This week is National Gardening Week here in the UK, and as you’d expect there have been quite a few pieces in the media on the topic of gardening – many of them are little more than advertising features to sell garden centres and labour-saving tools; but some, like this piece by MG Leonard for Standard Issue, blend two things I am passionate and vocal about – the outdoors, and mental health issues.
Now, I think we can all agree that telling someone that weeding a raised bed or planting some bulbs is going to magically cure their mental illness would be incredibly unwise – we don’t want to be one of these ‘helpful’ people, as collated by the awesome Amy Jones for The Pool; but I thought it would write a little on how it improves my life, a life that is frequently blighted by severe anxiety and depression.
A quick Google search of ‘gardening’ and ‘mental health’ will bring up a plethora of scholarly articles and rather nauseating motivational memes on how gardening is a panacea for those of us with mental health issues, however – like going for a nice walk, having a bubble bath or getting into a downward-facing dog pose – it’s not as easy as that when your brain is in a place where, for weeks, you have been terrified to leave the house, or just cannot see the point, or only have the energy to function on the most basic of levels to get through the day safely. Those of us who live with this know that mental illness is not a bad day, or even a collection of bad days that can magically be made better by digging some weeds or taking a walk through the woods. It is far, far more complex than that.
I’ve always loved the outdoors. I was fortunate enough to have maternal grandparents who were keen gardeners and loved to involve us children, particularly with harvesting; and a paternal grandmother who was an avid walker and thought nothing of taking us out on eight mile yomps across the Welsh countryside or coastline. Our springs were filled with seedlings, and wildflowers and birdsong; our summers with arms full of sweetpeas, bowls of freshly picked raspberries and sand between our toes and pockets full of shells and pebbles.
Of course, it never seemed to rain and the days seemed endless until I fell, protesting, into bed in the still-light and felt the bed gently rocking with my tiredness.
My childhood smelled of tomatoes, ‘fish, blood and bone’ and boat varnish, and sounded of blackbirds, lawnmowers, waves.
As I have got older, I seem to spend increasing amounts of time reminiscing on my childhood; comparing my youth with that of my children (mostly when I am trying to shoo them off the electronics and out to play) and whilst I can understand that life is different now, and children are different now, I am sad that my children won’t experience nature and the outdoors in the same way as we did. As much as I try to get them outside, the more I’m sure they consider it a temporary, just-about-tolerable disturbance to their screen-time. I’m glad to report that they do, however, enjoy being outside and exploring and learning once they are there, so I’ll take that as a win, thanks.
Those of you who know me of old will probably know that my mental health has been up and down for many years, and I suffered particularly badly with post-natal depression when my eldest was born. It caught me by surprise, I’d been expecting the symptoms to be your typical ‘lowness’ and sadness associated with depression, and for it to happen within weeks of the birth; so I thought I’d been lucky. How wrong I was.
What it actually did was appear as manic, paranoid and quite terrifying behaviour, when I look back on it now; and it hit when he was five months old, probably just as I was letting my guard down. I was like a stressed vixen pacing round her cub, snarling at the world, convinced that everything and everyone was out to hurt us. Every car was about to mount the pavement, the house was going to burn down (ironically when I set the grill on fire I acted so calmly I seemed to watch myself from outside my own body), every plane flying overhead was going to explode and its debris fall on us. I could see it. On a relationship level, everyone hated me. Everyone doubted me. I was hopeless with this tiny baby I loved so much, and everyone was conspiring to take him off me and lock me away.
Looking back on it now, the truly terrifying thing about it was how absolutely normal and rational these feelings seemed at the time.
To cut a long story short, I was lucky. I had an excellent Health Visitor who realised what was happening and got me help, and fast. Group therapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and my very own psychiatrist and community team. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t thank NHS Scotland (and more specifically NHS Lanarkshire) because I don’t think I would be here now if they hadn’t acted as quickly as they did.
By 2008, another baby had arrived; and he was a wake-up. Literally. The little darling refused to sleep upstairs in the crib, or even in the pram top inside the cot in our room. I spent the first four months of his life sleeping on the sofa with him on the floor in the pram top. He liked to take an ounce of milk every half an hour or so, just to make sure I could never sleep. Once he settled upstairs (eventually), he got to the colic age, and would scream blue murder from 5pm until 3am. Every. Damn. Night. Then we both got Swine Flu. I could go on, I won’t.
Strangely, despite (or maybe because of) the stresses of Captain Squawk’s desire to drive me completely round the twist, I was not affected by PND this time round; but I was all too aware that depression and anxiety could hit me again at any moment, and for no discernible reason, as it had since I was fifteen or so.
We were up the Main Street in the village one day, the kids and I; and I was looking in the window of the butcher’s. Quite why, I have no idea – I was vegetarian at the time. There was a poster about a new community garden project to bring raised bed, no-dig organic gardening to Bothwell and a phone number and some lovely photos of the site it was modelled on in Fairlie.
The rest is history.
I plucked up the courage to phone the number, and attended the first meeting, where I plucked up the courage to volunteer to be on the steering committee to get the garden up and running.
The Organic Growers of Bothwell opened Bothwell Community Garden in 2010, and I’m still there, I’m still on the committee, and I still love it with the same enthusiasm that I did that first, glorious summer. I love to grow food, obviously, but I also appreciate – as a socially awkward introvert – the really lovely friendships I have made with people I would have been otherwise unlikely to have crossed paths with. I doubt they know it, but several garden members have been instrumental in helping to sort my head out in one way or another. The introvert in me should probably hate the thought of a community garden, particularly when one is on the committee and therefore viewed as some kind of fountain of all knowledge; but I actually appreciate how it can shake up my comfort zone, and ‘force’ me to be sociable and to indulge in the gentle chat I hide from but know, deep down, that I need.
There is the physical love of gardening and food growing that MG Leonard describes so eloquently in her piece above; but for me there is so much more. There are memories that make my heart swell. The smell of tomatoes in the polytunnel, always. That’s Grandad, I’m right back there in his garden, behind him as he shuffled in his slippers, rolly in hand, to adjust the windows of the greenhouse to best suit his Moneymakers. The smell of ‘fish blood and bone’ that I sprinkle on my bed as an organic fertiliser, I’m back in my maternal grandparents’ garden ‘helping’ to turn over the soil in the flowerbeds ready for the bedding plants to be planted out. When I walk to the gate past our woodland walk (a small wooded area at the front that we left intact) and see the wild garlic and bluebells and ragged robin and comfrey I am transported back to the Welsh woodlands of my walks with my Nanna.
I’m back where I was happy, where I had nothing to bother me other than whether it would be sunny enough to go out to adventure tomorrow; and rather than depress me that I now have a life of responsibility and uncertainly, I find that hugely comforting. I can curl up inside my memories like a fox in its earth, safe and content, and even if it’s only for five minutes a day, and I find that massively beneficial to how I process the rest of my day.
Gardening and being around woodland and wildness remind me of stories, resurrect long-forgotten events; trigger the need to tell my children anecdotes about the family they never knew, and a place they haven’t grown up in; the names are strange to them, mythical. The place names are Welsh, and when we go back to Wales to visit family I will often wail that there are now houses on a particularly fine lane for blackberries.
I remember when all this was fields.
The boys like my stories of Wales, of our adventures up hills and along coastlines; of raspberry picking and competitions to ascertain which of us could chew on rhubarb without wincing, of dusk bonfires and being chased by cows. My grandparents live on in my stories, my gloriously happy memories of a childhood outdoors, my hands in the dirt and my face turned towards the sun.