Visual arts help soldier with invisible injury

    Master Corporal Bridget Cucksey remembers facing Cluster Suicide Headaches for the first time during a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan.

    “I woke up in the middle of the night and just started repeating, I want to die,” she says. “My roommate hopped out of bed and got our Warrant Officer to rush me to the hospital.”

    MCpl Cucksey is a Communications System Technician at the Communications and Information Systems Specialist branch at Canadian Forces Station Leitrim in Ottawa. Doctors could not diagnose her until 2019, after she endured a year of chronic headache attacks.

    Cluster Suicide Headaches affect less than 0.1 per cent of the population. They cause severe, one-sided pain, typically concentrated around the eye and the temple, but can sometimes spread to other areas. While suicide is rare, those with cluster headaches may experience suicidal thoughts, giving them their name.

    “It’s unknown where they come from and how they start, and the triggers are different for most people,” she says. “You probably wouldn’t know I had this illness if you met me.”

    While she takes prescription medication and almost always carries an oxygen tank, she found art and yoga to be great coping mechanisms.

    In 2021, she picked up a coloured pencils for the first time in over a decade and completed her first colour drawing of a chicken. Since then, MCpl Cucksey has stuck with art again.

    “Art has had a huge impact on keeping my mental health intact,” she says. “When I’m present in my art, it allows my brain to pause, and all I think about in the moment is finding shapes and combining colours.”

    The journey

    MCpl Cucksey’s 15 years of service began in 2007 when she walked away from her dream to become a graphic designer.

    She was posted to 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters and Signal Squadron at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, after which she was deployed to Afghanistan. She also did a posting at 21 Electronic Warfare in Kingston, Ont., and a six-month deployment to Canadian Forces Squadron (CFS) Alert while serving in CFS Leitrim’s Canadian Armed Forces Communications Security Establishment in Ottawa.

    Now, MCpl Cucksey spends several hours a week painting from a spare bedroom in her home in Embrun, Ont. She immerses herself in all types of art, especially coloured pencil, acrylic painting, and foam smithing – making art from foam materials. She is also taking weekly oil painting classes.

    Branching out

    MCpl Cucksey says she created one of her favourite paintings, Red Geraniums, in 2021. The acrylics on the canvas intend to recreate her feelings during her headaches. Elements of blue, purple, and green scattered between the flowers add moodiness and darkness to the red geraniums on a sunny day.

    “I painted this in near-darkness because of my health, which is quite a challenge as I am always thinking of being present in my medium,” she said. “I like making my art a source of pain management because it shuts off my brain, so I am not thinking of an upcoming attack.”

    A local Ottawa café already expressed interest in her paintings. Earlier this year, MCpl Cucksey also contributed Red Geraniums to the Steel Spirit Art Gallery, founded in 2017 by former paramedic Barbara Brown. The Gallery showcases the unique artwork of military, police, firefighters, paramedics, hospital practitioners, and other first responders.

    “I think Steel Spirit is an amazing gateway to the art community,” MCpl Cucksey says. “I learned a lot about myself and my art while working with Barbara.”

    Her recent art projects inspired her to launch a career in art after she will be medically released from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) within a year. MCpl Cucksey says she loves her job but knows saying goodbye will not be easy.

    “My favourite part is the community and the friends I have made in the CAF; they are as dear and close to me as my own family,” she says. “But my art will help me turn the page.”

    Steel Spirit is always looking for new and emerging artists with and without art experience, from every background and every age. For more information visit:

    By: Peter Mallett, Staff Writer, The Lookout