Growing for Wellbeing – Case Study – Alice

Every day evidence is mounting as to how truly wonderful gardening and growing your own produce can be for your physical and mental health.
A recent study conducted by Bakker Spalding has found that 88% of people find that mental wellbeing is a key benefit for spending time in the garden.

Government is finally beginning to take the concept of gardening as prescribed therapy seriously, the NHS is understanding in some areas and the public are thinking about listening.

My story is proof of the wonders that gardening can do; reducing anxiety, soothing domestic abuse, building confidence and installing self-belief. But for some, there is chance this is not enough to take my mission seriously…so I will be bringing incredible and in most cases heart breaking real life stories to you each month. All different but sharing the same therapy outlet…gardening!

The first one….

My Safe Place

The gate to my allotment plot is just a short walk from the doctor’s surgery. Eight years ago, after weekly counselling sessions for post-natal depression, I would unlock that gate and set aside an hour to hoe. Looking back, it was here that the real therapy began.

When society tells you there should be an immediate bond with your baby, it’s hard to admit there isn’t one. For me, there wasn’t that chocolate box moment at birth where my son looked into my eyes and I into his, and love bloomed. For me, these strong feelings came much later.

It was a week before the due date that the pregnancy began to go pear shaped. Experiencing abnormal bleeding and strong but intermittent contractions, after repeated hospital tests and overnight stays, I was sent home with no clearer idea of what was wrong. At home the contractions became so strong I could neither eat nor sleep and on day six, I couldn’t feel the baby kicking anymore.

Admitted to hospital, the last thing I remember is a red button behind my head being pressed and someone shouting “baby has no heart beat, we need a ‘crash c’’ as I watched the fluorescent lights of the corridor ceiling flicker past towards the operating theatre. When the anesthetists placed the mask over my face, I felt like I was suffocating – and as the lights went out, my brain switched off too. Part of it didn’t fully wake up.

My son was thankfully completely unscathed after having the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck twice, and the first two weeks post-labour were relatively normally. But when everyone left and my husband returned to work, something didn’t feel quite right. The ‘not rightness’ was compounded by a post-operative infection in my scar that required daily dressings. I couldn’t walk and felt spaced out on painkillers. By this stage, I hadn’t slept properly for two weeks.

My son seemed to require hourly feeds (later I learned one of the effects of postnatal depression can be watery breast milk, which doesn’t satisfy the baby) – and on top of this, I was experiencing horrible nightmares: one where a nurse was sitting on my chest trying to give me CPR.

Slowly, conversations became difficult, I couldn’t follow TV plot lines, and simple tasks like teeth brushing, dressing or making a cup of tea seemed insurmountable. It’s easy to think depressed people cry all the time, but I didn’t feel sad: I just felt ‘mad’. If I did cry, it was out of utter despair at what seemed an impenetrable fog in my brain.

Eventually, after talking to my health visitor about ending it all, I was referred to a psychiatrist and diagnosed with postnatal depression, triggered by chronic sleep deprivation. Later, further counseling revealed I had suffered posttraumatic stress due to the way the emergency c-section had unfolded.

The diagnosis was helpful, and I’m eternally grateful to the health visitor and counsellors for their support. However, as anyone who has suffered mental illness will know, the journey to healing is a much longer one – and it is gardening that has helped me recover fully.

The repetitive action of hoeing and weeding at the allotment might appear mindless, but it’s actually mindful. It has become my outdoor meditation.

At first the plot was unruly and wild: a wilderness to battle, but week by week I began to see that I didn’t need to tame the whole plot, just focus on one small patch at a time. Weed out the worries under my nose and not give too much attention to ones that would or could grow later. Grow in the present.

Early on, I’d sit in the shed and cry when I couldn’t remember how to sow something I’d sowed last week, and railed at plants failing to germinate, but the smell of the soil, the breeze on my face, that connection with living things slowly gave me back my foundations.

Gardening came to my rescue again in 2003 after I suffered post-operative nerve damage following a diagnosis of endometriosis, and my depression resurfaced, and yet again in 2016 when I developed labyrinthitis and had to relearn how to navigate the world around me – from the ground up!

Helping something else flourish continues to bring me enormous positivity, and, of course, digging helps me vent on the bad days! Mindfulness meditation often talks about ‘feeling grounded’, and gardening has most definitely brought me back down to earth. Feeling close to nature, to something bigger than yourself can put things into perspective and bring a great deal of calm.

I remember during early counselling sessions I was asked to “think of my safe place” – and for me that place will always be picking flowers in my cutting patch, foraging for potatoes or sitting beneath the waving fronds of plum blossom at the back of my allotment plot.

Thank you to the amazing author, Alice Whitehead for sharing her story. I am sure by sharing your story you will help, comfort and inspire many who can relate in some way.

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