Victoria Maxwell stood in front of a Nelson audience last week and described in detail what it’s like to go crazy.
“Surges of energy barrel through my body, love pours through my heart. Time stands still and never starts. I lie on my bed, heat scorches the underside of my skin, chills roll over my body, I am nervous but not panicked. The blue walls of my room rumble with both terror and bliss, sweeping waves of ecstasy, tornadoes of grief. Gales of laughter erupt from my belly, tears stream from my eyes. I am blown open. I don’t sleep or eat and barely need to drink.”
Maxwell’s audience was a roomful of social service workers, police, and the general public. Her appearance in Nelson was part of the the conference of BC police boards that took place in Nelson last week.
Maxwell is a professional speaker on the lived experience of mental illness and recovery who calls upon her theatre background, personal experience of psychiatric illness, and expertise as a group facilitator and mental health worker. She blogs for Psychology Today and tours a one-woman show called Crazy for Life.
Her talk was theatrical, irreverent, and humorous. She calls herself the Bipolar Princess.
“I am running, running like an exploding jack-in-the-box up West Tenth, past Safeway, Starbucks. Running, running naked. I am naked. I am not taking my meds. I am in a state of euphoric manic psychosis looking for God. I discover not taking meds can be a sure-fire way to catapult into the up-and-down chaos of bi-polar disorder. I am definitely on an upswing.
“I run past the fire hall. If there isn’t an emergency there sure as hell should be! I guess I was the best siren there. I think taking off my dress is a good way to meet the beloved, God, you know, that pure body kind of thing. I am playing hide and seek with God. I am alive, euphoric, and the world around me seems like nothing. It is all a dream of nothing. Colours blur by, green leaves, bright sun, hard concrete, cars slow down then speed up.
“Then something there, in the bushes, so simple, so divine. ‘I’m here, I’m here, it’s me…’”
Then the ambulance arrived and Maxwell found herself dealing with paramedics who were understanding, compassionate, and calm.
“They were not reacting with fear. The more scared I am the worse it is going to get, so what was really helpful was that the police officer was super calm, really gentle, reading the situation carefully.”
But she has had other experiences with medical personnel and police who were not so understanding.
“Next thing I know I am lying in emergency in a hospital bed with a pink curtain closed around me. All I feel is terrifying emptiness and death knell isolation. I rummage through the bed looking for something sharp, scissors, and the nurse turns and shouts, ‘Hey, stop the crazy woman.’
After trying to escape, she ended up “lying face down on a gurney, steel safety bars up both sides, left wrist strapped, right wrist locked, leather cuffs.
“To my left a security guard, arms crossed, stone faced. A nurse is tapping a needle the size of a 7-Eleven straw, then wet cool cotton and a jab, a rush of images, regrets and dreams kaleidoscope, and in that moment I realize I have gone crazy, what everybody calls crazy. My head falls into the pillow, and everything goes black.”
Maxwell also talked about her experience of depression.
“It seeps deep into my bloodstream. I recognize it immediately. I relent and surrender to its undertow, exhausted. No apparent reason for the beast’s presence, no lost love, no lost job, just a hovering blackbird, circling, permeating my entire existence.
“Not the blues, not the dumps, not down, not self-pity. A physical sensation, wet laundry soaking my chest, pain in my head, a haze of fatigue and absolute hopelessness, infinite and immovable, relentless.
“You are useless, you are crap, you are dead. You are useless, you are crap, you are dead.”
Maxwell shared some strategies including one for speaking with someone who won’t take his pills because he thinks they are poison and he is being followed and hearing voices.
“Instead of disagreeing with him and trying to convince him there is no one following you and there is no one tapping your phone, I would say, ‘Yeah, that has got to be really disturbing and frightening. There is this special formula, and if if you take it, those voices and the tapping won’t affect you. It will protect you.’
“You can enter his world without denying it. I thought I was going to meet God. If someone tried to convince me God was not around the corner I would have called them crazy. I knew that is who I was meeting. It is disrespectful to ask them to give up what they know to be true: we are setting up a power dynamic when it should be about partnering, not necessarily agreeing but empathizing.
Maxwell said she realized she was “preaching to the choir” and advised the audience to “talk to people who don’t have time for people with mental illness.
“Start one conversation about mental illness with someone who you think doesn’t know a lot about it. Any kind of conversation about it changes the public discourse and as soon as we start changing the public discourse we can influence policy.”
She chastised the media for contributing to the stigma about mental illness with headlines like, “Schizophrenic man attacks police.”
“Imagine the headline, ‘Diabetic man attacks police,’ or ‘Lactose intolerant teen kills family,’” she said.
Nelson police Chief Paul Burkart was in Maxwell’s audience.
“It is one thing to get training on mental illness and dealing with the mentally ill,” he told the Star, “and yet we don’t really understand what they are going through.
“You hear about this crisis scene which seems totally out of control and yet she remembers so much of what was going on, and we have to remember that, and take that compassion for people who are suffering from mental illness to a new level.
“She reinforced that today.”