This is My Brain on TV
A Schizophrenic Experiments in Reality Filmmaking
Schizophrenia has often been popularly misconstrued
as split or multiple personality disorder along the lines of what was shown in the 1976 television movie Sybil, the true story of a woman who has 16 different personalities including two males. “People Say I’m Crazy,” John Cadigan’s autobiographical documentary chronicling how he has coped with this mysterious and debilitating disease over the past twelve years, is an astonishingly personal reminder that schizophrenia is actually better defined as a “break with reality.” His unflinching account of the struggle to understand and live with his sickness has the unintentionally ironic consequence of exposing the choreographed artificiality of what generally passes for “reality TV.”
Cadigan, now 34, is an amazing artist who makes woodcut prints (his work has been exhibited in museums all over the U.S. including the U.S. Capitol) and has suffered with the strain of mental illness since 1992. He failed to finish college at Carnegie Mellon University because he was too afraid to go to class. “I thought they were all out to get me, all out to mess with my mind and drive me crazy” he recalls. Instead he stayed in his basement apartment living “like a mole.” His fear, at one point, became so paralyzing that he resorted to urinating in a jar rather than walk twelve paces to go to the bathroom. It was not long after this that Cadigan was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (a combination of schizophrenia and depression).
After being diagnosed, nearly every medication that Cadigan tried over a three year period failed until a new doctor placed him on Clozoril, one of the newest drugs for schizophrenia on the market at the time. Cadigan responded well, and was able to function better though a drastic side-effect ensued: his weight ballooned 100 pounds increasing his shirt size to a huge triple XL.
With the help of his sister, Katie, and Academy Award winning documentarian, Ira Wohl, Cadigan begins to film his schizophrenic and depressive moments in an attempt to understand his illness. This is not, however, an exploitive experiment in reality filmmaking where Cadigan gratuitously lets it all hang out; instead, “People Say I’m Crazy” is powerful act of sanity amidst insanity. Cadigan says that the film is a way “to force me to examine my life, and maybe accept what was going on with me.” By logging hours of camera time over ten years, he comes to see his feelings are inconsistent with reality. The camera becomes Cadigan’s first line of defense when things seem overwhelming. During one particularly low moment, he calls Katie who recommends that he get the camera and document the emotional condition he is in. Viewers are then given an immediate and disturbing first-hand look into Cadigan’s depressed and paranoid state. Clearly nothing is out of bounds. Gradually, he recognizes the paranoia and depression for what they are and does not become overwhelmed by them. It’s a delicate leap of faith, and, while Cadigan knows that he will never be free of the feelings that he has, he also knows that this process is helping to facilitate a form of healing.
In a stroke of genius by his psychologist, Cadigan gradually recaptures control of his life through his art. His therapist recommends that when he feels like he’s unable to do anything but sleep, that he use that time to reflect on what he’s feeling and then try to express it in artistic drawings. Cadigan slowly goes from being lethargic most of the day to using the time he spends feeling trapped in his own brain to express his fears creatively. The results are nothing short of amazing—one particularly incredible picture of snakes squirming around in someone’s head seems to be a vivid representation of the effect his illness has on him.
Considering the harrowing nature of his account, Cadigan, surprisingly, is ultimately on a mission of hope in spite of the hopeless thoughts that creep into his daily life. He never tries to manipulate with cheap sentimentality; instead, he makes us laugh at his self-deprecating jokes, stand in awe of his artistic craftsmanship, and cry not at his struggle, but at his triumph.
In essence that is exactly what “People Say I’m Crazy,” is: a triumph of healing
through embracing illness rather than conquering it. Instead of feeling pity for this man who can’t trust his perception of reality, viewers will be moved by his determinion to explore and understand the world as he experiences it. “Making art is like breathing –a necessary part of my life” Cadigan says. “The more I work, the more I am healed, and the images become a deeper expression of my interior world.”
If people think that’s crazy…then maybe they need to have their own heads examined.
People Say I’m Crazy, directed by John Cadigan with Katie Cadigan, debuts Aug. 18, 2004 on Cinemax Reel Life. Check local listings in your area.