The Trees Were Calling Me

Alexander Cockburn writes: In 2002 my nephew Henry was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 20. Harrowing times for Henry, his parents ? Patrick Cockburn and Jan Montefiore ? and his younger brother Alexander followed. Henry was expert at escaping from the various institutions in which he was supposedly secured. He would flee into the countryside around Canterbury east of London, often naked in the depth of winter  (as described below in one of his closest brushes with death)  and our whole family would wait bleakly for news, as the police searched for him and the snow fell.

After five years Henry started to recover. Patrick, as he writes in the preface to “Henry’s Demons”, “began to think he and I should write about our experiences. He was ideally placed to write from the inside about what it was like to have an acute mental illness in which trees and bushes spoke and voices called him to flee into the night or to plunge into icy water where he might drown. I believed that Henry and I could serve a broader public purpose by making schizophrenia and illness in general less of a mystery which people are embarrassed to discuss.”

Henry liked the plan.  As he overcame bouts of self-doubt the words flowed and as Patrick rightly  says, “his style had a sort of radiant simplicity and truthfulness about his actions.”  Earlier this year “Henry’s Demons” was published, to great acclaim, on both sides of the Atlantic. There were chapters by Henry and by Patrick , also a long, striking excerpt from his mother Jan’s journal.

Beyond the raw immediacy of the family’s recollected experiences “Henry’s Demons” raises serious issues  about the treatment of schizophrenia,  whether by therapy or drugs. In the first of three excerpts we start here with Henry’s account of his escape into the winter countryside and his experiences in some of the institutions where he was locked up.

I was moved from Anselm after about six months to a rehabilitation centre in Ramsgate called the Grove. It was near the sea, and I would walk the whole length of the seafront, from Ramsgate to Broadstairs. Near the house I discovered a giant plum tree, and I would drag my dad there to eat fresh plums. I felt I wanted to have once again the experiences of the previous autumn?talking trees and following the wind. Most of the time, I was spitting out my medication. I wanted to run away because running away had become crucial to my life. I felt for a moment that I was being liberated and I was being brave. My plan was to walk to Canterbury, about fifteen miles away, and I went by the railway line after walking through a few fields. I remember walking through a cornfield where there was a huge spiderweb. I jumped over it, and the spider looked crossly at me as if I should have walked through his web. I went by the railway line and took my shoes off. The tree talked to me in a sort of Shakespearian rhyme:

You must not act the knave
When others rant and rave.

I asked about the monsoon that the tree I had talked to nearly two years earlier had predicted, and it said, “The towers will be surrounded by water” (I thought the tree meant the enormous towers of the power station near Ramsgate). I walked on a little and heard a very loud woof, and a big dog was staring at me. I took my clothes off and felt cold. I walked by the train tracks until I stepped on a thorn and fell over just seconds before a train raced past.

I was lucky that I wasn’t seen. If someone had seen a naked man walking by the train tracks, they would have told the police. I could see the two towers near Ramsgate, and I knew it would be a long way to Canterbury. At first I walked through the bracken that grows by the railway tracks. Then I decided to walk by a field that was covered in thistles. This hurt my feet. I got to a ditch that had water in it. I rested there until dawn and it was very cold.

When the day broke, it was misty and I ran round the side of a farm, though I was completely naked. I was hoping to get to a motorway where the police might pick me up. I followed a ditch and eventually it led me to the motorway. I heard a duck quack and it went into a tunnel under the motorway. I walked past some hawthorn trees, through a car park, over a fence, and there was the River Stour.

I swam across the river and walked across a field towards the sea. I felt I was a nomad walking the plains. In the distance I could see people mushroom-picking. When I got to the sea, there was a man who was also naked and was smoking a cigarette. I thought I was in the right place and there were others like me who were following the winds and going naked. I kept walking along the coast, but there were no more naked people. I saw a woman who looked at me with contempt and said, “You can’t come down here. The nudist beach is back that way.”

I had cut myself on some barbed wire and there were flies everywhere, but I walked back to the river and swam it again. I got into a boat on the other side and found a pair of overalls. I went through an industrial estate and a man told me I was on private property. My feet were killing me, and the stony gravel made them all the more painful. I wrapped pieces of a plastic bag around them, but even with these makeshift shoes, my feet were still sore. I walked along the river, the wind urging me forward, until I got to Sandwich. I scrounged an apple and my feet were hurting so much that I tried hitchhiking.

A friendly man and his daughter stopped and asked me where I wanted to go. I said, “Canterbury or Ramsgate.” They said they were going to Ramsgate, so I hopped in. My journey, which had taken a day on foot, took about ten minutes by car. I went back to the Grove, where the doctor suggested I take a new drug called clozapine.I ran away several more times from Ramsgate.

Once I felt the trees urging me to take my clothes off and some kids saw me and said, “Look at the caveman.” Twice I was picked up by the police, and finally they sent me back to Anselm ward in Canterbury.

