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

When I was a kid, Halloween scared me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved trick or treating (mini Oh Henry Bars in particular). I loved creating costumes from scratch. I loved making multitudes of Kleenex ghosts and hanging them in our front window.

What I didn’t like was walking home the weeks before and after the day. Why? Firecrackers. Those freakin’ things seemed to be everywhere. Local bullies took no small pleasure at lighting them near me and threatening to throw them my way. I didn’t have any confidence to stand up to these blokes. Nor did I have friends or siblings who walked home with me to help stave them off or at the very least to reassure me and steady my nerves. Nope. It was one long scramble uphill – the whole entire way no less – back home. If I had even one friend with me during the traipse back to our rented house, the string of those lightning snaps that gave me such panicked pause would have been easier to face.

Super Fan Steve

That’s why when I read an article in our local paper about Steven Guinter-Plank, also known as Superfan Steve, I was moved.

Steve travels to countless minor league hockey games and there, cheers on every kid by name – on both teams. He flips through the program or gets a roster from the manager to make sure he doesn’t leave any player out. He even cheers for the refs.

You’ll find him switching jerseys throughout a game and shouting chants for each side. He started in his hometown and was motivated to continue because of the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy that claimed 16 people’s lives and injured 13. In an interview, he says as he shouts “Good job! Here we go everybody!” he can see a little more jump in their step.

His enthusiasm is contagious. Hockey parents, supporting only their son’s or daughter’s team, once witnessing what Superfan Steve does, often start cheering for both sides.1

It’s this kind of social support that was key to my recovery from mental illness. It continues to be key to maintaining my mental health.

The benefits of social support to mental and physical health

Numerous studies show the benefits of social support to mental and physical health and the consequences of poor social support.2 Generally speaking, social support refers to the different ways in which we’re helped by others, both physically and emotionally and in particular, during times of need.  

Superfan Steve shows the big impact small but specific gestures of support can make.

When I was in the deep throes of depression early in my struggle to find recovery, it was spending even just an hour with my friend Kerry that made a difference. Having him walk alongside me, so to speak, talk about things other than how to feel better and instead talk about our favorite TV shows. THAT’S what helped me. I didn’t need any fancy answer or new fangled resource. I just wanted a friend to hang out with for a bit.

Recently while experiencing bouts of intense anxiety, it’s been my husband who’s stalwartly and lovingly had my back. Grocery shopping together, a short walk around the neighborhood, a spontaneous hug during my workday, a surprise cup of coffee: these small deeds kept me glued together when I felt like I was falling apart.

The gestures don’t have to be grand or costly. Simple and personal work best – at least for me. Like Steve calling out the name of each individual kid – that’s what makes it special.

Imagine how I might have felt if I had a Superfan Steve of my own shouting ‘You got this Victoria! You can do this!’ on the sidewalk sidelines as I walked home while those firecrackers were exploding? I think I would have felt like a champion.

If you’re stymied as to how to show your support for someone keep it simple, keep it small, and personalize it. Does your friend love dark chocolate? A tiny bar left on her doorstep might be a good pick me up. Is your sister an avid science buff? Pick up a few National Geographics at your local thrift store. Does your neighbor enjoy hiking? See if they would like to walk through a local park. Maybe it’s saying hello and introducing yourself to the elderly man on the motorized scooter. You may be the only person he talks to today.

Your simple but powerful acts of kindness offer social support that has positive ripple effects in people’s lives. Science proves it. I’ve experienced it. Recovery, wellness and resilience are born from these small seeds of attention.3

Superfan Steve shows how easy it is to be a super fan and how important it is as well. You don’t have to travel to countless towns. It may just be knowing someone’s name. After hearing about Steve I’m now a superfan of his! I guess that makes me a ‘Superfan Steve’ Superfan.

How are you going to show your support for someone today?

For more Mental Health resources, tips & tools, sign up for my newsletter.

© Victoria Maxwell

References

  1. Bantam Bauer interview
  2. Ozbay, Fatih et al. “Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practicePsychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)) vol. 4,5 (2007): 35-40.
  3. Southwick, Steven M et al. “Why are some individuals more resilient than others: the role of social supportWorld psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) vol. 15,1 (2016): 77-9.