I wrote this blog when it was National Gardening Week and Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week.
So for me, it was an obvious time to tell you about how these two worlds collided for me 3 years ago.
When I became pregnant, I couldn’t have been happier – I had always wanted to be a Mum, and with a lovely partner I felt incredibly lucky. Tom was the most gorgeous happy baby and we had a strong bond. But when I look back on that first 9 months, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that I developed post-natal depression. Like so many, the birth was difficult. The first two weeks were horrendous for a number of reasons – I still look back on them with horror 4 years later. Breast feeding was so painful, but I persevered. Tom had reflux. I had painful tendonitis in my wrists. Sleep was awful – I was lucky if I got 2 hours together. Over the months, my relationship gradually broke down – I think having a baby can magnify the cracks in your relationship and unfortunately we weren’t able to heal them. But I met friends, went to classes and genuinely loved being a Mum to Tom.
Then when Tom was around 10 months old I started to have worrying intrusive thoughts – “I can’t cope”, “I want to take Tom and run away from everyone” and then as it neared Tom’s first birthday I stopped breastfeeding and things really started to go downhill. I had periods of immense sadness that I couldn’t explain. I kept repeatedly telling myself, “I’m going crazy”. I told one friend this and she suggested I could have PND, but I convinced myself that I just needed to go back to work.
So I did. Looking back I realise now that those 4 weeks I was back at work my anxiety was disproportionately high and I was swinging from feeling desperate and low at home, to being almost high at work and socially.
Then one day it all came falling down. I called my Health Visitor from work and she arranged to visit me the next day. I told her everything that was going on in my head and she was amazing. She said she thought I had PND and immediately called my GP and arranged an appointment that afternoon for me to see them. The GP prescribed me antidepressants.
I thought that was it. I’d be fine in a couple of weeks and after the weekend I went into work. I explained the situation to my manager who is also a good friend and she kindly asked me if I should really be at work, at which point I fell apart, gathered my stuff, got out of the office as fast as I could and didn’t return for 6 months.
The time that followed was dark and difficult. But I was lucky – medication gradually worked, I had amazing support from my family and my partner was kind and supportive. I was also very lucky in that I had the most brilliant Health Visitor; she was a lifeline.
So how does this all relate to gardening? Well during those months, my garden became my escape. When I felt up to it, I would work – I found the methodical process of weeding out bindweed roots would stop me thinking about anything else and would make me feel like I’d achieved something. When I was feeling so low I couldn’t bring myself to do anything, I would often just stand and stare at the plants. It lifted some of the darkness. Then as I started to feel better, I started to enjoy the physical side of gardening. I started to have a bit more appetite again and I realised I wanted to be outside more. I dreaded the thought of being in an office all day, in a stressful job (I was an Adult Safeguarding Social Worker) – I wanted to do something creative with my hands.
Then it got to the point where I was well enough to go back to work, on a phased return and reduced hours. As anyone who has had a period off work will know, that first day is really, really hard. And as anyone who has had a mental health problem will know, you worry about people not believing you or about them seeing you differently. Everyone was kind, but my God, it was hard. I left feeling low, like that cloud was forming over me again. I went to Marks & Spencer to get a ready-meal for dinner – the only way to make sure I ate. I was in the queue in a dark fog. Then I started to hear the conversation in front of me. The man on the cash desk was talking to the customer, who used to be his gardener, about the difficulty in finding someone new. I heard him say “The problem is no-one wants to be on their hands and knees weeding for 4 hours” and I heard myself say, “I do”.
For some reason people often think I’m confident, but I’m not – I get very anxious, particularly in social situations. So I said those words, felt my heart beating hard in my chest and my cheeks go red, but he took me seriously; he took my number and gave it to his partner and she rang me and gave me a job. That leap of faith Andrew and Isabelle took in employing me was the start, and I’ll always be grateful to them.
From there, I got another job a few doors down, then another, then another. I did an RHS Horticulture course, started a Diploma in Garden Design, approached and won a contract for a city centre garden, then last summer I resigned from my job to do gardening full time. I also went on a Social and Therapeutic Horticulture course, with the leading charity in this area, Thrive.
It’s not a secret – in fact it’s all over the media – gardening is just so beneficial for your mental health, whether you are dealing with a mental health issue, or whether you simply recognise you need to look after your mental health.
I’m fortunate in that I consider myself recovered from my period of depression, but I still struggle with anxiety. I therefore recognise the need for me to be aware of my mental health in the decisions I make – I don’t think that’s particular to my circumstance, I think it’s the same for everyone, but not everyone realises it.
I now want to help other people realise the enjoyment they can have in gardening, whether that’s through helping them understand their own garden, making it manageable for them, or redesigning it so it becomes the haven that everyone’s garden can be. Charlotte is a Gardener and Garden Designer. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org