After a couple of weeks they began to let me go out again. I ate roasted sunflower seeds, leaving a path of shells wherever I walked. I spent most of my time in Greyfriars Gardens with teenagers who were smoking dope and playing cards. I wasn’t smoking dope at the time, but I joined in when they were playing cards. From Anselm, I was transferred first to Amber ward and then to a halfway house on Ethelbert Road. Everybody there had to take a turn cooking, and we kept the house spotless. I had one friend there, a white Rasta with orange dreadlocks. He had a pair of turntables in his room, and I would sit there while he DJ’ed. I went on long walks and was desperate to get away. I was spitting out my medication.When it came time for me to have a blood test (you have to have a blood test for clozapine because it can affect your white blood cells), I took an overdose so they wouldn’t know I hadn’t been taking it. Unfortunately, it didn’t enter my bloodstream quick enough, so they found out anyway. I was sectioned again, and once again I ran away.

It started to snow. I sat under a tree for two days. I was quite dehydrated, so I ate bits of snow that fell from the tree that I was under. I sat there wondering about my life. When I was closest to death, I thought I saw a vision of my friend Luke and then a vision of Elisa, the girl I was in love with. I sat there in the tree surrounded by snow. Occasionally, I would take a dip in the freezing-cold river. After two days I decided to move. My feet were completely numb. I walked through the snow naked. A man appeared and said, “What are you doing?” He took me into his house, and a lady there wrapped a towel around me. I asked for some orange juice and she gave me some. She sat there rubbing my feet to get them warm. Unfortunately, she did it too fast because I got frostbite. An ambulance came to pick me up. I sat there singing rap poetry as they hauled me into the ambulance. When I got to the hospital, my mother and her friend Nicky were there. The doctor wanted to cut my toes off, but I wouldn’t consent to this. They did look blue at first, but they regained their colour. My feet were in a lot of pain because they had been warmed up too quickly. The doctor from the halfway house, a Dr. Vile, came to tell me he had sectioned me again. The nights in the general hospital were uncomfortable and my feet were really hurting. I shouted for painkillers, but nobody came at first.

I was moved back to Anselm, but it was easy to get out of. Once I climbed up a drainpipe and along a gutter to avoid a fence around the ward and escaped into the bushes. I could see people looking for me in the faint light of dusk. I stripped and made my way over the golf course and crossed the road when it was clear. I walked into the undergrowth at about midnight. All the bushes seemed to point their branches towards me, and I touched the buds.

In my mind’s eye, I could see a black cat and an owl looking at me. I feared they would betray my whereabouts to people, for I could see their yellow eyes. As I stood there naked in the wood, I saw a giant worm come down from the heavens. It made a giant loop and went back up to the heavens. I put my finger in the loop and could feel the scales against my hand. If I had moved my finger too fast, it would have cut my hand, as the scales were sharp.

I sat under a tree and the tree started to move. Its root touched my finger as I held my breath. It was like being next to the train tracks in Brighton all those months ago. It told me to come to London. I sat under the tree until the morning, touching the root. Then a robin landed near my shoulder and darted away again. I tried to find my way by holding my breath until I lost control of my movements. I got into a swamp near the golf course very slowly because it was ice-cold. I could see little mushrooms growing in front of me. I felt like the place was telling me to go to a thornbush, so I went and sat under it. It said what the tree had said earlier?that I should go to London. It said I should go to Hackney, where they “don’t go to school half the time, because all they do is rhyme.”

I knew I was going to DVH?Dudley Venables House?the low-secure unit at St. Martin’s, before I actually went there. “Low-secure” does not fully describe what it is like. “High-secure” means Broadmoor?a prison for the criminally insane. “Medium-secure” is a step down from that. “Low-secure” makes it sound as if it is easy to get out of, but in fact there were two locked doors to get through, and the small open-air yard had a twelve-foot fence.

When I first went into DVH, I saw a woman who was heavily tattooed. I introduced myself as H instead of Henry. Near the door there was a man sitting next to two large plants; he had an electronic chessboard and was trying to beat the computer at chess. I had associated DVH with violence because when I was in the other wards and someone misbehaved, they would threaten him with being sent to DVH. Actually, it wasn’t so bad, though before I came to the ward, two people had committed suicide in their bedrooms, so we were locked out of these from nine a.m. to ten p.m. I knew from Anselm ward the woman, Alison, who had hanged herself: She had a child, and she once made a beautiful pot in the pottery class. I remember doing a picture, and she complimented me, saying, “You could sell that for fifty pounds.”

