Patrick and Henry Cockburn (2011) Henry’s Demons. Living with Schizophrenia. A Father and Son’s Story.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Roaring Laughter.”

tree demon

Patrick and Henry Cockburn (2011) Henry’s Demons. Living with Schizophrenia. A Father and Son’s Story.


David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, cousin to Patrick and uncle to Henry writes a blur on the cover: ‘A truly remarkable book, and a brave one’.

That’s clichéd. Clichés are quite common in mental illness. If you shot everyone that mouthed a cliché you’d have quite a few bodies lying at your feet. My favourite is the story of the thirds. A third recover from mental illness with no lasting effect. A third with the help of medication lead a normal life. Bang. There goes another body. And a third go and live in limbo land.

I’ve heard the same story applied to alcoholics and drug addicts.

Their stories are always remarkable, if not always true. Bang. Bang.

They are always brave. Bang.

By Henry Cockburn’s own estimation 1% of the world’s population suffer from schizophrenia. He suggests a particular uniformity in this. But then revises this estimation to suggest it is uneven. Immigrants for example are seven times more likely to suffer from it. And schizophrenia clusters around city centres like drunks waiting for the last bus home.  It is no respecter or class or gender, but does fit a particular pattern and strikes after late adolescence. What makes Henry’s demons unique is his father is a journalist that writes for The Independent, his mother Jan is an academic that teaches English graduates and so they encourage Henry to forge and new identity not as a sick person, but as a writer. He too is artistic, went to public school, his brother Alex a skilled mathematician won a scholarship to King’s College Canterbury, the same school Henry attended, but with less distinction. Writing it out helps mental illness. Bang.

Henry writes about a ten percent of this book. Patrick about eighty-five percent and his wife Jan about five percent. Henry’s passages are the leaven which make the book. He describes institutional life as cigarettes and time. ‘Life passes so slowly you start thinking numbers…’ But trees, in particular, talk to him. Welcome him. A robin tells him what to do. And after reading Lord of the Rings he believes he’s turning into Gollum. There are terrors. But the sense of ecstasy and oneness with nature is so wildly exciting that being naked in sub-zero temperatures, suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, almost losing his feet, starving and almost dying seem incidental. Over seven years he absconds from hospitals that incarcerated him over thirty times. The police put pressure on hospitals to keep him properly incarcerated because, of course, they have better things to do with their time than look for vulnerable young men. Bang. They could, for example, be putting up road blocks and asking motorists ‘where are you going sir? What exactly is the purpose of your journey?’  Even at the end of the book Henry admits he was not really sure he was ill. Is ill.

Get some alcoholics talking about their former drunks and you’ll get some good stories. Heroin addicts rhapsodise about that time when everything was sweet. Nothing compares to the ecstasy of Joan of Arc, for example, hearing voices. And Patrick is good at teasing out another of his relatives Evelyn Waugh’s real-life ascent, not descent, into madness in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.   But Henry’s reading from the script of recovery.  Bang.

What the book is best at is describing how the bomb of madness blows away any idea of normal family life. A shell is left to construct a new shelter. One of the first barriers they encounter is Henry is an adult and doesn’t believe he is ill. They are a highly educated, upper middle class, couple, but as anyone familiar with the mental health system knows the omerta rule that applies to the Mafia also applies to mental health, indeed any National health institutions. The Data Protection Act 1998 is the perfect stick to beat away any enquiries. There are a few writers on ABCtales (whom I shall not name) that could tell you interesting tales how this instrument of torture is used and calibrated.

Patrick, Jan and Alex find what many other of us have found, the mental health system when you pull back the curtain is like the Wizard of Oz an old man pedalling a bike and shouting through a loudhailer. The cost is its own horror story. Patrick estimates it is cheaper sending your child to the most expensive public school in England, Eton. And let’s face it at Eton he might not get the job of Jesus when he grows up but will have a very good chance of becoming a politician, becoming prime minister and selling all those nice bits of lands used by hospitals to property developers who really need the land. Care in the Community has a nice ring to it. The reality is prison, which costs even more, as the American model shows.

Asylum, Patrick suggests, is an ugly word. His family in their bones know how necessary it is. Lesson learned. One in three people will suffer from mental illness at some time in their life. I love that kind of dramatic certainty from tabloid headlines. Don’t get sick. Don’t get ill. That’s madness. If you do you enter an underworld in which there is no key. Jan finds it a world of snakes and ladders (with not many ladders). Be warned. Stay well. Stay sane. Or at least become wealthy. More bangs for your buck.

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