The Healing Power of Nature
Living with Chronic Illness
One week before my 14th birthday my mother died at age 42 after a three-year battle with breast cancer. I was staying with my father and stepfamily and I will always remember the pain of the phone call from hospice ringing in the middle of the night. The finality of that phone call tore into my tender 13-year-old heart. The next morning I went into the garage and found old seed packets for radishes, carrots and tomatoes. Armed with a shovel, seed packets and absolutely no instruction, I found a small patch of dirt between the house foundation and backyard lawn and I began digging. Repeatedly I slammed the shovel into the soil as an emotional release. I turned and turned the hard pack dry dusty soil. Without reading the seed packets, I planted them into the earth with my bare hands and watered them with the green hose.
What happened to my little first garden, I have no memory. What I do remember is the internal drive and instinct to seek out the soil and gardening as a means to cope with my intense grief. I imagine that experience was when the tiny seed of gardening was planted in my heart and where it lay dormant for the next ten years until I was again ready to put my hands into the soil.
The healing power of gardening was a powerful and patient seed, and at 25-years-old it awoke and gardening became my constant companion and teacher. Over the last 20 years of urban gardening I have gardened by any means possible; container gardening on apartments front stoops and patios, large scale backyard gardening, raised beds, community gardens, and everything in between.
My passionate love affair with plants has given meaning and direction to my often-confusing life. I believe in the inherent healing power of plants and nature and that is what led me in 2007 to my midlife career change to horticulture. In April 2015 I was blessed with the opportunity to start my own small business. As sole proprietor of The Gardening Goddess I happily devote myself full-time to garden design, garden consultation, garden writing, and teaching gardening workshops.
I was called to share my passion for the healing power of nature with others. In August 2015 I began a rigorous and prestigious horticultural therapy internship at Legacy Health with the goal of professional registration with the American Horticultural Therapy Association as a Horticultural Therapist. My internship was demanding and exciting providing with the opportunity for me to work in pediatrics, memory care, long-term care, intermediate care, skilled nursing, assisted living, and the Rehabilitative Institute of Oregon. I developed a therapeutic gardening program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This magical new professional life was a dream come true for me.
As the year progressed and my professional life became more demanding I struggled with several health problems. Ultimately in May 2016 a colonoscopy revealed ulcers in my small intestine and I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory bowel disease with no cure. Crohn's Disease is an auto immune disease that affects the entire gastro-intestinal system and is not completely understood.
How I personally experience Crohn’s Disease is a range of chronic GI symptoms including: mouth ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn, chest pain, asthma, abdominal pain & cramping, abdominal distention, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, anal fissures, chronic blood loss, anemia, and nutrient malabsorption. My entire body aches in a state of chronic pain, insomnia gives me little restful sleep, and I am constantly fatigued and feeling like I’m running on empty.
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness and managing the acute phase is profoundly life altering and the cause of deep emotional, mental, and physical stress. As an extremely driven and solution-oriented person I approached my illness with all the determination of an army tank. Within two weeks of diagnosis I was armed with my gastroenterologist, and also a new primary care MD, a new naturopathic doctor, and a new psychotherapist. I threw at my illness immunomodulation medication, multiple antibiotics, steroids, a multitude of naturopathic supplements, and a drastic change to a very restricted diet. I started a weekly routine of somatic psychotherapy, yoga, and meditation to dive into the emotional side of my illness. I was going to lick this Crohn’s Disease!
My body had other plans for me. The side effects from my medication caused me to be so nauseated I couldn’t see or smell food, let alone eat, without vomiting. I lost 20 pounds very quickly. I experienced cognitive impairment, normally a very organized person I could not remember details or words, I became easily confused while driving. Dizziness, vertigo, and headaches joined my plethora of symptoms. My right hip joint and muscles became so stiff and tight I could not cross my leg without excruciating pain. Muscle spasms and cramping became so uncomfortable my leg buckled when I tried to bear weight and walk. I was in and out of urgent care for painful urinary tract infections. All aspects of work and internship were becoming near impossible for me.
Within a month of diagnosis I had a complete physical and mental collapse. I was treated for dehydration and exhaustion. My “army tank” approach was not working. In the following months I was also diagnosed with gastro-esphogial reflux disease, irritable bowel syndrome, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, a multitude of food allergies, high cholesterol and interstitial cystitis. It was time to take a step back and listen to what my body and my mental health needed of me to begin my healing process.
Once again nature drew me into her supportive embrace and I discovered my healing process in my garden. My garden is the consistent throughout my life and especially during my illness. Most of the time I sit in my garden and do nothing. I find sitting very still and just observing nature to be so worthwhile. Nature encourages me to slow down.
My garden is my sanctuary. The trauma of being poked and prodded with weekly blood draws, injections, and being subjected to invasive medical procedures sends me running into my garden for refuge. When I feel defeated, hopeless, powerless, out of control, sick, in pain, fatigued, anxious, stressed, scared, depressed, confused, frustrated, or angry I come to my garden for release and comfort. My garden hears and holds all of my feelings.
In my garden my whole body relaxes. Here I breathe deeply and my muscles release tension. My heart rate calms and I let go of my worries. My pain and discomfort soften. Anxiety dissipates and stress melts away. Within a few minutes of being in my garden, my life makes sense and all is right in the world. Surrounded in nature, I am grounded, centered, and restored to balance.
My garden teaches me important lessons I relate to my own life. All plants have a birth, life, and death. Their life cycle includes both active growth and dormancy. Many plants experience disease, and often it is because they are weakened by stressors. I can throw lots of “things” at my garden like fertilizer, compost, weeding, pruning, staking, and ultimately I have no control over which plants thrive.
During the worst time of my illness, most days I could just muster enough energy to water and harvest my garden. The most minimal tending needed to keep it going. On good days I can spend an hour getting gentle exercise as I weed and prune. Every day I enjoy just sitting in my garden, listening to the breeze in the leaves, feel the warm sun on my skin, and watch the multitude of bugs and birds. The days I was too tired to get up, too fatigued to even read, I would lay on the couch and gaze out the window at my garden or look at the pictures in garden catalogs. Even a passive view of nature out the window or in print has healing powers.
There is always something new and delightful to notice in the garden. The abundant palette of colors, textures, shapes, sizes, fragrance, and tastes of my garden is endlessly exciting and surprising. Sitting in my garden inspires calmness and wonder.
As summer progresses I observe brilliant orange tiger lilies bloom next to dinner plate dahlias in a rainbow of colors. Beneficial bugs buzz everywhere I look. Damselflies, ladybugs, and a host of bees are regular visitors. Our resident hummingbird happily buzzes from splashing in the sprinkler to sipping nectar from purple agastache and brilliant red monarda blossoms. The tiniest “gray hairstreak” butterfly rests on a chamomile blossom and rubs her new wings together warming up for flight. Crow, blue jay, robin, swallow, finch, warbler, junco and chickadee alike take turns bathing and drinking from our birdbath.
Surrounded by nature’s wonder I will continue to seek refuge in my garden. No matter what my physical, emotional, and mental state my garden consistently provides an opportunity to restore my balance, find meaning in my life, and heal myself. During an adolescent time of great grief and trauma the tiny seed of gardening was planted in my young heart. The healing power of nature was a powerful and patient seed that has sustained me and grown strong giving my life meaning and joy. Nature is abundant in her healing power, she is always here waiting during every adversity, and here is where you will find me loving my life in my garden.
Warm Wishes for Your Vibrant Health,