“The ward had a nice smell to it. I greeted everyone there, and they were friendly. The smoking room was the main social place because most patients lived for their cigarettes. One man crushed metal ashtrays with his bare hands, and I was nervous of him at first because he said he did not like skinny types like me. At one time we?the patients in DVH?pretended that we were on a sailboat. Needless to say, I was the cabin boy. “I can smell rocks. Better keep away from these shores,” said John, a Scottish guy from Aberdeen. I liked the staff. For the first week I didn’t sleep at all. I lay under my Peruvian blanket on the floor, as I wasn’t using a bed at that point.

Early on at DVH, there was a Rastafarian who had been put in the seclusion room, which is basically a cell where they put patients who were violent. Alison had cut her name into the wall. The Rasta, who was called Charlie, had been put there for head-butting the doctor. Charlie was in there for two weeks with nothing to read but the Bible and came out something of a religious fanatic. I saw him through the glass panes, and he pointed at me and said, “You’re Jesus.” Then he pointed to himself and said, “I’m John the Baptist.” Then he tried to baptise me and threw water all over the window.

The day Charlie got out of the seclusion room, my friend Peter and his girlfriend, Fran?oise, a Madagascan girl living in France, came to see me. Charlie sprinkled a little bit of water on my neck and asked to borrow a cross off a big broad-shouldered man named Roy. He said he was having troubles with the spirits, but he gave us the cross anyway. Then Charlie christened me with the cross, saying, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I felt closer to my brothers and sisters at DVH at that point. That night Charlie played the guitar, and so did Peter, and I sang rap songs.

Everyone was listening and it was a good night. Later, after Peter and Fran?oise had left, one of the staff asked me for a urine sample. I realised he thought that anybody having a good time in a place like DVH must have been smoking marijuana.

It was not so surprising that he thought we were taking dope, because it was easy to get a lot of the time in DVH. Dope was the cause of one of the few fights I was involved in there. A guy named Simon said he would get me some dope, but he wanted the money first. He said he had someone waiting outside the ward with it, but I never saw the dope and never got my money back.

One day I was listening to some dance music and decided I wasn’t going to put up with this anymore. Just as I was thinking this, Simon appeared out of nowhere and punched me. I ran away down a corridor. Then I turned round and chased after him. It took eight staff to hold me back. Later that day the police were called and spoke to me, though naturally, I didn’t tell them about the dope. I think Simon went back to prison?he had previously been in Broadmoor.

Small things led to fights. Once in the smoking room, I flicked a potato chip at a man who said he had a titanium skull because he had fallen off his motorcycle and smashed his head. I did not do it for any particular reason, but he punched me in the face and twisted my arm behind me until I was rescued by one of the staff.

I was always fascinated by the underworld, secret tunnels under the earth where people live. Once I thought I had found one in Brighton, full of people whom I could see only because the tips of their cigarettes glowed in the dark.

I was convinced there was a secret door in DVH where patients and staff would go to smoke crack. I never found that trapdoor, though I suspected it might be under a lamp in a chill-out room that had lots of cushions and coloured lights.

I was full of fears. When I first went to DVH, I thought I was being bugged electronically, as did many other patients?though I can’t see why anyone should want to bug a mental hospital. Everybody could hear a sort of bleeping coming from the smoke alarms. We would turn up the radio so they could not hear their signal. Under my Peruvian rug, I would have waking dreams. Once I had a dream that my dad had phoned me up. In the dream he said that God had told him not to go to dangerous places anymore.

A mental hospital is not a prison or even a police cell, but at night, when you look at the wall, they seem the same. You want to feel the night air against your lips and the streets beneath your feet. You want to run away, but you can’t really escape, so you grit your teeth and consume a lot of tobacco and coffee and try to find your fellow patients interesting. But the tobacco only lasts so long, and you can drink only so much coffee. I had given up smoking cigarettes for a year and a half when I came to DVH, but once we were all in the smoking room, I thought the glowing tips of the cigarettes looked like holy fires. Soon I was smoking forty cigarettes a day. When you are locked up, life passes so slowly that you start thinking in numbers: how many minutes there are in a day, how many hours in a week, what would make a million hours. You start to look at the tiles on the floor and to guess how many there are.

Everything in life is boring.

I was in DVH for two years, and I ran away seventeen times. Usually, I did it by climbing over the fence. Later, the medication made me put on weight, but in those days I was light and quick. The courtyard was only twenty square yards, but there was a drainpipe where the fence met the wall. I would use this to jump to the fence and run away. Other times I would wait for hours by the double doors at the entrance for somebody to leave them both open for a second at the same time. Then I would rush through. Still other times I would wait by the seclusion room in case somebody left a bunch of keys in the lock which would let me unlock the outside doors. Sometimes the nurses would take me for walks and I would run away then. It was never easy. I was about 20 percent successful in my attempts to run away, and about 80 percent of the time they would catch me. Harrowing though it was being locked up, my main reason for escaping was that the trees were calling me and I had to do it.

Excerpted from HENRY’S DEMONS by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn. Copyright ? 2011 by Patrick Cockburn and Henry Cockburn.  Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).