More than a hobby, gardening is good for the mind and body too
Pictured above: Alex and Joe in their garden at 226 Conisborough Crescent
“I am a strong believer that gardening can be more than just a hobby, it is good for the mind and body too.”
Garden owner Joe Shannon was delighted when Mind was named as a National Garden Scheme beneficiary. Having lived with mental health problems and volunteered at his local Mind shop for several years, he felt inspired to share his story about how gardening, and opening the garden he shares with his partner Alex, helps him with his mental health.
“I suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which for me results in dissociative seizures and dissociative amnesia. Dissociation is a method of the brain ‘switching off’, there are many forms of dissociative conditions. I suffer with seizures, a number of which result in complete memory loss which on some occasions has lasted as long as nine months.
“My memory loss is entire, I can lose the ability to talk, perform basic tasks and harder still I am not able to recognise myself, Alex or others who should be familiar to me. When I come around from a seizure I usually have no idea where I am and my gut instinct is to run away. I now wear a GPS tracker so when this happens Alex, with the help of the police, can find me,” Joe explains.
As PTSD is at the root of his condition, stress and worry can intensify and trigger seizures and there’s no medication that can help, but stress management can be effective.
“When I feel stressed or anxious I need to do something that I can lose myself in and be distracted for long enough that it passes. Our garden is somewhere safe where I can escape. There is always something to be done, deadheading, pottering in the poly tunnel, pruning or just sitting watching the birds.”
It doesn’t always work. Alex has come home from work to find Joe on the floor in the poly tunnel after a seizure with OB (their dog) watching over him.
“But I know the garden has had a big effect on reducing the amount of seizures I have, and I know it helps with my recovery from them.”
In the weeks after a seizure Joe feels isolated and trapped. It can feel like being a child again as he often loses the ability to talk. Even when he is around people he can feel like he’s on his own, which can be really hard to deal with as he often can’t remember what certain feelings are or what they mean.
“Having an outside space that I feel safe in is such a help. I don’t have to worry about what I’m doing, if I’m doing things right or what people think of me. The plants don’t care!
“Although safe, the garden can still be a scary place. After each seizure everything is new to me. Feeling rain for the first time again was pretty terrifying, but it does mean that I also get to discover each plant, bug and smell with wonder again.”
When he’s ready, Joe’s first step is into the back garden and although it’s a challenge at first, he’s soon able to get lost in his safe haven, listening to music and watching the wildlife.
“I have adopted a magpie, Malcolm, who has been coming to our garden for a couple of years and it’s always reassuring to see him. It’s also really comforting to know that I can have a go at anything in the garden without the stress and worry about doing something wrong. Plants grow back, and if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world.”
It can take a couple of days, weeks even before Joe feels comfortable enough to venture in to their beautiful, tiered front garden alone.
“It can be frightening when strangers stop to talk about the garden. Most just comment on how lovely the garden looks or ask what certain plants are. Most are very kind and understanding when they realise I am struggling to talk.
“We are incredibly lucky that most of our neighbours know about my condition so are always aware that I may not remember them. They’ve always been so kind to me and do their best to help me get my confidence back.”
Joe loves being in the front garden, bursting with colour, he likes to sit and draw what he sees. Handwriting is difficult after a seizure so drawing helps to improve this and it relaxes him.
“I also enjoy deadheading out there (not a job everyone loves) but I can really get lost in it and as the results are immediate, I feel like I have accomplished something good.”
One thing Joe always gets asked is ‘how do you know that you enjoy gardening?’
“My answer is normally that I don’t know until I’m doing it. Alex encourages me to get out in to the garden as soon as possible after a seizure and we have found over time that returning to normal tasks quickly helps speed up my recovery.
“When my seizures first started I was having four or five on my worst days. After Cognitive Behavioural Therapy this reduced to one or two a week but when I started to use gardening as a way to relax and de-stress combined with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) therapy they have reduced even further and with the support of Mind, although I still have memory loss and other side effects they now no longer prevent me from working. When I do have a seizure the garden helps me regain my confidence and memory more quickly. It normally starts with things like plant names coming back to me, or remembering planting something and gradually it builds from there. Even plant smells can trigger memories of people, like lavender brings back happy memories of my Nan.
“Our garden has given me somewhere I can regain my confidence in a safe environment, and I love it!”
What’s more, Joe has recently been appointed assistant manager at his local Mind shop.
226 Conisborough Crescent next opens for the National Garden Scheme on Saturday 7th September 11am – 5pm. Refreshments: Home-made teas. Admission: Adult: £4.00
For more information see: https://ngs.org.uk/view-garden/35891/
For more on the National Garden Scheme’s partnership with Mind see: https://ngs.org.uk/who-we-are/beneficiaries/mind/