Henry’s Demons

Henry, a young, intelligent and likeable young man goes into the freezing cold sea off the coast of Brighton because his voices had told him to swim across the Newhaven estuary in the middle of winter. Henry is admitted to a mental hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia. What follows is a powerful, combined account from Henry himself and from his father, journalist Patrick Cockburn who was in Afghanistan when these dramatic events began. Henry frankly describes his mental world and Patrick’s story is of his own education about long-term mental illness and the effects of schizophrenia on the family as events unfold over the next seven years.

The book describes the trauma to both Patrick and his wife Jan, as they gradually learn about schizophrenia and the realisation dawns that all of them are in for a long haul. Following what appears to have been Henry’s happy childhood, both Patrick and Jan had put some early warning signs of what was to come down to eccentricity, attempting to explain ‘odd’ behaviours within their existing frame of reference, which, at the time, did not include any concept of mental illness. This notion of separate worlds comes through very strongly. Henry did not think there was anything wrong with him, in spite of the fact that his voices put him in many perilous and life threatening situations over many years. Indeed, he writes that he can understand why other people believe he has schizophrenia, but he himself thinks that he just sees the world differently from others and is attracted to these experiences.

Patrick concludes that it is only luck which enabled Henry to survive seven years of running away – often in cold weather and often into the countryside. Henry successfully avoided medication for much of the time, indeed one such stretch lasted for three months when he was still ‘in hospital’. There is an irony in the mention of the diagnosis ‘treatment resistant schizophrenia’ when it appears that, at times, there was little or no treatment.

The ordeal for all of them is described in compelling detail, e.g. the appalling state of Henry’s feet at various times; the tedium of being in hospital; the terror of psychotic symptoms which Henry calls his ‘polka dot’ days; what it is like to visit someone in a mental hospital and keep them company for long periods; the anxiety of your son going ‘missing’ and the episode with Henry’s younger brother. It is the personal narrative which gives the book its power.

There are 17 chapters and, by chapter 15, I was wondering what on earth was going to happen to turn this story around and enable the book to be written. It was only when Henry went to Cygnet hospital in London, that staff largely succeeded in preventing him from running away and also in giving him his medication. Indeed, it appears to have been a (chance?) conversation with his former yoga teacher which finally persuaded Henry to take his medication voluntarily.

This reminds me of the recovery themes in ‘Beyond the Storms’, one of which was the intervention of such chance encounters – i.e. an identifiable event which turns somebody around. To me, the other major recovery theme is the enduring love between the family members, who never abandoned Henry and he, in turn, never stopped loving them.

It is of course an ongoing story. Patrick thinks that writing the book has given Henry a sense of purpose and achievement. As the book ends, Henry describes his life in a rehabilitation unit, his belief in Christ and the comfort which this can give him. He now has a strategy for dealing with his ‘polka dot’ days, which do not last so long.

The motivation for writing these stories was to educate and be open about schizophrenia and the book very much succeeds in this aim. Versions of the same episodes from different family members, including Henry’s mother and his younger brother, Alex are so vividly written that, as you read, you can ‘be’ with each of them. I found it very moving and would recommend to all who wish to learn.

However, I am left with a big question which is ‘Did it have to be like this?’ Did it really need to take seven years before Henry was able to live a less restricted life? What could have happened to, if not totally avoid, at least shorten the ordeal for all of them?

Now that there is at least an increased awareness of recovery approaches (if not universal practice), let us hope that the next seven years are less destructive and that Henry’s recovery continues and flourishes.

Ann Ley,
Devon Partnership NHS Trust Research Psychologist (Retired)


Cockburn, P. and Cockburn, H. 2011. ‘Henry’s Demons: living with schizophrenia: a father and son’s story’. London: Simon & Schuster