Snap out of all that misery and do something

Misery memoirs abound in schizophrenia. Here are two more, in all their depressing details. Anybody reading these New York Times reviews would come away with the strong conviction that schizophrenia is a disease, is hopeless, and people are naive if they think any differently. Many more people will come away with this notion, not even having to read the books, as I see that the review is now number 5 in the most e-mailed health articles. Relatives of the afflicted are already busy spreading the misery.

The title of the NY Times review is stereotypical: Symphony of Pain in Two Accounts of Schizophrenia. The misery only gets worse. “Each is a model of narrative restraint, but in combination they combust, conveying the intensely painful experience of this disease in the literary equivalent of quadraphonic sound.”

It is extremely premature for Patrick Cockburn, the memoirist father, to give up on his son Henry, who is the same age now, give or take a year, as my son Chris, but given up he has done.

“A foreign correspondent for the British press, Patrick Cockburn was on assignment in Afghanistan in the winter of 2002 when his son Henry, 20, was fished fully clothed out of an icy river back home. Henry’s mother had noted “sinister changes” in his behavior for months, but this was the big break, with hallucinatory voices and visions so threatening that the river seemed the best place to hide. He was taken to a mental hospital and since then has never lived unsupervised or entirely free of disease.

The Cockburns are a prominent Irish family of letters — Mr. Cockburn’s brother Alexander is the noted political journalist — and Henry, until his “final decline,” in Mr. Cockburn’s words, fell into the expected mold of verbal, artistically talented British schoolboy.

The elder Mr. Cockburn dispassionately reconstructs his own mental journey in the intervening years, from his first naïve assumptions that Henry would recover and resume his previous life, to his final stark, resigned descriptions of Henry at age 27, living in a halfway house in London, a person who “spent a lot of his waking life thinking about where he could get his next cigarette and where he could smoke it.””

If anybody needs help here it’s the father and the whole talented, but self-absorbed family, for giving up on Henry, instead of working to help their son and the mess going on with themselves.  It’s all about them, isn’t it? Their talented family, their despair, their conviction that Henry is the problem. If Cockburn is such a top notch journalist,why isn’t he more investigative when it comes to his own son? It surely wouldn’t have taken him too long to find out that medications do more harm than good, and that there is a robust community of people and therapeutic practitioners who believe more in the Henrys of the world than Henry’s own father does.

The second memoirist is a daughter writing about her mother. It is, indeed, much harder for children to deal with a parent who has been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, but I’m not willing to give this author a complete get out of jail free card. “Finally, in desperation, both daughters changed their names (“She took Isaac Bashevis Singer’s last name, I took Bela Bartok’s”) and severed all contact with their now homeless mother.”

Both authors shoved the job of learning to understand and love out the door and into half-way houses and the street. They did exactly what is not recommended by the holistic therapeutic community in helping someone overcome their pain. What they also do, and I’m sure the authors are oblivious to this, is that they make the job of the rest of us harder. We who know a better way continue to fight the smug authority of the medical profession, who know nothing about schizophrenia other than what the drugs companies feed them and the dimished expectations they learned in medical school. These kind of memoirs allow psychiatrists and families to keep the patient perpetually chronic.  “Everybody knows” schizophrenia is incurable.

“In the 60-odd years separating Ms. Herr’s psychotic break from Henry Cockburn’s, mental hospitals have closed in droves, community-based services have proliferated, generations of antipsychotic drugs have been patented. The disease, at least in the severe form represented here, remains undaunted. It is hard to think of one that requires more courage from patients or their families.”

Cry me a river. Boo hoo. Let’s get positive here and stop perpetuating the idea that schizophrenia is incurable and sad.