Henry Cockburn: I was trying to listen to my shoes. I thought I was going to be put in a straitjacket

'I was completely introverted. I felt there was no one I could trust to tell them what was going on in my head'

I was in mental hospitals for about eight years. I still bear the scars but they are fading. Some people have never seen a mental hospital. To me this feels strange, like meeting someone who has never seen the sea. I made friends there and, in some ways, life remained the same with tea and coffee to drink, food on the table, a radio and a TV. But being institutionalised squashes your dreams and aspirations and you forget liberty.

I am 30 now and it feels like there is a big gap in my life. My twenties, where did they go to? The first time I was sectioned was in Canterbury. I was paranoid to the point of delusion. I thought everyone was playing a game and I was the centre of the game. I had become completely introverted. I felt there was no one I could trust to tell them what was going on in my head.

When I reached a mental hospital, called St Martin’s, I spent three hours walking around the lunch tables trying to listen to my shoes. I thought my shoes were talking to me. I thought the nurses were going to put me in a straitjacket. That night I was forcibly sedated. The same thing happened the next three nights and then my best friend, Jules, came over and the nurses talked to him. He persuaded me to take the medication voluntarily and the next night I slept well. Soon they let me out for short walks by myself. I wouldn’t talk to my mum. I blamed her for telling the police I was a schizophrenic.

I escaped so many times they sent me to the most secure ward in the hospital [St Martin’s, Canterbury], which was called Dudley Venables House or DVH. It has double doors and a 12ft fence around the yard outside. I felt nervous about going because if you behaved badly in the other wards they would threaten you with going to DVH.

On reflection DVH wasn’t so bad – it was more the fact of being locked up. Previous to me going there, there had been two suicides so we were locked out of our rooms from nine in the morning to 10 at night. I knew one of the people, a young mother, who had committed suicide.

I was baptised in DVH. There was a Rasta called Charlie who had been put in the seclusion room – basically solitary confinement. He had head-butted the doctor and had been given two weeks there with nothing to read but the Bible. He came out a fanatical Christian. The same night my friend Jules and his Madagascan girlfriend had come to visit me and we played music until late and Charlie baptised me.

Most of the social life in Dudley Venables revolved around the smoking area. I had given up smoking for about a year, but one day I was in the smoking room and I saw the tips of everyone’s cigarettes burning away and I thought they were holy fires. I tried one, and it was not long before I was back on 40 a day.

For the first week I was in DVH, I didn’t sleep. I would have waking dreams. I was suspicious of beds so I would sleep on the floor. Sometimes I got paranoid, feeling that we were being bugged because there was a loud bleeping sound coming from the smoke detectors. Though why somebody should want to bug a mental hospital, I don’t know. I escaped about 17 times in different ways. I would jump the fence or I would sit by the double doors and wait for them to be left open for a split second. But I never lasted long on the outside.

Eventually I was moved from DVH to the Maudsley Hospital in south London. They wouldn’t let me out for the first week, though by then the nurses at DVH had been letting me walk about Canterbury for most of the day. I ran away often. Once I walked right across London. I had abandoned my shoes, but someone in a car stopped and gave me another pair. I was walking down a motorway and it was bitterly cold. I stopped a police car and told them I had run away from hospital so they took me back. If they hadn’t stopped I think I would have frozen to death.

When I got back to the Maudsley, they told me that I was moving hospital to the Cygnet Hospital Beckton. I arrived in the morning and went into a small smoking room with a square table in the middle and metal benches like the kind you get in parks around the side. The hospital was a bleak place in the middle of a council estate.

Grim though it was, Beckton was where I really turned the corner. After a while my determination to run away disappeared. I was there for two years, though looking back it feels like a couple of months. They made sure I took my medication by crushing up the tablets and mixing them with water. From there I was moved to a halfway house in Lewisham and then to supported housing. It has been a long road but the illness is controlled and I can do more or less what I please.

Schizophrenia: The shame of silence, the relief of disclosure

Henry Cockburn: If I say I'm schizophrenic people reply, 'So you've got a split personality'

The stigma of the hidden schizophrenia epidemic

Editorial: We are failing sufferers of mental illness

Henry Cockburn: I like to be liked – and finally I’ve found friends who really like me

Is this the 'tobacco moment' for cannabis?

Henry Cockburn: 'I can hear what other people can't'

Fashion advice from the shrink’s sofa

The demise of the asylum and the rise of care in the community

Life and Style
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