Interview with author Graham Morgan

Author: Wendy Tuxworth

Today I am very pleased to be interviewing author Graham Morgan about his memoir ‘Start’, the publishing process, and being under a compulsory community treatment order.

Trigger warnings: death, mentions of depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse, 

In 2018 you published your memoir, ‘Start’. Could you please give a brief synopsis of what the book is about? Why did you decide to write it? 

START is a memoir set over a year, five years ago. It is hard to describe succinctly: it is a love story, but it is also a description of the painful ending of a marriage and the loss of contact with a loved son. It is a description of the love of the natural world and the joy and peace it can bring. It is a story of learning to live again, to make new friends and to gain an independence that had been lost. Perhaps most importantly it is a description of living for many years under compulsory treatment for schizophrenia and the impact that has had, both in terms of treatment and identity. It is a reflection on the way other people with mental ill health are treated and, in many ways, a realisation, that came from conversations with family and loved ones, of the impact this experience has had on people who have cared deeply for me and never given up on me.  It has been said by some people that it is inspiring, I don’t think so; it is a way of describing something messy and confused, something horrific but sometimes also funny; sometimes beautiful.

To be honest I didn’t decide to write START. I had written a very poor book about the sea and rocks and beaches and my relationship with them some years ago and, unhappy about how it finally ended up published (through my own fault) in what was really a first or second draft, I had decided never to try to write anything long again or to try to get published. But one day, when I was feeling lonely and was contemplating a life that didn’t seem to be improving, I started writing and found I couldn’t stop. I took every chance I could to write and two months later had a collection of 120000 words which I thought were wonderful! It may sound strange but, initially, START wrote itself without much thought or structure. Luckily, I had the next five years and a collection of wonderful mentors to help me whittle all those words down into the book we ended up with.

Your writing style is described as very honest and hopeful. Was having a theme of hope and positivity important to you? Why?

I did not want to write something overly positive and hopeful, I think the life I lead and the life of many of my friends is sometimes awful and so terribly isolated and lost. But equally I didn’t want to turn our lives into tragedy. I am lucky that I have led quite a privileged life and that I have been able to work for most of my adult life and during that work, meet many other people with mental ill health, with whom I shared sadness but also laughter and joy. While I wanted to be honest about our world, I was also in the fortunate position that much of my life has been pretty good and felt it was important for ‘outsiders’ to realise that having a diagnosis of schizophrenia and the accompanying depression and anxiety and alcohol abuse does not have to mean that life is perpetually horrific.  

You’re very involved with mental health – you helped to write the Scottish Mental Health (2003) Care and Treatment Act. Do you think this gives you a different perspective to other writers? How/why?

I don’t know! I was a member of the Millan Committee whose review led to the creation of that act and then of the McManus review whose review led to the present 2015 act.

I have been involved in the world of activism and advocacy since my early twenties. I was initially deeply suspicious of professionals and policy makers for instance we barred all professionals from the drop in centre we established for young people many years ago. But over the years much of my prejudice and hostility has fallen away especially when the group HUG (Action for mental health) which I set up 23 years ago, made a difference because we worked with professionals. It flourished partly because we reached across what may have initially seemed like a wall and realised that we often had similar values and approaches to the world and indeed similar experiences. It seems a bit silly to say it now but my attitude changed so much when I met nurses doctors and social workers and other professionals who were also open and frank about their own experience of mental ill health. It takes away so many preconceptions and makes that blanket prejudice some of us have held impossible to sustain.

However helping create the legislation which I am currently detained under does give a fairly unique perspective. I strongly believe that being sectioned while often terribly traumatic and damaging can also save lives but have always struggled to reconcile the fact that I argue for the detention of my friends and relatives; my own community if you like. Sometimes I worry that I have betrayed the very people who give me so much to look forward to in life. This is despite the fact that in my work I have often consulted that community on this subject and have found that most people agree with me but still it troubles me; to argue that something as horrible and undignified as constant observation in hospital is sometimes needed; to agree that sometimes it is worth it not to be able to walk in the fresh air among the trees and birds if that will keep like me and those I love alive.  

How did you find the publishing process? Was it difficult to find a publisher that wanted to publish a book about mental health, and specifically  paranoid schizophrenia? 

