Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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.


  1. Amen and amen.

    This perspective of the "family is victim" is part of the indoctrination into the bio-psychiatric paradigm, and it is truly sickening. example:

    "The interactions between psychological, social and illness related factors are complex and bidirectional. For example, the presence of difficult family interactions may not be “causal”, but rather a reaction to the collection of difficulties the patient brings to the family setting."

    This is from the Practice Parameters for treating Early Onset Schizophrenia.

    It appears to attribute family dysfunction to the CHILD and "to the collection of difficulties" a child with a diagnosis brings to a family.

    While it is true that my son's problems were and are difficult at times, for me (as a parent) to deal with; I do not see my son as "a collection of difficulties." What I do see is that my son's need for our support and understanding compelled us as a family to discover and address the underlying deficits in how we related to one another contributed to or otherwise exacerbated, my son's difficulties. Thank God. The reality is that none of us are "victims of schizophrenia."

    If anything, we were victims of psychiatrists and other professionals who lied to us and determined treatment protocols and social service strategies to follow regardless of validity, efficacy, safety or Informed Consent.

    The bio-psychiatric paradigm took the focus off of where it needed to be and treated my son as if he were a problem that needed to be fixed; instead of acknowledging he was child who was struggling due to the trauma which was never addressed. The treatment strategy implemented in spite of our objections; and further traumatized my both of my sons and myself.

    We survive intact as a family in the face of tremendous odds and I know that I am blessed beyond measure.

  2. youbluemama, I've heard professionals explicitly state that, if someone labelled with "schizophrenia" (or other "mental illness") had been the victim of physical/sexual abuse -- and many have been, Hammersley and Read found between 51 and 97% correlation of obvious, i.e. physical and sexual, abuse, and a label of "schizophrenia" in their 2007-meta study, I myself have met countless people, labelled with "sz", who have a history of having been the victim of obvious abuse -- they've probably invited the abuse to take place themselves. By being "different", diseased, right from the start. The really nasty thing about this is that someone who's been victimized sufficiently to more or less entirely take on the role of the victim, to identify more or less completely with it, actually can be said to invite more abuse. I also know a few people, who have what you might call a "sixth sense" for these victims, and once they've identified another person as a victim, they go on to prey on this person's victimhood. Unrestrained. The thing is, usually they are grown-up people, who are responsible for their actions. Just because I have the opportunity to harm someone else, doesn't mean I'm excused if I choose to do it. Even if this someone else begs me to harm them, it is my responsibility not to do so -- and instead ask them what on earth it is that has them want me to harm them. Which is what psychiatry ought to do, instead of subjecting people, who've never had the chance to be anything else but the victim, to even more abuse/victimization.

    Anyhow, it takes two to form an abusive relationship, and last time it happened to me, not so long ago, I stopped short when I caught my thoughts playing the same old record once again: you deserve this, you're unworthy, etc. etc., and myself feeling guilty about the anger I nevertheless also experienced towards my persecutor, and I realized that the person in question only could abuse me to the extent I let her do it. If I didn't want to be this person's victim, I had to take responsibility for myself, and make it clear to her that I was not going to be her victim. So I did, and she backed off. But this was only possible for me to do, because I haven't been brainwashed by the mh system into believing that I was the born, genetically predetermined, victim, and deemed to be this victim for life, chronically ill, but was given the chance to see through the dysfunctional communication patterns that had made me the victim.

    The mh system perpetuates The Drama. So does everybody who buys into its ideology, like our misery-memoir writers here, and the NYT journalist. The Drama serves a purpose as it renders everybody who plays a part in it a helpless victim of the circumstances, of the plot, in this case of "schizophrenia". As long as we play our part, we can maintain the illusion that we cannot be held responsible for our actions, for ourselves.

  3. Rossa,

    Great post!
    Thank you!

    There are some good recovery stories on this page (scroll down to read them and watch them on video) -


    Thank you for getting the word out...
    Recovery is a message that needs to resonate around the world, particularly with mental health professionals (most of whom haven't a clue)... yet!

    Duane Sherry

  4. "Mr. Cockburn moves through the usual soul-searching — was his own peripatetic nonpresence to blame for Henry’s illness? Were family genes at fault? He muses at some length on the case of his father-in-law,"
    Yes, the father spent a lot of time "musing" - the loveless uninvolvement comes across.

    "but I'm not willing to give this author a complete get out of jail free card."
    Neither am I -

    "their mother tracked them down by mail, by phone or sometimes in increasingly disheveled person. “Have I been a bad mother to you? Do you still love me? I need you here. We have things to discuss.”

    That's a gift, and the sisters refused it. They could have come to a better contact arrangement. The mother got the worst of it here.

    Yes, these are not stories of SZ but of a "failure to communicate" by the family members.

    "the failure of the medical system to help much with the pain of either set of writers."

    Huh? Does he mean like lobotomies, mind-numbing meds? lol That's good pain they could do a lot with that. Why waste it?

    The books look interesting though for the details. Shared narrative is the best learning tool - better that science even - lol.

  5. "the failure of the medical system to help much with the pain of either set of writers."

    This strikes me as one of the most clueless sentences in the review. How about the pain of the real victim? Confession time: I love reading these memoirs, because they are usually beautifully written (pain being helpful to the creative muse), and I agree, shared narrative is the best learning tool. I will be away for a few days, but would like to take extracts from yours and Duane's recovery stories and post them when I get back. Centralized narratives are also a great learning tool.

  6. B'ham - This is one time when the spam box did the right thing. Sorry to hear about your father recently landing in the hospital. It's a good thing you are there to check on the meds situation and not just assume that the hospitals got it right.


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