UK : 'My son played Russian roulette with cannabis - and lost'
Posted 23 January 2011 - 05:26 AM
'My son played Russian roulette with cannabis - and lost': Patrick and Henry Cockburn tell their story
By Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn
23rd January 2011
Award-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn has spent many years working as a foreign correspondent, reporting from the world's trouble spots from Belfast to Baghdad. Here, however, he tells an intensely personal story - how his son succumbed to schizophrenia
On February 8, 2002, I called my wife Jan from Kabul where I was working as a foreign correspondent. Jan sounded more anxious than I had ever heard her, and I felt a sense of dread as I realised there had been some disaster.
Henry, our 20-year-old son, had nearly died when he swam across the River Ouse estuary at Newhaven, East Sussex, fully clothed and was rescued by fishermen as he left the near-freezing water. The police had been called and decided Henry was a danger to himself. He was now in a psychiatric hospital.
This was the beginning of eight years of mental illness for Henry. During much of that period Jan and I lived with an almost constant sense of dread and disaster.
As Henry started to recover - and this recovery is by no means complete - about three years ago, I began to think we should write about our experiences. Henry is well enough to write but not so distant from his psychosis that it has become ancient history in his mind. I believed we could serve a broader purpose by making mental illness less of a mystery. I ran the idea past Henry and he liked it.
Henry had been an enchanting child. With his blond hair, he looked like a friendly cherub, smiling frequently, responsive to others, with a strong sense of fun and a great appetite for life. He moved from speaking single words to complete sentences with disconcerting speed.
He was sociable and got on well with other children, but was easily cast down if they rebuffed him. I remember trying to comfort him as he sat on my knee at the end of his fifth birthday party. It had all gone horribly wrong for Henry, who was in floods of tears because another child had blown out one of the candles on his birthday cake before he could.
I am a journalist, as was my father, the radical author Claud Cockburn. I have covered crises, rebellions and wars, everywhere from Haiti to Afghanistan, working first for The Financial Times and later for The Independent. So I have been away from home a lot but over the years I had become used to reading reports from Henry's teachers praising him for being able, likeable and articulate, but often adding that he could be spectacularly disorganised and was forgetful of rules.
From an early age, his artistic talent was apparent. His paintings were strikingly original and he had no difficulty getting into art college in Brighton at the end of 2001, after five years at King's School, in Canterbury, one of Britain's leading private schools.
When I saw Henry that Christmas, he had seemed to me to be his usual intelligent, charming, and humorous self. I asked how he was enjoying being a student, and he said: 'I have never been happier in my life.'
After Jan's call I rushed home to Canterbury where my wife, who teaches English literature, described the sinister changes she had seen in Henry since Christmas. It was, she said, as if another personality had been invading his mind.
The first incident had happened two weeks earlier when Henry had been arrested and spent some hours in a police cell. Passers-by had seen him, barefoot and dishevelled, climbing a railway viaduct, and reported him as a potential suicide. He claimed he had simply been trying to get a better view of Brighton.
Jan was worried enough to go to see him for lunch the next weekend, taking his 13-year-old brother Alex with her. Henry was not there when they arrived but the door of his room in the halls of residence was open so they went in. The place was an appalling mess, with empty coffee cups, discarded meals and dirty clothes all over the floor. Henry's mobile phone was lying on a desk but it had been taken apart.
They waited for three-and-a-half hours before Henry turned up, saying he had been 'lost in town', though this seemed strange, as he had been living in Brighton since October.
'Why did you ask Alex and me to lunch and then stand us up?' asked Jan. 'I'll make you lunch right now,' Henry replied.
As he prepared the food, Henry explained he had become an almost total ascetic: he no longer ate meat, drank alcohol or smoked cigarettes or cannabis. He said he felt better for this self-denial.
The next day they went to lunch at Henry's favourite cafe. He insisted on walking on the other side of the street from Jan and Alex. At lunch, Henry talked away about eco-lifestyles: 'Everybody should live only in the daylight, get up at dawn and go to bed at dusk. We should not get our orders from clocks.'
'Do you really think clocks tell us what to do?' asked Alex. When Jan told a therapist she had been seeing for depression, after a series of family deaths, about Henry's behaviour, the therapist said it sounded as if he was heading for a psychotic breakdown, adding: 'He needs to see a psychiatrist as soon as possible and be put on medication.'
