TJ Cuthand

Bipolar Artist Reflections

(listen to the essay, read by the author)

It was 2001, the spring before the planes hit the towers. I was finishing my grad project about depression in a generally progressive art school called Emily Carr in Vancouver, BC. And I was intensely depressed, to the point of wanting to leave this mortal coil. I remember a handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans, Coca-Cola, and pack after pack of smokes were keeping me going through editing sessions at my school. I got crappy slots, so I’d edit from nine to midnight, and then walk up the hill to my apartment and come back down to the college from 7:30am to 9am to pick up a slot again. I had an ex who was gaming the system by putting their name down as Maya Deren to get extra slots, and no one noticed.

It’s not the friendliest place to have a major depression, in an art school where people had to weather sometimes harsh critiques. I tried to turn in a paper late to one professor who refused to accept it, even though under my long sleeves in warm spring weather were all sorts of small self-harm scabs. He didn’t want to hear the reason I didn’t turn it in either. I hadn’t made accommodations with the school, so I guess to him I was just troubled or lazy.

Another professor didn’t like the lesbian sex in the initial cuts of my grad film, and gave such a scathing critique of it being porn that I stopped going to his classes in exchange just to get a passing mark. He gave me a C.

The film itself, Anhedonia, won a digital award from the university of $2000 or $5000 though (I don’t remember how much). It had some kind of life afterwards in screenings at various places about mental health.

I felt like I had poured every inch of my depression into that film. It said all the things I’d wanted to say. What I didn’t realize was that soon things would get worse, in a different way.

I had one more year of academics before I could officially graduate, and I ended up dropping out of the fall semester. I didn’t go back until 2004. Meanwhile, I moved to Montreal, thinking of it as an artsy welcoming place. Until I ended up having a manic psychosis and being hospitalized in a French-speaking hospital.

Unfortunately, it was the kind of hospital that leaves psychological trauma. So, it was a highly adversarial relationship to psychiatry that ruined my trust in doctors for a very long time. I’d been in four-point restraints for wanting to use the phone during nap time, got locked in my room once because the orderlies were pissed at me. I never knew what they had against me, if it was because I was an obvious dyke (this was pre-my coming out as trans) or because I was Indigenous. I also think they had an adversarial relationship to all the patients. In the ER psych ward it felt like we were prisoners. We just sat around doing puzzles and watching tv, and since it was a French-speaking hospital, the only show I could follow was Just For Laughs gags.

I think it took me four years to get over my PTSD from that stay. It almost obliterated my art practice as I wasn’t nearly as productive after. I was overmedicated, and I felt blocked. Creatively, nothing was happening, like the magical sap of creativity was just sludge in my system, not going anywhere.

But I did make one video in that time about my experience, called Love & Numbers. It told stories from my life about going “crazy” and tried to make some bigger meaning out of it. That’s the thing about manic psychoses, they seem so meaningful, you can’t escape it. I learned a lot of spiritual principles from that experience. One of the things I realized is that we’re all facets of the same giant spirit having different embodied experiences through all the beings and plants and so on of the universe. I didn’t talk about it a lot though, because I felt people wouldn’t listen. It sounds so weird to say “We’re all expressions of the same thing!” and no one was really asking my opinion in those days anyway.

Love & Numbers was also about unrequited love for a friend. It had a soundtrack of numbers stations which went with my monologue, and binary code flashed on the screen at intervals. Numbers stations are stations broadcasting voices that read out numerical code over shortwave radio signals for spies to receive instructions. The binary code spelled out different psychiatric medications I had tried at that point, including Paxil, Imovane, Ativan, Epival, Zyprexa, all those guys that along the way had either helped or fucked me up. The numbers stations I used were to talk about the global paranoia that was operating just after the World Trade Center towers were attacked.

I used a friend’s camera to shoot it, since I didn’t have a budget at all. I used my computer and a stolen copy of Final Cut Pro to edit it. It was the first time I digitally edited outside of an artist-run center or school. This kind of freedom was something I really appreciated. I didn’t have a funder waiting for the final cut, I didn’t have to prove to a jury that it was worth making. I just made it. And then sent it to my distributors.

The next film I made was Madness in Four Actions. This time I had a deadline to finish a video and no camera with which to shoot it. I did still have my computer to edit it. I wanted to talk about psychiatric abuse I had suffered, but still didn’t want to bare my own psychological wounds to the public. So, I stole things. I lifted visuals from The Miracle Worker that illustrated the violence involved in “training” disabled people. And quoted various doctors and activists about psychiatry and their experiences of it on both sides. I had to figure out how to rip images from a DVD, I had to make a soundtrack (without a mic!). I used the sound of the Cassini space probe from NASA to give it an otherworldly feel. I wanted to honour the spiritual experience of madness while still saying “treating people this way regardless of in/sanity is not okay.”

And then, a couple of months after I finished that video, I started going into my second manic episode. This time I wasn’t in Montreal. I was living in Saskatoon in my Mom’s basement. I started getting obsessed with my computer and thinking I could speak to it and it was speaking to me. I went for long ambling walks where I dined and dashed and sang badly late at night. I went into the hospital again, but a different one. It was still boring. But I had my psych-ward friends, there were craft supplies, we had access to the outdoors. I still wanted out of there and I had to spend my 29th birthday in there. My Mom and her friend showed up late to give me a cake and then a nurse chased them out, so it was still pretty depressing. In the end I was mostly okay but got discharged because the pharmacists were going to go on strike at the hospital.

I think about my life and how I’ve managed to make work as a bipolar human. I realized it’s important to set my own schedule. I let myself sleep in. I’m lucky that I am self-employed and can do the things I need to do in my own time. I did spend a lot of years collecting welfare or disability. I also spent a lot of years living off of grants. Right now I do a collection of paying gigs to get by. I have done some shoots that have 12-hour days, but I’m happier doing short shoots over a series of days. Recently, I filmed a webseries with some friends, which had eight-hour days and were much easier to get through than shoots with longer days. Finally, I also own a camera (a good one!).

I think a lot about what I would say about mental health now. Last year, my Mom and I made a video called Neurotransmitting, which used images of the scans of brains she beaded for an art show with stories of my last hospital stay. She didn’t want to glorify the mania, so some of my stories were left out.

But I can say, as destructive as it can be, mania also gave me so many ideas and was such a profound experience that I’m almost sad we didn’t glorify it at least a little bit. I feel it’s just such a human experience that is so stigmatized, there’s nowhere you can take those experiences to talk about them. Unless you have a good therapist, I suppose. Sometimes the connections your brain makes are really funny. All those puns. Sometimes you realize something about living here on this planet in your body with your soul that changes your entire view of the world. That is worth celebrating.

And sometimes you just want to celebrate finally being discharged and being able to go have a hot dog.

“Disability Futures in the Arts” is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.Logo for the Canada Council for the Arts/onseil des arts du Canada

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About the Author

TJ Cuthand was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1978, and grew up in Saskatoon. Since 1995 he has been making short experimental narrative videos and films about sexuality, madness, Queer identity and love, and gender and Indigeneity, which have screened in festivals internationally. His work has also exhibited at galleries including the MOMA in NYC, The National Gallery in Ottawa, and The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He completed his BFA majoring in Film and Video at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2005, and his Masters of Arts in Media Production at Ryerson University in 2015. He has also written three feature screenplays and has performed at Live At The End Of The Century in Vancouver, Queer City Cinema’s Performatorium in Regina, and 7a*11d in Toronto. In 2017 he won the Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. He is a Whitney Biennial 2019 artist. He is of Plains Cree and Scots descent, a member of Little Pine First Nation, and currently resides in Toronto, Canada.