My escape from fear to a healing garden
Many people are now talking openly about their physical and mental challenges and how their garden or gardening has helped them. I want to talk about my story of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and the garden, and I hope my story may help other people.
I’ve also done a video on this, so if you prefer watching to reading a post, it’s here:
Going back to the beginning…
I was born in Gibraltar, but as my father worked for the British government we moved a lot in my childhood. After five safe and happy years living in South East England, my brothers and I found ourselves living in an unsettled and unhappy Caribbean country.
Thirty-one years of an exceptionally brutal dictatorship had ended in the dictator’s assassination around a year earlier. It was also around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so everything felt very unsafe.
A series of revolutions culminated in a civil war. Fearing ‘another Cuba’, the US Army intervened and we fled the country, briefly becoming refugees.
Earthquakes and revolutions…
After we left the Caribbean island, we then lived in another South American country. It was a wonderful place to live, but it still had the occasional revolution, a higher level of violent crime than Britain and several earthquakes.
So I knew that the world could literally open up and swallow you at any moment. But I always believed that I would be safe if I got back to England. When I had nightmares, it was always about trying to escape to England to be safe.
But I thought England was safe…
I came to live in England permanently when I was 18. Eventually I began working in journalism and moved into a house with one of my brothers.
On the second night we were in the house, I woke up to find four men in my room, three with balaclavas concealing their faces. They attacked me with some kind of bat and also with a knife. We subsequently discovered the knife had been taken from our own kitchen.
I screamed and my brother came tearing down the stairs to help. Fortunately they ran away.
I have no idea how long it all took, because although I wasn’t concussed I seemed to have lost a small piece of memory. It took several hours before I realised that my arms and legs had knife cuts across them and that my back was bruised from the blows.
The immediate effects
I felt as if I had stepped into a strange, unknown world, where everything seemed very bright and loud and menacing, and where I could no longer assess whether a knock at the door was someone come to hurt me or just a delivery.
For the first ten days or so, I had to deal with considerable physical pain too, as the blows and some of the knife cuts were painful, although not ultimately serious. Were those footsteps behind me a threat? What was that noise in the middle of the night?
My brain no longer knew what the rules were or how to evaluate even the most ordinary event. My senses were on hyper-alert, so that every time I dropped asleep I was jerked awake as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over me.
Above all, it was exhausting and painful, as if someone had imprisoned and tortured me.
What is PTSD?
It was, of course, my own mind that had imprisoned me and for a while it seemed as if it refused to let me go. Friends were enormously supportive and I went to counselling, which had some limited help.
A psychiatrist friend of mine has since told me ‘Bad things happen, and when they do, it’s normal to feel terrible.
But I was still feeling many of the effects over a year later and that is post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Everyone said that time would help – and it does, but so slowly and in small increments.
Take on new challenges?
However, over the next four years, I got my dream job working on women’s magazines, met my husband and had twins, all of which was wonderful.
Taking on new challenges helped me, but the jumpiness, the sleepless nights and the inability to properly distinguish between a real and imagined threat – it was all still there. I began to get panic attacks in the London Underground and in shops.
Eventually I went to my GP who signed me off sick for two months.
Learn to ‘stop and stare’.
One of the counsellors advised me to do four twenty minute sessions of relaxation and meditation a day.
‘I couldn’t possibly find time for that,’ I said. ‘Well, do you want to get better or not?’ was the reply.
It was the first time I properly understood that unless I looked after myself, then I wasn’t going to be able to look after my family and do my job. There is a reason why you have to put your own oxygen mask on first.
One of the exercises I was asked to do – every day – was to lie down in a calm and comfortable place, with the door shut and away from all distractions. ‘Take yourself round somewhere beautiful,’ they said. ‘Imagine you’re on a Caribbean beach.’
Well, my memories of Caribbean beaches involved armed soldiers. Not relaxing.
A healing garden
So I chose a garden for my meditation. Not a famous garden, and not my own garden (we only had a small courtyard at the time).
It was the garden of a house for sale, which a friend had shown me once. The owners had already gone, so garden was slightly overgrown. But you could still walk up its lavender lined front path and go round the side to see the beautiful raised veg beds just outside the back door.
It was long and thin, a typical English town garden in many ways, and divided up into sections. There was a tiny lawn, rose borders, a wilder part with long meadow grass and fruit trees.
As this was over twenty years ago, that blend of cultivation and wildness was before its time. It was a revelation to me.
Create your own healing garden
My meditation is a mental walk around this garden, imagining the sounds, feelings, scents and sights of each part of it. I’ve put together a meditation based on going round a garden in a separate video, which you can adapt for your own imaginary garden tour if you like.
The video will explain how to create a garden in your own mind, so that you can summon it up at any time without needing to have any kind of recording. If you prefer a guided meditation (on a disc) , I have found Paul McKenna’s books and audios excellent – for example: I Can Make You Sleep.
I think one of the reasons I chose a garden was also because my favourite childhood book was The Secret Garden, a wonderful Edwardian children’s book about a boy in a wheelchair, a traumatised orphan girl and a farmer’s son coming together to heal by restoring a hidden garden. (note: links to Amazon are affiliate, which means I may get a small fee if you buy but it won’t affect the price you pay.)
Then I started to love real gardens
As I recovered from the panic attacks, I started to notice plants and flowers in the London streets around me.
It was a grey, windy February, but suddenly the brilliant yellow blaze of forsythia tumbled over a wall. A few snowdrops or anemones pushed shyly up in a front garden. The spicy floral scent of witch hazels wafted their elusive breath across the road. A friend’s winter flowering jasmine twined around her front railings.
I could see that even in a bare, cold winter there could be hope, joy and beauty.
A healing garden isn’t only the answer…
Of course, the meditation around the garden wasn’t the only thing that helped. I had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which focused more on tips for managing panicky situations rather than examining either the trauma of the burglary or my time in South America.
No-one could promise me I would never be attacked again, but tips that helped me sleep a little better or shop without a panic attack, all reduced the stress.
At the time we had a tiny courtyard – around 15ft wide and 20ft long, but I longed for a garden of my own. When we moved out of London, I got my garden. But I discovered, with a shock that loving gardens wasn’t quite enough.
I had to learn about gardening – fast!
It takes time
Healing and gardening both take time to learn. And it also takes time to make your garden yours. Even if you find a house with a beautiful garden, we all have to discover our own gardening style.
It took us about six years to work out what we wanted. That was the beginning of a whole new adventure, which culminated in the Middlesized Garden blog and YouTube channel.
I don’t visit that secret imaginary garden so often now – but sometimes I still need to. If I wake with a start at 3am, I re-create my walk around that garden I only visited once. I usually I fall asleep again quite quickly.
Now I’m interested and excited to find out all the plants, ideas and strategies that gardening has to offer.
I’m still learning, so do join me on that gardening journey, and let me know if you’d like to hear more about gardens and stress relief as well as garden ideas and inspiration.
And if you have a story of stress and gardening, please do share it in the comments below. If you’ve blogged or vlogged it, then feel free to include a link – everyone’s approach is different and sharing stories can help us all. Thank you.