Writer and communicator Alastair Campbell has kindly allowed us to share the story of his brother, Donald.
Donald was not ‘a schizophrenic’. He was a man who had schizophrenia. Big difference. He refused to let his life be defined by his illness. And he was a man who lived an amazing life despite it. I don’t expect you to love him as much as I did. But I do hope it makes you think both about the horror of this ‘shitty illness,’ but also the possibilities of overcoming it. I hope it might make people and employers sign up to Time to Change, and add charities like MIND and RETHINK to those you think about supporting.
My big brother died on the 14th August 2016. It was a massive, horrible shock, even though we have always known that people with his condition live on average twenty years less than the rest of us. My Dad lived to 82, my Mum to 88. Donald was 62. His condition was schizophrenia.
Till now, I never talked publicly about Donald’s illness in public mainly because our Mum didn’t want me to. Not out of the shame and stigma that many people sadly still feel about mental Illness. She was incredibly proud of him, because of what he managed to achieve despite having what he called ‘this shitty illness.’ It was more that, not enjoying having one son in the media spotlight, she worried that if Donald’s head was in any way above the parapet, it could have made him even more vulnerable.
His illness, not mine, is the real reason I campaign for better understanding and treatment of mental illness, not least because people who have schizophrenia do have such shortened life expectancy.
I talk about my own issues of depression and addiction partly because I am asked to and also because I think openness is better all round if we are going to break down the stigma and taboo and so win the fight for the services and treatments we need.
Donald on the other hand was totally up for it. Like a lot of mentally ill people, when he was well he thought he ought to be famous. And when he was ill be thought he already was. In his prime, he saw Sean Connery as a suitable actor to play him in the movie of his life. More recently he wondered if George Clooney could do a Scottish accent. He was competitive about his illness. ‘Saw you on the telly again talking about your psychotic breakdown, Ali. You heard voices once and you’re like Mister Mental Bloody Health. Why don’t they come and talk to a real expert?’
He was certainly an expert on living a good life with severe mental illness. His passion was the bagpipes. He joined the Army largely so he could be in one of the Guards’ bands and hopefully spend more time piping than soldiering. He was serving in Northern Ireland however when his colleagues and superiors started to notice that he was behaving strangely. The next thing we knew he was in a now defunct military psychiatric hospital in Netley, Hampshire. When we got the call, I travelled down with my Dad. Donald was in his own room, bewildered and scared, and had been drawing all sorts of weird things on the walls. In so far as he spoke, he talked absolute nonsense. Both my Dad and I just stood there, shocked to the core. Those eyes were not the eyes we knew. It was a tough place. That is no criticism of the doctors and nurses. They were operating at a time when servicemen and women who wanted to leave service early had to ‘buy their way out’ and so amid the really serious cases evident to all, the medics were on the lookout for people feigning mental illness as a way of doing so. It was also a time when ECT was a favoured form of psychiatric treatment and Donald had his fair share of that.
Here is the real bastard about his shitty illness. The drugs. Don’t get me wrong. Treatment–in Donald’s case, medication–can often help restore someone to the person they are supposed to be, unclouded by the illness. Medication helped give him long periods free of the voices in his head and the hallucinations before his eyes that could otherwise reduce him to a sometimes terrified and other times aggressive human being. So the drugs worked. Kind of. But decades of powerful antipsychotic medication take a toll. When it came to fighting ‘normal ’illnesses like colds and flu and chest infections the gaps between them got shorter and the quantity of ‘normal’ drugs required to treat them got larger.
Added to which a recent change of his main medication for the schizophrenia–necessary to deal with the physical illness and weight increase–seemed to have sent him haywire mentally.
In the end something had to give. His life. It is a source of real sadness that our last conversations were with the psychotic Donald, not the loving, giving, funny Donald who brought so much to our lives by making so much of his own.
I’ve often wondered too whether those times when he just couldn’t seem to get himself out of bed, which my parents saw as signs of teenage rebellion, were the first indications of an illness about which we knew absolutely nothing when that call from the military came, a call after which, our mother said many times, her life was never the same again. He lost his mind from time to time.
Now, all too young, he has lost his life. But right to the end of it, he never lost the music in his soul.
Alastair Campbell is an Ambassador for Time to Change, also for MIND and RETHINK, and Patron of the Maytree suicide sanctuary in London. For more information about Mr Campbell’s campaign to end the stigma surrounding mental health,visit his website, www.alastaircampbell.org