I really had no idea what to do. I was lucky that I have had a wonderful supporter who is a writer called Andrew Greig and a few other writers such as Mandy Haggith, Cynthia Rogerson, Ailsa Crum and Kate Ashton who were kind and helpful about what I had created and gave me the confidence to think it deserved to be published. They let me know the sort of Scottish publishers I could approach and gave me some idea about how to approach them. The five publishers I initially went to, with the exception of one, once they had acknowledged my unsolicited submission,  seemed to be taking ages to get back to me. So, armed with a new covering letter I started googling again and found Fledgling Press.

Clare, who runs Fledgling Press, got back to me in a matter of days. I will never forget my inarticulacy when sitting down in the Scottish Library and she said she would like to actually publish the book! And getting the contract, the days working out the cover, the editing; all of that was wonderful. I was extremely anxious and Clare always positive and patient. It has been a remarkably positive and pain free journey.

What insights do you think readers can gain from reading ‘Start’? Have there been any surprising responses from your readers? 

The most surprising thing to me was the number of people who said that it was funny. I struggle to think of myself as being remotely funny. I am not quick enough or relaxed enough to be funny but somehow there are some small flashes of humour in the book which people have commented on.

If there is any one message that I was hoping to get through to people it was that there are no quick fixes. That living with mental ill health is difficult and lonely, and although work, mindfulness, medication, hope, friends or even love can be transforming they do not on their own, make everything better. We can and do have fulfilling and joyful lives but despite this some of us will probably always struggle with our mental health and there is nothing to be ashamed of because of this. We are not failures if we struggle to recover and we are not heroes if we manage to see some brightness in our lives. We are, as we all know, ordinary people dealing as best we can with very difficult experiences.

Are there any other books about people with paranoid schizophrenia that you could recommend? 

Oh dear, I don’t know!! I could google that for inspiration but do not know of any that I could recommend. That is partly because, despite reading all the time, I always forget the title and author of the books I have read almost as soon as I have read them. I have read many books about people with this diagnosis but very few written by people with the diagnosis which is partly why I wrote START. There are definitely some good ones around so do please look out for them and hopefully let me know about them too.

Do you have any advice for writers wanting to talk about mental health in their books? 

I am lucky in that I have been open about my experiences for decades but if you are speaking publicly for the first time, do be aware that it could have an emotional impact and also that writing some of these things can remind you of issues and experiences you might want to forget.

I really struggled with what I should say about other people in my life and didn’t include some things because of this. This is an important issue, especially if we have had some awful experiences; do they need to be said? If so how are you going to say it, are you going to use real names? How might the person or people being written about react to this?

And lastly I try to remind myself that when I think I have answers or advice that in a few years time they are probably going be out of date and that what might be just right for me may be no good at all for other people. It can be an important lesson, it is easy to become arrogant in our belief in what would help our friends, loved ones and acquaintances.

What are your plans for the future? Are you going to write anything else? 

I have started my next book, which I am excited about but need to give some thought to. My partner’s father died recently and we were very involved in his care for the last part of his life. I am going to use some of that as a framework to talk about some of the wonder of living ordinary lives.

Graham Morgan lives in Cardross with his partner Wendy and her young twins. He is 56 years old and has spent the last thirty odd years living in Scotland. For most of those years he worked in mental health trying to help people with a mental illness speak out for a better world for their community.

He worked with HUG (Action for mental health) which is based in the Highlands for twenty years, which is a group that gained an international and national reputation for its advocacy and anti stigma work. He resigned as manager 3 years ago in order to move to Argyll to be with Wendy and her family.

He now works for the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland and as part of this work has spoken to the United Nations Committee against Torture and at a number of International conferences. He has had a number of papers published recently about issues to do with mental health in  academic journals and books. The best part of his work is visiting people with lived experience throughout Scotland.

He is divorced and has a son who he doesn’t see. In his early twenties he was a fairly incompetent yacht skipper but was privileged to see some lovely sights while sailing on various oceans. He now works part time and is delighted by it – not having much money but having time with his family and the dog Dash more than makes up for it.

He was first admitted to a psychiatric hospital 36 years ago where he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder but when we was 28 he was admitted again and re-diagnosed with schizophrenia. He has been sectioned a number of times and has been treated under a compulsory community treatment order for the last ten years.

Graham was awarded an MBE for services to mental health over a decade ago and in 2012 was awarded joint service user contributor of the year by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

You can buy ‘Start’ on Amazon, Waterstones, and at Blackwells.

Many thanks to Graham for agreeing to this interview!


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