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'I have had to fight': This Downtown Eastside artist has a powerful message about mental health

Warning: This story discusses suicide and a graphic depiction of a struggle with mental health.

He was told he didn't have to share his story — it isn't an easy one to tell. 

But Criss Blake Cook knew telling his story could help someone overcome their own personal struggle. The Downtown Eastside artist has always been an "oversharer," but says his forthcoming nature creates significant anxiety. 

"It comes with a lot of anxiety afterwards but I've learned to accept it is a part of who I am, and that it helps others," he tells Vancouver Is Awesome

In February 2020, Criss spent time in isolation in Alberta due to a cold. This "was a very dark time," he explains. "I had my dogs with me and I even taught them to play hide and seek with me. But eventually, your head goes very dark. 

"I sat in my bathtub with a knife for an hour, I didn't attempt, but that idea never left, and became more intense."

In June 2020, the artist attempted to take his own life. And, after moving into his shed and battling severe depression, he started self-medicating with hard drugs and alcohol. 

Criss attempted suicide a second time in August 2020. 

In November 2020, his brother helped him move to the Downtown Eastside to get help.   

"It has been a wild ride. I have Borderline Personality Disorder and other mental health issues, so I feel all emotions very intensely," he explains, adding that "being too happy" can be "just as dangerous as being too sad."

Before receiving help, Criss read everything by renowned trauma and addiction expert Gabor Mate, which he says enabled him to understand himself and get through the recovery process.

"I have had issues all my life, but I've never really received attainable help. I have had to fight for mental and physical help in B.C., which makes it more difficult to ask for help in the future," he added. 

After attempting to take his life again in August 2021 while living at the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver, Criss started the recovery program in October. He graduated from the program six months later in April 2022. 

"I like to say we have to squint to see the beauty, as in we need to be intentional. I think compassion is the first step to any kind of healing. That's what the Eastside did for me, particularly Union Gospel Mission, Jacob's Well, Downtown Eastside Artists Collective, and Overdose Prevention Society," the artist explains.

"They are authentic, full of kindness and compassion and it changes lives."

Photo via Criss Blake Cook/Facebook

"The power of a conversation with a safe person is very strong."

Art has been a source of healing for the 35-year-old, but he also loves music. He has been listening to rap music while drawing since he was a child. 

"I just never stopped," he says. "It's saved my life so many times."

Many of his pieces have "Mental Hell" themes, as Criss says there are always layers of "stuff" behind addiction.

"We tend to forget that. [But] we need to acknowledge it, and address it."

Criss chose his name as a nod to magician Criss Angel, but also draws inspiration from contemporary artist Michael Godard. 

"But the artists who inspire me the most are the artists here at the Downtown Eastside Artists Collective," he explains. "Every artist here is very talented, they are really cool people, with kind hearts. And I'm extremely thankful to get to be a part of it.

"These guys helped me realize I am a pretty cool person, too."

To someone who is also struggling, Criss says you should hold on and reach out:

"Talk to someone, no matter how stupid and crazy you think you are. The power of a conversation with a safe person is very strong."

The DTES Artists Collective art shows happen every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the City Center Motel located at 2111 Main St. Vancouver in Room #026 (the downstairs of the NE tower/stairwell). 

The DTES Artists Collective artists were invited by Monstercat to sell their art at their event on Aug. 20.