But Jan could not quite take in what was happening. No more did I.
Henry's final decline was swift. Jan had insisted he reassemble his mobile phone but as soon as she and Alex left he dismantled it again as part of his suspicion of all things electronic.
Over the next few days Jan repeatedly called him but failed to reach him. On Friday morning, the university called Jan to say that he was in the Priory Hospital
'Yes.' in Hove, and had been there since Thursday evening.
Aghast, Jan called the hospital and was able to speak to Henry. Asked if he wanted anything, he would say only that he would like some nuts but, he added, there must be no raisins with them.
Jan was unable to get to Brighton until the next day. Henry was pleased to see her but did not want to speak much. He ate the nuts but was uninterested in the flowers and toiletries she had brought.
The flowers were added to a small heap of rubbish, consisting mostly of old orange peel and crisp packets, that Henry had placed on the floor of his neat room.
When I arrived at the Priory, Henry was standing in the middle of the room, looking baffled, but his face lit up when he saw me, and we embraced. He told me he had felt the urge to walk barefoot back to Canterbury.
'The doctors put you in here because they are worried that you might have been trying to kill yourself,' I said.
'No, I wasn't trying to commit suicide,' said Henry with some exasperation. He said the police and the doctors had misunderstood his eccentric lifestyle.
For several hours I sat on the bed in his room while he lay on the floor. Sometimes he beat out a rhythm on the bottom of an upturned wastepaper bin and chanted snatches of rap, but mostly he was listless.
Dr Duncan Angus, the consultant psychiatrist, later told me Henry might be in the initial phase of schizophrenia but he had not made a final diagnosis and would not do so for ten days. During that time, Henry would be under observation. Dr Angus said that usually 'one third of people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover completely, one third have further attacks but show improvement and one third do not get better'.
I visited Henry every day for the rest of that week and began to see changes in him that had not struck me at first. He disliked wearing shoes, socks and underpants. He was suspicious that the smoke alarm in his room was monitoring him. Every so often there were fleeting references to visions and voices.
Instead of describing them in detail, he spoke vaguely of religious and mystical forces, often using the imagery of The Lord Of The Rings to express paranoid fears of prosaic objects. He would ask me if I thought there might be secret tunnels under Brighton.
When not with Henry, I was trying to learn as much as I could about schizophrenia. I discovered that an American doctor had described schizophrenia as being to mental illness what cancer is to physical ailments. The average age for the onset of schizophrenia is 18 for men and 25 for women.
There were said to be 250,000 diagnosed cases of schizophrenia in Britain, though the true figure may be closer to half a million if the undiagnosed are included.
Symptoms do not include violence but the suicide rate is high, and people with the condition attempt suicide 50 times more frequently than the general population.
The causes of schizophrenia have been the subject of rancorous debate among scientists. People generally develop the disorder because they are genetically predisposed to do so but genes are not solely responsible.
Tests show that if one of a pair of twins develops schizophrenia, the other has just a 50 per cent chance of developing it. This must mean that there are other forces at work.
Its onset might be brought on by some stressful personal disaster or it might, as many studies appear to prove, be the result of mind-altering street drugs such as cannabis.
Henry says he smoked cannabis continuously from the age of 14, though Jan and I did not realise this. I was shocked when, in 1997, Henry went on an exchange with a French student but was sent home after he had offered the French boy some cannabis.
Jan and I were upset but we thought cannabis was fairly harmless. It wasn't until Henry was in hospital that we learned of its possibly devastating impact on somebody genetically predisposed to schizophrenia.
Three-quarters of consumers may take cannabis with no ill effect but the remaining quarter, the genetically vulnerable, play Russian roulette. By a strange coincidence, one of Henry's maternal grandmother's broth-the remaining quarter, the genetically vulnerable, play Russian roulette.
By a strange coincidence, one of Henry's maternal grandmother's brotherswas Sir William Paton, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and one of the world's greatest experts on cannabis.
Sir William published many papers with his colleagues in the Seventies, revealing for the first time evidence that even limited social use of cannabis could precipitate schizophrenia in people who previously had no psychological problems.
He discovered that smoking a single joint could induce schizophrenia-like symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia and fragmented thought processes. These were not fashionable ideas in Oxford in the Seventies but Sir William's findings were confirmed by a series of other studies. An American study found that after cannabis became widely available in the US army in Europe, the incidence of schizophrenia among troops increased 38-fold.
