The Communities of Trauma by Wendy French

Wendy French is a published poet. French, who won the Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine prize for the NHS section in 2010, has worked for the past twenty years in healthcare settings helping people come to terms with their situations through poetry. She was Poet in Residence at the UCH Macmillan Centre from April 2015-2016. Her poems The Commiphora Myrrah Tree and There is a Dreadful Hell Within Me appear in the Spring 2016 Intima.

Wendy French is a published poet. French, who won the Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine prize for the NHS section in 2010, has worked for the past twenty years in healthcare settings helping people come to terms with their situations through poetry. She was Poet in Residence at the UCH Macmillan Centre from April 2015-2016. Her poems The Commiphora Myrrah Tree and There is a Dreadful Hell Within Me appear in the Spring 2016 Intima.

I found reading Saljoog Asif’s paper “Don’t Be a Warrior. Be a Doctor: Healing and Love After Wartime Trauma” extremely moving and resonant on all aspects of life. His article relates to the effects of war and the aftermath of war on soldiers but the aspects of research that Asif refers to can be adapted to certain types of mental illness as well. Ivor Gurney, a WW1 soldier-poet, suffered from severe bouts of mental illness and at the time was diagnosed with schizophrenia but in hindsight his symptoms seem more likely to have been caused by a bi-polar disorder, not named nor recognized as such at the time.

I want to stay with Gurney for the moment before moving on to my poem, “There is a Dreadful Hell Within Me”, the title of which comes from a phrase of Gurney’s. Gurney was agifted musician and destined for a bright future when studying at the Royal College of Musicians but his social skills were inept and he made few friends. However once he’denlisted for war he found a comradeship and friendship with other soldiers that he had not experienced in civilian life (apart from Will Harvey, Herbert Howells and Marion Scott). War helped to keep Gurney sane. We can speculate as to why this might have been. In the long hours of waiting in the trenches, Gurney composed music in the absence of birdsong. There was no birdsong in the trenches. His music was always in his head and the singing of the soldiers in the trenches gave Gurney friendships he didn’t know until then. One of his most beautiful poems has been described as “a near perfect poem”, and that is “To His Love”, written for Will Harvey when he heard that Harvey was presumed dead. It later transpired this information was wrong: he had been taken a prisoner of war.

All of the above relates to Saljooq’s article. Saljooq discusses Dr Jonathan Shay’s findings through literature, the special comradeship and then “rageful beserk” state that soldiers can experience when a close friend is killed.  I worked for many years in a psychiatric hospital with young people with mental illness. There is something very poignant in the new relationships that young people develop when they are admitted to a psychiatric hospital. For some of them, it is the first time in their lives that they develop friendships they feel comfortable with. Sometimes they revert to a bestial state of inhumanity before they become human again. All of these findings are discussed in Asif’s paper.

Therefore this article spoke to me as I’d written my poem based on Gurney’s words thinking about some of the people I’d worked with in the hospital; the dreadful hell that was going on inside each one as s/he reverted to an animal state before they could emerge to recognise themselves again. This can be replicated in warfare. It’s the closed community of war or hospitalization that can bring different states of being for each individual. So much so that they can barely recognise the person they once were.

In my poem I’m trying to analyse how I felt going to work each day into this sometimes surreal environment. The dreadful hell within patients was transferred to me. I could become de-humanised by patients’ behaviour or their experience. The ordinary every day activities of driving the car or eating in the canteen, took on a different meaning at to my life. A green traffic light told me I could go after the red had directed me to stop.  Such learned behaviour becomes unlearned in war, where there are few boundaries, and in hospital when one’s mind is boundary-less.

This paper by Asif has made me question certain values to do with my work and made me wonder how I could ever have achieved anything as I had not experienced anything like these young people were going through.  Though with poems and reflections and time with patient to read the poems that could speak to them and help them to know life could be different--some patients manged to turn their situations around to find human connections again.

 


Wendy French has two chapbooks and three collections of poetry published, Splintering the Dark (Rockingham, 2005), surely you know this (Tall Lighthouse, 2009) and Thinks Itself A Hawk, (Hippocrates, 2016). She collaborated with Jane Kirwan on Born in the NHS (Hippocates, 2013). French, who won the Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine prize for the NHS section in 2010, was awarded second prize in 2011 and has worked for the past twenty years in healthcare settings helping people come to terms with their situations through poetry. She was Poet in Residence at the UCH Macmillan Centre from April 2015-2016. Her poems "The Commiphora Myrrah Tree" and "There is a Dreadful Hell Within Me" appear in the Spring 2016 Intima.

 

© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine