'Henry's Demons': Q&A With Author Patrick Cockburn

Filed under: Books for Parents

Patrick Cockburn Henry's Demons book

Patrick Cockburn's book "Henry's Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, A Father and Son's Story"

While covering the Taliban in Kabul in January 2002, Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn had a disturbing phone conversation with his wife back in London. Their 20-year-old son, Henry, had nearly drowned in freezing-cold waters near his college in Brighton, England.

Sensing Henry was a danger to himself, the police dispatched him to a mental hospital, where he was later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

ParentDish spoke with Cockburn about his new book, "Henry's Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, A Father and Son's Story," in which he and Henry write alternating chapters. An edited version of the conversation follows.

ParentDish: You didn't seem to have any denial about your son's diagnosis.
Patrick Cockburn:
One could see that Henry was in the grip of a psychosis. It wasn't that they diagnosed something and I was thinking Henry's basically all right. I could see there'd been a dramatic change in him and his behavior and that he very nearly died swimming in freezing seawater.

PD: Did it seem sudden?
Yes, it sort of did. This happened at the beginning of the year [2002] and I'd just seen Henry at Christmas. He'd seemed his usual funny, charming, relaxed self. Clearly there were things going on in his mind, which he's written about in the book, [but] which I didn't know about and you might get the impression from reading what he wrote that this must have stood out a mile. But honestly, it didn't.

Patrick Cockburn

Credit: Martin Hunter

PD: Did you ever blame yourself?
I've gone back a thousand times in my mind, "Where did [I] go wrong? Is there something [I] could have done?" But to be honest, one can beat oneself to the death with this sort of backwards-looking speculation. It's quite easy to wallow in guilt because it makes one feel, in a funny sense, closer to the person one loves. I tried to keep that under control, not indulge in that too much.

PD: While researching this book you were surprised to discover friends and colleagues who had family members of their own that suffer from schizophrenia.
Having a sister or daughter or son with [schizophrenia] is such an earthquake in a family that people don't like to share it. There's probably an element of fear there ... mental illness is something we're still frightened of, I know I am, and we ought to be, in the way that our parents were terrified, for instance, of their children getting polio.

PD: You had polio when you were a child.
Yes, I was 6 years old and one of the last people to get it. There are many physical illnesses that people have a real charge of terror in them, but I think schizophrenia and mental illness have mystery and fear attached to them that not many physical illnesses do these days. A former surgeon general once said schizophrenia is to mental illness what cancer is to physical illness.

PD: What do you want people to take away from this book?
I want people to know about it and not conceal it, as an incredible number of people do. I think it much better if [families] talk about it because they'll get more help from their relatives, their friends; people are understanding, people don't run away in the opposite direction.

PD: Were you at all worried your younger son, Alex (then 13, now 23), might be prone to schizophrenia?
I never really wanted to raise the specter of it happening to him, but he [thought] "Hey if this happened to my brother maybe it could happen to me?" He knew it was part genetic; he has the same genes. It worried me a bit, but I think it worried him a lot, too.

PD: How has this experience changed you as a father?
I'm sort of more protective. When Henry was 19 or 20 I sort of thought I should ease off, let him develop himself, develop his own life and not be the over-attentive father, but one thing this [has] taught me is that people are vulnerable in different ways at that age as they are as a child. It's difficult for a parent to know what to do about this but you can't relax. I wish you could but I don't think you can.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.