Today Frontier Psychiatrist is honoured to feature an interview with fellow blogger Prozacville. For those of your unfamiliar with this site Prozacville is – in its own words – a cartoon about ‘existential discomfort and other things that go bump in the night, starring a cast of walking-talking Prozac pills’. And I think that it’s entirely brilliant, which is not something I write without due consideration.
Can you tell me about why you started the Prozacville site?
The pedestrian answer to ‘Why Prozacville?’ is that I’d been doing a lot of drawing, painting and illustration, but was finding it all a little untethered, abstract, free-floating, and was trying to think of a way of tying it together more with words. The David Shrigley route was one way of doing this, but Shrigley was already having a good crack at doing Shrigley, so although I dabbled for a while in Shrigleyness, I think I was waiting for something to come along and unlock my creative-quandary. This came in the form of Hugliekur Daggson of all people, who reminded me that cartoons can be profoundly visceral and ‘shocking’ (in the best sense of that word – ECT for/by the unconscious, if you like), a million miles away from the classic set-up + joke nature of traditional cartoon strips. Daggson ‘allowed me’ to begin drawing and thinking in a certain way and the early cartoons were thus a kind of homage or paying-of-dues to him.
[Early Prozacville cartoon - 2007]
But then I quickly realised that I couldn’t be Hugeilekur Daggson, and didn’t want to be Daggson, who is (in the best and most interesting sense) a sort of One-Man Viz Comic, the Id-Unleashed (in pen and ink). In order to do what he does, a kind of simple substitutional defence mechanism needs to be at work: acupuncture-humour, pushing needles into anything and everything that feels like a taboo. But where’s Daggson himself in all of this? I’ve always enjoyed those writers and artists who leave enough cracks and spaces for the viewer or reader to see (or at least think they’re seeing) Joe Schmo standing behind the neatly-produced ‘answer’ pulling the cranks and levers to maintain the illusion of that (provisional) answer. Perhaps I’m talking here about Projection and Sublimation (which I think/hope Prozacville invites), but also the difference between Sublimation-as-Displacement (AKA: Taking The Piss) and Sublimation-as-Intellectualization (AKA: Ooh, Clever Me). I obviously have a greater need for the latter. I mean, it’s great if you laugh (or even, god forbid, LOL) at Prozacville, but even better if you’re taken onto the cusp of a set of conflicting emotions. That’s where the interesting ‘stuff’ is happening (all the time, in our heads) and that’s what I think I’m trying to do with the drawings. Adam Phillips says in Terrors and Experts with his usual delicious cultivation of paradox that “the unconscious is a logic that dispels the illusion of minimal alternatives”. Prozacville gives me (and hopefully you) the feeling of having greater access to that.
Where do you get your inspiration for your cartoons?
It’s very much a mish-mash: things I’m reading about, things happening to me or those close to me, newspaper articles, tweets, bleats, Negative Automatic Thoughts, advertising hoardings, the general whirr and whirl of the world flooding into into eyes and ears and sparking off something that feels like a Prozacville idea.
Both. I’m nearing the end of my three year training as a counsellor/psychotherapist (integrative), and so quite keenly registering the experience of being (and having been) on both sides of the couch, which is hopefully something I’ll be able to hold onto in my own clinical work. I think we sometimes forget that all health professionals were at some point patients/clients -some more than others- and it feels right that it should be this way. I’m not a huge fan of Jung, but the notion of ‘The Wounded Healer’ is a powerful one.
If you’ve had anything to do with psychiatrists, what do you think of them?
I’ve not experienced psychiatrists as a patient. I envy though you having that medical background on which to stitch a psychology/psychotherapy training as it seems to me just plain common-sense that mental illness is a biopsychosocial phenomenon, and let’s face it, you’ve got the bio bases better covered than I have. I do wonder though, if coming from a medical background means you are also more prone to ‘diagnose’ and pathologise, as I believe the the power of the work can sometimes be found in not putting someone into a DSM-IV category, maybe even that very category in which they themselves have become quite comfortable in. But saying that, I also think we all diagnose or label to a certain extent. If you think someone’s weltschmerz stems largely from loneliness, this existential category/causality is as much a ‘diagnosis’ one might argue as formulating the notion of them as having something like an avoidant personality disorder. Isn’t it just a problem of nomenclature? You say potato, I say paranoid personality disorder, so let’s call the whole thing off? Linked to this is the problem that the mental health world seems to be so deeply fractured and splintered. Most of the time psychiatrists, (good) GPs, clinical psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists (of all schools), psychoanalysts, psychiatric nurses, and dare I say I even say it, homeopaths, priests, imams and rabbis (of a certain self-reflective hue) are all involved in quite similar processes, but you’d never glean that from reading what they think about each other, or the ways in which they try to distinguish themselves from each other. I think we’re back here in the realm of ‘illusory miminal alternatives’.
Can you give us an idea of how you occupy your time when you’re not drawing cartoons?
Apart from the psychotherapy/counselling, I also lecture at a London Uni, though in an unrelated subject area. In order to keep my own mind, body and spirit together, at the moment I’m pretty evangelical about Bikram yoga and will probably try and get you into a Bikram oven were you to express even a passing interest in the subject.
What you you think of medication as a way of treating psychiatric disorders?
There is no easy/pat answer to this, is there? I’m sure we both know people who wouldn’t be here today if it were not for psychoactive medication, but then it’s also sometimes a way for us as a society to ‘fob off’ or sedate those who are in mental pain with a relatively low-cost, low-person-intervening chemical cosh. It would be great if everyone could have access to both good psychiatric assessment and drugs (if they needed them) and/or long-term talking therapy. But that’s very much the Utopian ideal, isn’t it? If you think that it costs the NHS a few grand to give someone a year of once-a-week talking therapy at somewhere like the Tavistock, but probably less than a tenner to supply generic SSRIs for the same period, well, you can see why most people ends up with pills and/or (if they play their cards right) six to twelve sessions of CBT.
Which other cartoonists do you recommend?
On the website I list some of my vertical influences/authorities (the ‘parents’ of Prozacville, if you like) and horizontal ones (siblings). On and offline though, I probably spend more time reading mental health blogs and books (fiction/non-fiction) than cartoons or webcomics, because even if I’m looking for entertainment I still want to be moved in some way, and on the whole cartooning/comics is a medium that doesn’t seem to take that part of the equation hugely into consideration. It’s really great that after about three years of doing Prozacville, the mental health/blogging world has ‘discovered’ The ‘Ville. This has always been my ‘target audience’ and so it’s really gratifying that you/they seem to like what I do.