My brother Donald: please spread his story far and wide, and join the fight for better mental health
Posted on 14 August 2016 | 11:08pm
I want to thank the hundreds of people who sent messages, direct and on social media, after I published a tribute to my brother in the Sunday Times News Review yesterday. And though I often slag off the Murdoch media machine, I want to thank the Sunday Times for giving me so much space, and for treating the subject so seriously and so sensitively.
Of course, I could have just posted the piece on here and I am sure it would have attracted a fair bit of attention. But the kind of space the Sunday Times offered me was too good to miss, speaking with my Time To Change Ambassador hat on. And they agreed that provided I could give them a day’s exclusivity, then it could go anywhere.
So this is an open invitation to anyone who wants it to use it as they wish. If you want pictures of him, email me via my website and I will try to help. The more people read about mental illness, and talk about mental illness, the better will be our campaign for more funding, improved research and services. The more people realize that mental illness is not incompatible with doing good jobs and having a life full of potential and opportunity, the better we will all be too.
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 will be doing the eulogy for Donald at his funeral, for which we don’t yet have a date, and I will publish it here after the event.
Here is the piece. 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 Tuesday. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Our Mum having died two years ago, we were planning to make a film together – centred on him – on living with schizophrenia. He got the telly bug a bit when we appeared together in a film about bagpipes, one of our shared loves, of which much more later.
My daughter Grace, a film student, had begun to record interviews with Donald about the ups and downs in his life since he was first diagnosed – and later discharged – while serving in the Scots Guards in his early 20s. So he would sit and tell her about the time he was in a waiting room, and the wall-plugs were talking to the lights about him while he was surrounded by people who were all discussing terrible things they were about to do to him. Then he would laugh and say ‘absolutely mad innit Grace? And look at me sitting here now. Normal or what?’
The problem was that in recent months he has been on 24/7 oxygen to assist his breathing so the noisy buzz of his portable oxygen machine is a constant on the soundtrack. We were hoping – alas in vain – that he would get his breathing sorted and we would make the film free of the buzz and the nasal tube.
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.
He had a marriage, though it didn’t last. He had better luck in work, holding down a job he loved at Glasgow University for 27 years and at his farewell last year – alas because of physical ill health – the warmth and the turnout were evidence of the huge contribution he made.
Donald had two main roles at the university – he was the Principal’s official piper who played at dinners, ceremonies and graduations; and he was part of the university security team, mainly working at the control point in the university library. It meant he got to know hundreds of students, loved the banter, taught some of them the pipes, and regularly went round to order anyone with feet on tables to ‘kindly use the carpets.’
Glasgow University was a model employer for someone with severe mental illness, while his role as piper gave him a real sense of purpose and status which he loved. He piped out thousands and thousands of students from their graduations. One of the greatest sadnesses in his life was that latterly because of his poor breathing he was unable to play other than on electronic pipes – ‘second best Ali, but I’m still better than you.’
The very last time he played the ‘real’ pipes, we played together at a memorial service for Charles Kennedy, a former Rector of the University. ‘Good lad that Charlie Kennedy – always stopped for a chat.’ He had to give up half way through to get his breath and I finished alone.
It didn’t stop him adding this to his brotherly boasts: ‘Did you see Nicola Sturgeon nodding along to my playing? Alex Salmond isn’t the only one who knows I’m a better player than you.’ (Salmond had once said in an interview that Donald was the better player of the two of us – on this, at least, he was right). Our sibling rivalry went back to the one competition when I beat him aged ten – I got gold, he got bronze -and to his dying day he swore the judges confused us. He was probably right.
So the drugs worked. Kind of. But decades of powerful anti psychotic 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.
Donald Lachlan Cameron Campbell. You’d never guess our parents were Scots would you, giving their first born those names on May 3, 1954? Donald our Dad’s name. Lachlan his Dad. Cameron his mother’s maiden name. I got off lightly with Alastair John.
Like me and our brother Graeme and sister Liz, Donald was born and raised in England but an adult life that started in the Scots Guards as a teenager and once discharged on medical grounds was lived almost entirely in and around Glasgow, a lot of it in the piping world, meant that he had a 100percent Scottish accent (200percent when psychotic!). When we were interviewed together for the piping film, the interviewer doubted we were brothers because though I have tinges of a Scots accent when with Scots I have lived most of my life in England. We were brothers alright though. Living very different lives. But very close. No death have I ever dreaded more than this one.
