Fight, flight, freeze

A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust-Gertrude Jekyll

After what feels like weeks and weeks of rain the skies have cleared, the birds are out in full glorious throttle and my fingers are itching to get growing. For Tasha her OCD is similarly itching to bring about order to the patch we are now referring to as The Somme. There are raised beds to build and be filled with new soil, paths to complete, pruning to commence and tweaking of the outdoor kitchen to ensue. Compost bins need turning and expanding and we still have the joy of trotting up to our allotment and for the first time using a key to open the gate rather than being a voyeur from the car park.
OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is primarily about control. If the mind is fractured, in turmoil, confused or unbalanced, having control of ones environment can, mainly falsely, give a sense that the sufferer has control in some area of their life. OCD is one of the manifestations Tasha has in her melting pot of symptoms resulting from childhood trauma.  As a child she was withdrawn and non-commutative with a parchant for arson, as a teen, unteachable and disruptive and sent to a school specialising in such pupils, in her 20's she was a self-harmer (a total of 226 stitches have sewn together just one arm) with drug afflictions and prone to violence, in adulthood her drug of choice became alcohol leading onto a life withdrawn from society consequently leading onto almost hermitude and inward living. But this inward living was not the healthy reflective life, where one looks at ones past, their experiences and gained knowledge using it to make improvements. It was the beginning's of a downward spiral where eventually the brain, spirit and soul breaks, splintering into a thousand pieces, like a seven year bad luck smashed mirror, where the image is frozen onto the reflection and each shard is a piece of a lifetime jigsaw permanently captured but akin to the most complicated puzzle needing an expert to bring all those pieces back together again.

But the most resounding memories, which are only just starting to diminish, is a life lived with constant fear. Its a creeping fear which starts with a prickle then hairs stand on end and full blown causes the natural fight or flight response which is the hyper-arousal reaction to perceived threat.  Tasha has no control over this fear impulse which has in the past led to violent clashes or the need to constantly be on the move... read run away. A symptom of these adrenal chemicals rushing through her body means she is always on uber alter without consciously knowing it. Every time we visit a cafĂ© or walk into a room with a large amount of people in it she will put her back to the wall facing the exit. Asked afterwards about her experience of the situation she will be able to give you a person by person run down on what they were wearing, how she perceived their body language, who was "shifty", who was telling the truth and probably if she was artistic with a pencil give a very clear recollection of every persons features. She will also be able to list the objects  in that room that could be used as a weapon either against her or by her to defend herself, where every exit is or where the safest place to hide was. This on it's own is extremely exhausting and paralysing and was brilliantly explained by her counsellor.
In normal people who have not suffered trauma the flight or fight response is there as a "just in case". To protect and preserve life. For some it may switch on if they see a spider and run screaming from the room petrified, others will stamp on the spider to defend themselves but Tasha's switch has been left on and through a childhood growing up in constant fear the switch never learnt to switch itself off. 
In the title above I also mention freeze. This I believe is a much under talked about and misunderstood  response. Like the proverbial rabbit in headlights or some times called "fawn response", it is as debilitating and is just as controlling of her life as the other responses. How many times have you heard a rape victim being accused of not doing enough to prevent an attack  because they just lay there and didn't fight off their attacker and run for their life? But the freeze response is also a natural reaction to perceived danger and many victims will tell you it has probably saved their life.
Now image, if you will, asking people with mental health issues who present with highly developed adrenal reflexes to "get a grip and get a job", the ramifications of the situations they would find themselves in during a normal day and the distress of what seem everyday manageable situations are  like for people so pained by this suffering. Also think about the treatment available within our underfunded and mismanaged NHS that is available for such people. The most common form of treatment is medication, usually with side effects that can cause a whole host of contra-indications to normal living.
I strongly and passionately believe that horticulture can offer a form of non-invasive therapy and I am not alone. 
Kathryn Rossiter, CEO of Thrive, one of the UK’s leading charities in disability and gardening says that “as well as the strong therapeutic value of gardening it can help people connect with others, reducing feelings of isolation. It makes us more active, gaining both physical and mental health benefits.”

Lets have a look at some of these benefits
  • Learning to nurture. Sometimes it is easier to nurture someone or something other then ourselves. But it can become a stepping stone for self care.
  • Gardening like many forms of exercise releases endorphins, serotonin and dopamine rise like natures little happy pills. Stress is reduced by the  fall in cortisol and the physical exertion aids sleep.
  • Growing helps one to be present. For a little time whilst your hands are in the soil, the past is forgotten and the future is miles away but the peace can also be a great time for contemplation. 
  • Nature brings balance by it rhythmic passing of time. Seasons change. Plant a seed it sprouts then it flowers then it fruits, waste becomes soil. There is a predictability. 
  • It teaches about success and failure with fruitful reward but without stern punishment.
  • There is shared purpose. A plants only obligation to life is to produce seed so it can continue life. The gardeners only obligation is to aid the plant.
  • It is a safe space to exhaust anger physically. Bash that clod of earth, rip out those weeds.
  • In more social situations such as an allotment it aids collective skills and aspirations and prevents one from just focusing on oneself.

With all this in mind and with blue skies above us we had a productive day of labour with a fire on the lawn and in the wood burner. We lined paths and beds with cardboard in anticipation of soil and woodchips, put chicken wire around the top of the outdoor kitchen in preparation for Wisteria and rambling roses growth, and did a few more yards of the path which was brilliantly started by our friend Amy. And most importantly metaphorically started collecting up broken pieces of glass.

PS Our friend Amy has also started writing a blog about her battle with Fibromyalgia and mental health. You can find her here.

We would like to thank Savanah in Stoke-on-Trent for their on-going support and counselling they have offered Tasha. By allowing her to tell her story, without judgement, recrimination and in a safe and calm space they have enabled her to start leaving her past, in the past, heal her wounds and look to the future with hope.

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul. – Alfred Austin