December 1825, 1997
Interview by Jeannine DeLombard
Persimmon Blackbridge is the author of Prozac Highway (Press Gang), a new novel that details the increasingly stunted life of Jam, an over-40 lesbian cleaning lady and performance artist who is too depressed to do much of anything, including showering, combing her hair or leaving the house. But she corresponds regularly with a global network of mentally ill pen pals on the Internet newsgroup "ThisIsCrazy." Blackbridge resembles her protagonist in that she is also approaching middle age, is familiar with depression, has cleaned more than her share of other people's tubs and participates in a lesbian performance art collective, Kiss & Tell. Although Blackbridge's parents hail from Philadelphia, they moved to British Columbia when she was a teenager, leaving her with a heavy Canadian accent and a "mongrel" North American identity.
What inspired you to write this novel?
I've dealt with flipping out and the mental illness system in my visual art and writing for a long time. Quite a few people in my family were institutionalized at different times. I started my outpatient career seeing the school shrink at age 12. There's a certain way that I learned not to talk about it, to feel that it was something that you definitely didn't want to let people know about it. You know, you understand stigma at a very young age. That was negative, but there was also a way of not being so stuck in how things are supposed to be and not so stuck in a fear of stepping outside the norm, and kind of a humorous acceptance of people's variety, an appreciation for how people have really different strategies for survival. I think I got that out of it, which is a really, really positive thing.
Is there a real-life counterpart to the "ThisIsCrazy" listserv?
There is. It's kind of grown since the "ThisIsCrazy" that I wrote about. At the time I was writing, it was called "Madness," and now it has many little baby "Madnesses." If you look for "Mad Nation" on the Web, you can find lots of information about it.
Clearly the character resembles you. How autobiographical is this novel?
Well, it steals from my life right and left. It is also unabashedly made-up. I did go through a really hard depression and came out the other side of it. I did get a lot of support from "Madness" as I was going through that.
One of the things that you described well in the book was the self-imposed isolation of depression; it was interesting to have the listserv exist somewhere between social contact and a lack of social contact.
Although the Internet is really inaccessible to most people, people with disabilities use it in particular ways. There's often kind of an imposed isolation for various reasons for psychological survivors; a lot of the time it is the discrimination of society, or living in a small town where you don't feel you can really talk to anybody, like to get advice about your [medications] or get advice about going off your [medications], or whatever. There are programs where people with disabilities can get cast-offs from businesses for computers, and there's community Internet providers that will sign people up for freethere's always the library freenet! There's kind of a whole world of support on the Internet for people who, for various reasons, have a hard time with social interaction. It's a way of having community.
What kind of a relationship do you see between homosexuality and mental illness?
I think that mental illness is a social construct. I think that we do get pathologized for being queer. Certainly in Canada the suicide rate for queer teenagers is way higher than for straight teenagers. Similarly, the suicide rate for First Nations teenagers is way higher. But I don't think that's because our peoples are more mentally ill. I think it's because we're fed self-hatred at an early age.
There's so much discussion about Prozac and other antidepressantsI wonder what your take on all this is. I'm not sure what the mainstream American discussion is; I'm much more attuned to what people who are taking the drugs are saying.
There are people who are really defensive about taking antidepressants, so that any criticism is taken as being really threatening. But my position is kind of a pro-choice position. People have all kinds of different ways of surviving in this world, and I'm not setting myself up to judge them. I know a lot of people who are taking different psychological drugs because that's how they can survive in the worldfuck, it's hard; we find what we can use. But the majority of people I know are also constantly changing their drugs. You hear a lot about those cases where someone takes this drug and it miraculously changes their life and they live happily ever after. But in fact, even with the new antidepressants, people are constantly struggling to balance side-effects. A thing that happens often with these new ones is it will help for a while then it will stop helping. People struggle with, "Is it really making things better? Is it worth the side-effects?" Other people have really, really bad reactions to those drugs. People have a real variety of experience, and I want to honor that experience. At the same time, when I see the intense marketing of Prozac and other antidepressants, I think that's a place where choice becomes tricky I think that our choice becomes kind of questionable when there are so many millions of dollars that go into the marketing of drugs, making immense profits for drug companies. That's a really different issue from people's individual choices about how to get through points in their lives that are difficult.