Henry would later tell Jan that at one point he had been smoking five joints a day but insisted that had nothing to do with his illness.
Jan and I were almost certain that Dr Angus was going to say that Henry had schizophrenia. Our main worry was not the diagnosis but Henry's reaction to it. Since Henry did not accept there was anything wrong with him, it was doubtful that he would take whatever anti-psychotic drug the doctor prescribed.
We were told that if Henry agreed to take the medication - olanzapine - he would be classed an 'informal' patient and could even leave the hospital. But if he refused to take the olanzapine, he would be 'sectioned' - detained under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act as somebody who is a danger to himself.
As expected, the doctor said Henry was in the incipient stage of schizophrenia. He said Henry should take olanzapine and, if he showed signs of responding to the drug, he would be free to leave the Priory. Henry replied that he would not take the medication because there was nothing wrong with him.
Jan began to weep, saying: 'I can't take this any more. I can't face the fact that you may never get well.'
Henry, moved by his mother's distress, said: 'Well, all right, then, I will take the olanzapine.'
It would be several weeks before we would know if it was having any effect. There was nothing much I could do to help except keep Henry company.
I soon got a sense of what he found attractive and what he did not like. He preferred small things to large. I took him to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the exotic palace built for the Prince Regent with its Oriental-style domes and minarets.
Henry dutifully walked round, but preferred studying the twisted shape of pieces of driftwood on the beach.
There were good days and bad. Once I felt encouraged when I saw Henry find a lost mobile phone that a man was desperately searching for on the beach. But my morale would slump when I saw Henry attracted by dark alleys and heaps of garbage, which he would often want to use as a lavatory.
Once I bought him a mango and watched with despair as he tore at it with his teeth, juice and pieces of fruit smearing his unshaven face as he gobbled it down.
'Do you think I am mad?' Henry would ask me sadly. I would fudge the answer, saying: 'You are not exactly mad, but you are not in your right mind part of the time.'
Then in March, just before my 52nd birthday, Dr Angus told us Henry was responding to the medication. Pleased though we were, we were coming to understand that schizophrenia was a calamity from which there would be no swift escape. The olanzapine we had taken such trouble to persuade Henry to take was not going to cure him.
We agreed he should spend Easter at home and if that went well he'd leave the Priory. The visit passed without major incident and nine weeks after he had slipped into the water at Newhaven, he came home.
Jan and I had been told it was important for him not to have more than one schizophrenic breakdown, that if there was only one, the chances of his resuming a normal life were good. This seemed possible, since Henry's consultant in Canterbury said we could aim at seeing our son go back to his art college in Brighton the next academic year.
On the morning Henry was to return to Brighton, he said he did not want to go back. Jan persuaded him at least to look at his new room. They walked on the seashore, and Henry said he would 'like to live off the land'. His mood became more positive and he told Jan: 'Thank you for making me come back here.'
Over the next couple of months I could see he was not getting better. Once he disappeared overnight. He came back badly scratched and he had lost his shoes, trousers, keys and bank card.
He stopped shaving or washing his hair and went barefoot, so his feet became septic. He also soiled his jeans more than once and exhibited signs of infantilism. He admitted he was scarcely taking his medication.
Henry came home for Christmas and briefly rallied. I had expected him to go back to Brighton for his second term after his birthday on January 4, 2003, and had timed a stint at a think-tank in Washington to coincide. But within a day of my leaving, he began to have a breakdown.
The evening of the day I left, he had gone off for a walk with his closest friend, a gentle young man called Peter, and did not return for a day and night.
Jan traced Peter, who said he would take her to see Henry, who was undergoing a mystical experience.
They found him under a hedge in a quarry near Canterbury. He declared he was not going back to Brighton, and when Jan agreed, he walked home with her. He had soiled his trousers and when they got home, he threw them out the window.
His condition worsened over the following week. Jan wrote a letter to Henry's doctor in Canterbury describing his deterioration: 'He won't use a key to the house. He insists on getting in by climbing over the wall at the back of our back yard and in by the back door.
He won't eat anything but vegan food, and a narrowing range of that...He won't help prepare it - he doesn't like seeing vegetables chopped up. He tends to scatter bread crusts, nutshells and rinds around the house. He doesn't like using the lavatory and prefers to urinate out of doors if possible.'
