes. If I get enough, with your permission, I’ll compile them into a post. The more ‘bon mots’ the better. Don’t ya think?

© Victoria Maxwell

Some of you know my story. Many of you don’t. Every experience is unique and equally valuable.

Though our stories are ours and ours alone, it always amazes me how similar our journeys can be sometimes:

I’ve met more than a handful of people who have run down the street naked in a psychosis. Psychosis seems to prompt a shedding of clothes. Funny (or maybe not) depression doesn’t inspire the same behaviour.

Other shared experiences include traumatising incidents in the emergency room for both loved ones and those of us with mental illness. Damage done usually due to underfunded and understaffed hospitals, lack of services and overworked health professionals.

I also realize how lucky I have been and still am.

When I was diagnosed, it was the 90’s. I was a 20 something, middle class, white woman, living in one of the most affluent countries in the world boasting universal medical care – Canada.

There were treatments available: pharmaceutical and psychological. Though far from perfect, these treatments were more humane than anything that existed in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and even the 70’s when my Mom was diagnosed.

I also wasn’t struggling with addiction along with bipolar disorder, anxiety and eating disorder.

Addiction complicates accessing help and achieving recovery.

Incomprehensible as it is to me, addiction treatment, is largely still siloed and separated from other mental illness help.

Now, I’m a middle-aged, middle class, white woman in Canada. I am still very lucky and that luck is part of the reason why I have fared so well.

Others are not so fortunate. The social and economic inequities many individuals face, have a powerfully negative effect on mental health. Long lasting and intractable at times.

It’s not a fair fight for them. As such recovery is more difficult. 

I’m also lucky because my conditions responded to treatment well – medication and different forms of therapies and lifestyle changes. Yes, I put effort into my recovery.

But, effort and trying alone does not determine if recovery happens. I know people who try really, really, REALLY hard and are very proactive in their mental health yet wellness eludes them, through no fault of their own. These illnesses are confounding.

Every person who has mental illness and everyone who loves someone with a mental illness has a story that is unique and important.

This is a very brief description of mine.

Warning: humour ahead. The humour I use is not to minimize the very real suffering that mental illness causes. Humour is one of my wellness tools. Feel free to laugh along with me and about me.

I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder with psychosis, generalized anxiety disorder, mild temporal lobe epilepsy and an eating disorder when I was 25. Not really something you run and put on your resume under achievements. Well, actually, nowadays I do.

I didn’t initially embrace the idea of having a mental illness.

No, I flat out denied it, for 5 years. Even after four psych ward stays, multiple suicidal depressions, psychotic episodes, countless manias. Even after having to move in with my parents, losing my car, career, friends and money.

Even after running down the street naked in a psychosis, I wouldn’t accept I had a mental illness.

Eventually however, I did. With the guidance of caring (and extremely patient) parents and healthcare professionals and friends and support groups and peers, I did.

But it was still another journey of 5 more years to get back on my feet living independently, working,  enjoying the company of friends and in a loving relationship.

I laugh when I think of how life works. I would never have the career I do, had I not gone crazy in the first place!

I was originally trained as an actor. But my career derailed – untreated mental illness has a way of doing that. When I returned to work, I got a job as a receptionist. It was good, stable and healthy.

But, I craved more creativity in my life. I needed creativity in my life.

I started writing about my experiences. I submitted to a disability arts festival to “read from my book”. I was accepted. But, I didn’t a have a book. I didn’t even have excerpts.

So, I got to work, and wrote. Wrote not a book, but a monologue for the stage. Acting was what I knew. People liked it and asked “Is it part of a one-person stage show?” I said “Sure.” Ummm.. it wasn’t, but I know opportunity when it knocks.

From there I wrote a full keynote show. I started presenting it at organizations and conferences locally, then across North America, then internationally.

Since then I’ve written four more theatrical keynotes. Now I have a career speaking about mental health, smashing stigma, and leading wellness and creativity workshops .

I love what I do. I get to talk openly about what I used to be ashamed of. People want to hear about it. People want to feel comfortable talking about mental health. When I share my story and I see faces in the audience nodding in agreement back, it’s like finding brothers and sisters I never knew I had. And for an only child, that’s pretty cool.

Staying well is an ongoing process. I don’t take my mental health for granted. I can’t. I need to do certain things everyday to stay well. Exercise, meditate, take medication, eat well, sleep enough – to name a few.

My life is very different from what it was when I struggled with severe depression, suicide, anxiety, psychosis and my eating disorder. It’s taken a long time but I’ve got pretty good at managing my conditions. But, I’m always learning.

Now my focus is on healing, creativity, flourishing and gratitude. It’s also about sharing those things with others.

What is your story? Send me an email or comment below and let me know.

© Victoria Maxwell