He had little interest in politics, even less in sport. 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.
My Dad was a self-employed vet and had to get back to work. I was in my late teens, on a long college holiday and decided I wanted to stay down there. I didn’t have a driving licence at the time but went north to collect Donald’s car and spent my days in the hospital with him and my nights either finding someone to put me up or sleeping in the car.
Donald reciprocated after my own ‘not as psychotic as mine, Ali’ breakdown in the 80s when we went on a road trip visiting friends and relatives around Britain. He was great company; a real glue in both close and extended family, and a very loving and supportive brother. ‘I want to kick that Michael Howard’s teeth down his throat,’ he said after a particularly unpleasant attack on me by the former Tory leader. When I say ‘after’, yes, I mean immediately after but also one week after, a month, a year, five years after, last month. He really didn’t like people who said bad things about his family. And he loved saying the same things again and again! He had a book full of mantras.
Donald was very clever but not very well educated (the reverse of a lot of people I know). I have no idea when his mind first started to go wrong, but I do know of all of us he was the one who found schoolwork hardest. 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 had many doctors, nurses and psychiatrists down the years, and to the end had fantastic NHS care in several parts of the country and several moments of crisis. One of them once said to me ‘Donald is my greatest success story. Keeps his job. Owns his own flat. Drives himself. Stays active. Has a passion for his music. Has more friends than any of us. Has a positive attitude almost all the time.’
That last bit was certainly true. I wrote a book about my depression and called it The Happy Depressive. If we had ever made the film about Donald we were going to call it The Happy Schizophrenic. ‘It is what is it, Ali. I got given a bit of a crap deal, but you’ve got to make the best of it, know what I mean?” It helped that, unlike me, he did do God and his faith was certainly a comfort.
He loved people and he loved life. If there were an extended family vote – we have around sixty cousins – to elect its most popular member, he would have walked it. He worked almost all his life. He didn’t like hospital for all the obvious reasons but also because he didn’t like to be a burden on the NHS which he felt had already given him more than most. He adored his nieces and nephews and was obsessed with the idea that he should have something to leave to them even though several of them already earn more than he ever did. He was a total giver.
The piping was a gift from our father who taught us when we were very young growing up in Yorkshire. Indeed if ever I do Desert Island Discs the first song will be ‘Donald Campbell by Donald Campbell,’ a tune written in honour of my Dad and played by my brother on one of the CDs he recorded for the University.
For Donald piping became a life-defining passion. He competed at a high level. The judges were aware he could sometimes be ‘out of form up top,’ as once when my sons Rory and Calum and I went to see him compete in a Piobaireachd competition – top end stuff – Donald’s mind was wandering and the judges smiled as he stopped prematurely, said ‘bugger it, I was away with the fairies there,’ saluted and left the stage.
But he was competing, composing, recording and teaching almost to the end. One of his proudest contributions was his role as a piping teacher – both by Skype and with regular visits – on the island of Tiree where our father was born and raised. Donald was teaching the next generation of young pipers on an island whose population has been in steady decline since the time my Dad, Donald and I turned out for the Tiree Pipe Band on summer holidays.
When I played – admittedly only because a Sky Arts programme wanted me to – in front of 2,000 plus people at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, I played well (including the Donald Campbell tune) largely because he had been keeping me on my toes. ‘Proud of you son,’ he said afterwards. ‘But I’m still a better player.’ Playing with him and top piper Finlay Macdonald in the bar afterwards, with our Mum, my sons, our sister and her daughter Kate, and our last remaining Aunt from Tiree in the family gathering listening to us, was one of the musical highlights of my life.
My sister Liz was the last person to visit him, shortly before the respiratory collapse which led to his death. In recent days he had become unusually violent as the voices became more and more unmanageable. After being admitted, he was initially refusing to take medication or even oxygen and was having to be restrained regularly. When he had been stabilised somewhat Liz took in some old family albums and also some of his own CDs. And though he had forgotten a lot about himself and some of the people in the albums, and in any event was back talking the same kind of nonsense we heard more than forty years ago in Netley, when she turned on the CD, Donald’s eyes lit up and his fingers started to play along with the tunes on the bed rail.
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. And though the Donald who died was the sick Donald, the workings of his mind divorced from people and events around him – which is what schizophrenia is, not the awful ‘split personality’ cliche which compounds the stigma – in there somewhere was the real Donald.
The real Donald leaves behind so much grief precisely because he inspired so much love, and gave so much love to so many, not least his little brother.