The end came quickly. At about 8am on January 22, Henry left the house. Jan was cooking when there was a knock on the door. The policeman asked: 'Do you have a son called Henry Cockburn?'
'Yes.' 'Well, he's been standing naked in your neighbour's garden for 20 minutes and she's reported him to us. We could charge him, only we think he might have a mental health problem. We can either let him go, or if you think it's more appropriate, we can take him to a safe place.'
'Does "a safe place" mean a mental hospital?'
'Yes, it does.' For about 20 seconds, Jan agonised over what to do before agreeing to let Henry go to hospital. Later, she got a telephone call from St Martin's, an NHS psychiatric hospital in Canterbury. The hospital asked for formal consent to Henry's sectioning or legal restraint.
Jan agreed. Henry was to spend the next seven years in a variety of hospitals and institutions.
I felt the trees and animals urging me on
By Henry Cockburn
Looking back, I spent most of my time at college in a stoned, drunken haze. I took a lot of marijuana between the ages of 14 and 19. I lived in Canterbury, where I had friends from my private school and local friends. It was through drugs that I met the latter.
My teenage years would have been different without marijuana. Did I take more of it than others? Not really. Why did we smoke so much? Maybe it was because the music scene, which I wanted to be part of, was drug-orientated. My generation smoked more dope than the one before.
I was taking a lot of hash, maybe an eighth of an ounce, which cost £10. It would have been better if I hadn't but about half the people I knew in Canterbury were smoking dope.
The worst thing about smoking weed when you are a kid is that you never really grow up. On the flip side, as I said, you meet a lot of people but when you do meet them, you don't really talk.
I was naturally shy and getting stoned made things worse. I'd go to somebody's house and start off quite talkative and then, after the first joint, you'd be lucky to hear another word out of me. Most of my family and friends believe that my being sectioned was because of drugs.
After I swam the estuary at Newhaven, I was taken to hospital. The doctor told me it was common for people of my age to have mental illness. I didn't think of it as an illness but as a spiritual awakening.
I had started out that morning from my college walking barefoot along the edge of the sea. I went east towards my home in Canterbury.
I felt brambles, trees, and wild animals all urging me on. It was as if they were looking at me and I could feel what they thought. I walked along the seashore beside a high sea wall. The wall seemed 100ft high. I believed there were prisoners behind it and I sang to them.
I walked ten miles. As I entered Newhaven, I saw the letter D painted on the road and I thought this meant D for 'daemon'.
I felt people were following me. I went to the estuary and hid by a low wall. I didn't want to go into the water at first but finally I did get in and heard somebody shout: 'You stupid b******!' I thought I was going to die.
It was about 20 yards across and after I got out on the other side, it was freezing. It was so cold that I went back in the water and I was there when a fisherman held out his hand.
Sometimes at the Priory, I felt I was mad and at other times that the magical experiences I had Henry is now 29, recovering from his illness and living in a halfway house facility in London.
This is his own frank account of the events described by his father been having were real. A nurse there told me how Australian aborigines put stones in their mouths so they produce saliva and have to drink less under the hot sun.
The next day my father and I went to the beach. I thought the nurse's story related to me but in a different way.
I recalled that birds have no teeth and swallow stones to digest, so I thought if I swallowed a stone I would turn into a bird and be able to fly away from all my troubles.
I was scared that I would choke but I plucked up my courage and swallowed a black stone and then a grey one. I bought some cockles and swallowed them whole.
One day I decided I'd start smoking again. I had a couple of cigarettes when my dad took me out. When I got back, my friend Gregg offered me a spliff.
I thought: 'What the hell,' and we went into my room to smoke it. Before we sparked it, he said: 'Do you know how the system works?' I said no. 'Cameras inside televisions,' he said.
At the end of two weeks at the Priory, they said they would section me if I refused to take the olanzapine.
I didn't agree with it, as I didn't think I was ill. Also, I didn't agree with taking substances that would affect my mind. But I didn't want to be sectioned.
Finally, Mum burst into tears, so I had to take it.
I tried to counteract the olanzapine with tobacco by smoking lots of cigarettes because the word began with the letter O and 'tobacco' ended with the same letter.
Eventually, the doctors agreed to let me go back to Canterbury for the weekend. I felt so depressed one night that I wanted to hang myself. I heard my friend Phil's voice saying: 'No, Henry, don't do that.' The next day I went to see Phil. I had a pipe of hash with him.
