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'Henry's Demons': Mental Illness From The Inside

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'Henry's Demons': Mental Illness From The Inside


'Henry's Demons': Mental Illness From The Inside

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

On a snowy February day in 2002, the well-known British journalist Patrick Cockburn was in Kabul in Afghanistan, covering the fall of the Taliban. That day, he picked up his satellite phone to call his wife, Jan. She was back in Canterbury, England. Even over that shaky and hollow telephone line, Jan sounded anxious.

Mr. PATRICK COCKBURN (Journalist; Co-Author, "Henry's Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, a Father and Son's Story"): I could not make out the details, but I grasped that Henry, our 20-year-old son, had nearly died when he swam New Haven Estuary fully clothed, and was rescued by fishermen as he left the near-freezing water. The fishermen feared he might be suffering from hypothermia and took him to a general hospital in Brighton. The police had been called. They had decided that Henry was a danger to himself, and he was now in a mental hospital.

RAZ: The next morning, Patrick Cockburn and his driver braved the treacherous Kabul Gorge. Just a few weeks earlier, four journalists had been killed by Taliban militiamen in that same place. And he went through there, and made his way to Islamabad in Pakistan, to catch the first flight home.

His son Henry was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The story of what happened next - Henry's experiences in and out of mental hospitals for eight years, and how the family coped - is told in a new memoir. It's called "Henry's Demons," and in it Patrick, Henry and Jan all write alternating chapters, each from a different perspective.

Patrick and Henry Cockburn join me now from London. Welcome to you both.

Mr. COCKBURN: Nice to be here.

Mr. HENRY COCKBURN (Co-Author, "Henry's Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, a Father and Son's Story"): Hello.

RAZ: Patrick, let's start at the beginning. You had just seen Henry a few weeks earlier. This was back, Christmas of 2001. Were there any signs, any signals, that Henry was in trouble?

Mr. P. COCKBURN: No, I didn't see any, and I've been back over it in my mind a hundred times. I mean, I asked him how he was. He'd started at art college a few weeks earlier, and he said he'd never been happier in his life.

RAZ: Henry, that night, you were found by fishermen - as we just heard - in near-freezing water, in an estuary. What do you remember about that night? I mean, do you remember swimming in that water?

Mr. H. COCKBURN: Yeah, I felt I was sort of running away, and that people were following me. And I'm glad I crossed the estuary because I felt I was following a path as it -and trying to sort of escape the city, and get back to Canterbury.

RAZ: Canterbury is, of course, where you're from. You were trying to get from the town of Brighton in southern England, to the town of Canterbury.

Mr. H. COCKBURN: Yeah, it's the most I've ever walked in one day. I walked about 25 miles across the coast. And I walked by the coast, by the sea. And there was this big wall, and I thought that there were prisoners behind the wall. And it was all quite daunting. It was quite scary.

RAZ: Do you remember why you decided to swim in the water?

Mr. H. COCKBURN: I felt a force sort of pulling me in. It was as if I was being beckoned into the water. I mean, I had a choice; I could have stayed out of the water. But I felt beckoned. And I got to the other side, and it was dead cold. And I could - I was quite close to death, I think.

RAZ: Patrick, by the time you arrived, Henry had already been moved to another hospital, psychiatric hospital. Describe what he looked like when you saw him.

Mr. P. COCKBURN: Well, you know, in some ways he looked the same physically, but he was all somehow - everything about him had changed. He seemed sort of frightened by what had happened, and he seemed a bit - sort of separate from the world.

RAZ: Henry, what was going through your mind at that time? I mean, what did you think was happening to you?

Mr. H. COCKBURN: Well, I felt I was sort of changing my lifestyle. I'd given up marijuana; I'd given up tobacco; I'd given up alcohol. I thought there was something more to the world that I hadn't seen before, you know. I found it revelatory, these experiences talking to trees and, you know, it was like a hidden world.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the journalist Patrick Cockburn and his son Henry. Their co-memoir is called "Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia, a Father and Son's Story."

Henry, when you spoke to trees, and when you had visions, you describe seeing rings - like a wedding ring - right in front of you, and tree roots reaching out to you. I mean, that is very real to you.

Mr. H. COCKBURN: It's still real. I'm never going to believe that it wasn't. It was, you know, as real as me talking now.

RAZ: They weren't hallucinations?


RAZ: Patrick, when you go overseas now - 'cause you, obviously, you're a foreign correspondent; you write for the Independent - do you have some anxiety about leaving Henry behind?

Mr. P. COCKBURN: Yes, about every five seconds, yes. You know, I worry about it the whole time. And I try and sort of reduce the worry, but it's difficult. I mean, Henry, you know, things are going much better now but it's very difficult to sort of get memories out of your head. I mean, Henry feels, you know, that his life was never - he was never close to death, or he certainly wasn't trying to commit suicide.

But - and you know, he wasn't, but if you, you know, swim in freezing seawater, how long do people normally live there? Now, whatever Henry's intentions, there's no doubt he came close to death again and again. So, you know, I remember that. So, I'm anxious and I'm probably overanxious, but I don't think it's probably -I suspect it's something that I'll never be able to turn the clock back on for the rest of my life.

RAZ: And let me ask you, Henry, do you feel like you're cured?

Mr. H. COCKBURN: Yeah, uh-huh.

RAZ: Do you feel like you can have a normal life?

Mr. H. COCKBURN: Yeah, uh-huh.

RAZ: Tell me about your life now. You don't live in a hospital now. You live kind of on your own, right?

Mr. H. COCKBURN: Yeah, by next week, I should be sort of - I've got my own apartment now. It's got a front room, a bedroom, a toilet and a kitchen, looks onto the sea. So that's, you know, that's positive.

RAZ: That's Patrick Cockburn and his son Henry. Their co-memoir is called "Henry's Demons: Living with Schizophrenia, a Father and Son's Story." Gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. P. COCKBURN: Thank you so much.

Mr. H. COCKBURN: Thanks very much.

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