Interview with John O Donoghue

April 12th, 2016 by The Mag Editor in Features

John talking to Jason

We sent our panel of editors to meet award winning author John O’Donoghue. A sufferer of mental health issues himself, John won Mind Book of the Year with his book Sectioned: A life Interrupted and is now a lecturer in creative writing. Our editors put their questions to John about his experiences and how he manages his mental health.

Bob: What made your mental health problems start?
I was around 14 or 15 and that’s when I felt the first slippage, and I told my mother how I was feeling, and she looked a bit alarmed, as she’d had troubles herself, and I think she though “oh god it’s coming out in him now”.

Bob: Mine started in 1986 after my divorce.
They do say these big life events life bereavements, loss of jobs, breakdown of relationships can be a catalyst.

Jason: What was it like having ECT?
I was 16, I was very nervous I didn’t know what was going to happen. I’d been slipping in and out of psychosis frankly. I’d be psychotic, I’d get better, and I’d slip back into it. The ECT felt like the nuclear deterrent. To put electricity through someone’s brain when you don’t know what it does, it’s a bit of a curious treatment. I didn’t like it and I don’t agree with it to tell you the truth.

Martin: How have mental health services changed over your lifetime?
When I first started it was the old Victorian asylum. There were famous cases of abuse, which hastened their decline as well as a move towards integrating mental and physical health to try and destigmatise the level of provision given. However, as a revolving door client in the early 80s, I saw the impact the cuts had. Not on provision but on morale.

After my book came out I ended up back in hospital but this time the pressure was on the beds and a focus on getting me to a state where I could be discharged and then supported as an out-patient.

Martin: It’s now much more acceptable to talk about mental health and we are more aware that we have to take our own mental health more seriously. Although there is a way to go, how much difference do you think that attitude makes?
I take your point about managing your own mental health but when this started for me I was very young, I didn’t have any notion about what the world was about. It wasn’t part of the discourse back then. Not for a 16 year old like me.

Whether we can educate people into this idea of resilience, mental fitness, how to cope; I’m not sure. People are going to fall apart for whatever reason, life isn’t just something you are tough enough to deal with, or not. The biggest men can be felled by the smallest things, hearts break as easier as china sometimes. So when those things happen who’s there to pick up the pieces? If we don’t have a society that can be there for all its members than what kind of society is that?

Martin: What advice could you give to other people going through similar struggles to yours?
Something I heard when I was 16 was very helpful. A young social worker said to me “it will pass”, I hadn’t heard that before and it made me realise whatever place you are in, whatever place of extremeness and darkness and suffering you’re in will pass, no matter how stuck you feel. It is something to try and hold onto.

Jason: So what made you turn your life around John?
I’d been on the psychiatric merry-go-round since I was 16 and I was in a half-way house aged 28 and just thought I can’t go on like this - I’ve got to do something. I got a job and then a flat through the council, then eventually I was encouraged to apply to university. Despite not having many qualifications I got and interview and an unconditional offer to study English from the University of East Anglia. Then I met someone and we got married.

Jason: You’ve got four kids now haven’t you?
Four. You’ve done your homework Jason. Yes, I’ve been a busy lad. It’s an interesting phrase but that’s when I so to speak “turned my life around”. But don’t think that after that everything just got better, I’ve still had my rumbles. Even when I’ve been married, some quite severe ones.

When the book came out, it was all going great, then I visited my mother’s grave in Ireland and lost 5 months.

So if my life was turned round it was down to two people making significant moves, one person for encouraging me to apply to university and the other for letting me in. And the crucial third one, you’ll know what that’s like Jase, you were telling me about your happy news. And that’s the love of a good woman in your life. That helped a lot as well.

Bob: What made you become a writer?
I’d been introduced to poetry at school and I started trying to write poems about my father, who died when I was 14. I then started to read a bit more and discovered Dillon Thomas, he kept 5 notebooks and I thought I can do this. So I started working away at these notebooks but I didn’t want to be always looking over my shoulder at the old notebooks, so I ripped them up when I was about 22.

Bob: Who are your favourite authors?
Oh I’ve got a few. Funnily enough it seems the Americans are a bit more literate about mental health. Robert Lowell wrote a book called Life Studies, I liked that very much. Sylvia Plath with Ariel, and then I like Ken Kesey’s, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Then there is a sociologist called Erving Goffman who wrote Ayslums, which I also read.

Click here to watch a video of the full interview.