It was at the Priory that I first regularly heard voices from people, rather than from trees and bushes. It was as if I could hear what they were thinking. At the same time, I thought most of what happened to me at the Priory was persecution. I don't think I was a danger to anyone.
I would have been better off wandering around Brighton. Once you are in the system, it is difficult to escape it.
Do I have schizophrenia? My mother and father and the dreaded psychiatrist believe I am schizophrenic. They have grounds for their belief, such as my being found naked and talking to trees in woods. Yet I think I just see the world differently from other people. Being locked up for so long really damages your spirits. You feel forgotten.
During the seven years I was in mental hospitals, I escaped more than 30 times...
© Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn 2011.
Henry's Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99. To order your copy at the special price of £12.99 with free p&p, please call The Review Bookstore on 08 5 155 0713 or visit www.Maillife.co.uk/books.
11 Comments and Photo Gallery
Posted 23 January 2011 - 05:50 AM
Three-quarters of consumers may take cannabis with no ill effect but the remaining quarter, the genetically vulnerable, play Russian roulette.
I wonder where he got those numbers from?
While I can't help but feel sad for this person, the story is very well constructed to illicit such feelings, blaming it on cannabis is just simply a cop out. Particularly from a father who did not spend much time with his son.
After another reread, holy shit! What a bunch of knee jerk sensationalistic crap! And so few, zero actually, facts that connect any element of his mental issues with smoking cannabis. Sure he smoked it. It says so right there. As well as him having mental issues. But no proof the two are connected.
How many millions of people smoke cannabis and have perfectly wonderful lives? I guess cannabis use leads to a happy life then, amirite?
Edited by Randalizer, 23 January 2011 - 06:40 AM.
Posted 23 January 2011 - 06:12 AM
Posted 23 January 2011 - 07:55 AM
THC is proof that Shiva loves us & wants us to be happy.
Posted 23 January 2011 - 08:49 AM
At least this bloke is telling a story, and he does have reason to look into all possibilities- unlike those fucking idiots who have kids that misbehave a bit and then say "skunk did it"
Its seems to me that its just the mail putting its own slant on a tragic story. Set of cunts.
Although maybe I'm wrong..
Posted 23 January 2011 - 09:30 AM
"People should not be afraid of their government.
Governments should be afraid of their people."
Posted 23 January 2011 - 10:07 AM
Sura 17.36 You shall not accept any information, unless you verify it for yourself. I have given you the hearing, the eyesight, and the brain, and you are responsible for using them
Posted 23 January 2011 - 10:40 AM
Henry's Demons: Living With Schizophrenia, by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99. To order your copy at the special price of £12.99 with free p&p
And the reason behind the story becomes clear
Posted 23 January 2011 - 10:47 AM
Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.
- Albert Einstein.
Posted 23 January 2011 - 10:49 AM
Do not rattle cage.
This animal may bite.
Posted 23 January 2011 - 10:55 AM
Posted 23 January 2011 - 10:57 AM
Im really sorry for this man and his family, but the title of this article is very misleading. I'm current studying psychology and illnesses like schizophrenia and while it is true that drugs can bring out a mental illness there is no way that someone can say that marijuana could have that much to do with a mental illness. The illness is already there, just waiting to come out. Many people have traumatic events that trigger it, or even just a lot of stress like starting college. It sounds as though Henry had symptoms from a very early age and I find it very unlikely that he would not have developed schizophrenia if he had not been smoking marijuana. Also, marijuana is not the only drug he was doing, he was also drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco which most people forget are also dangerous drugs. I just don't agree with the title.
- Kirsten, Menomonie, Wis, USA, 23/1/2011 02:51
Posted 23 January 2011 - 11:07 AM
Skunk wars is where it's all at. ...
"There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant
never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare
to die." Hunter S. Thompson
Posted 23 January 2011 - 11:17 AM
I suggest everyone do the same.
What has the DM got to do with UK420, anyway? Bugger all, IMO.
Posted 23 January 2011 - 11:20 AM
Not even read the article.
I suggest everyone do the same.
What has the DM got to do with UK420, anyway? Bugger all, IMO.
Know your enemy and all that Arnold . It's because of articles like this that the average
person in the UK thinks cannabis is bad and it's illegality is justified
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