Life in a Bind – BPD and me

My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by

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Remembering Rivers

W.H.R.Rivers (Maull)” by w:Henry Maull – The Royal Society. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

On this Remembrance Sunday, I am remembering a man who was ahead of his time in the care and understanding of those with mental illness. W. H. R. Rivers was an anthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and psychiatrist, known, amongst other things, for treating World War I soldiers suffering from shell-shock – what we would now call a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rivers’ war-time work at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, and his meeting with the poets Siegfried Sassoon (with whom he developed a life-long friendship) and Wilfred Owen, have been fictionalised in Pat Barker’s well-known and award-winning ‘Regeneration Trilogy’. But Dr Rivers stands out not because he had the good fortune to encounter and treat two of the greatest war poets that have ever lived:  but because he was a pioneer in his field (by applying psychoanalysis to soldiers suffering from neurosis as a result of war experiences); and because he defied the beliefs and treatments of his time. At a time when shell-shock was considered ‘not a real illness’, and the only ‘cure’ was electroschock therapy (described by another war poet, Ivor Gurney, in the post-war period – see my previous post ‘Strange Hells – Remembrance Sunday‘), he instead encouraged his patients to talk about their experiences and their emotions.

After the war, Rivers returned to Cambridge, where he had previously held a lectureship. He died on 4 June 1922, and his ashes now rest in the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge.

As testament to his legacy of compassion and treating everyone as individuals, the author and poet Robert Graves (though not himself a ‘patient’) wrote after Rivers’ death of the peace and security he felt in Rivers’ rooms – a feeling many of those in a trusting therapeutic relationship, will know:

“….The ground held firmly; I was no more dumb.

For that was the place where I longed to be

And past all hope where the kind lamp shone

The carpet was holy that my feet were on….

…..The cushions were friendship and the chairs were love…”




Strange Hells – Remembrance Sunday

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was an English composer and poet who fought in, and survived, the First World War. He wrote several hundred poems, songs and instrumental pieces, and is regarded as one of the foremost World War I poets. However, he was troubled by severe mood swings from his teenage years, and suffered his first breakdown in 1913. Another breakdown followed in 1918, a few months after his return from the Western Front. Although he continued to write poetry and music prolifically, his mental health continued to deteriorate and in 1922 his family had him declared insane. He spent the last fifteen years of his life in psychiatric hospitals and died in 1937 of tuberculosis, at the City of London Mental Hospital. Although for a number of years it was believed that Gurney suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, it is now believed that he had bipolar disorder. Recently it has been argued that despite the horror of combat, the discipline, comradeship and sense of belonging of the army, may have temporarily helped Gurney’s mental health.

Gurney served both on the Somme and at Passchendaele – two of the most infamous battlegrounds of WWI. In 1917 he wrote ‘Strange Hells’ – a beautiful, surprising poem. ‘There are strange hells within the minds war made‘, but at the same time, ‘not so often, not so humiliatingly afraid as one would have expected‘. Perhaps he’d known stranger and more frightening hells before he entered battle. He certainly did after battle. His poem ‘To God’ is  a heartbreaking cry for death in a situation that he felt was intolerable. If we read the last lines of the poem in isolation – ‘Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man, not often such evil guessed as between man and man‘ – we might think they were describing his war experience. But they appear in the context of a poem about his experience of hospitalisation, in which he was ‘praying for death, death, death, and dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath‘. ‘And there is a dreadful hell within me‘.

Gurney’s description of his depression and longing for death will be familiar to many – I have never been an inpatient, but so many of the emotions in this poem are familiar to me, including the feeling of ‘crying and trembling in heart for death, and cannot get it‘.

On this Remembrance Sunday, I want to remember a man who knew first-hand both the hell of a wartime battlefield, and the hell of his own internal battles with mental illness. I hope these poems move you, as they did me.

strange hells Gurney


To God Gurney