For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the ability to quickly and accurately read the emotional climate of a room. I can sense things like anger and frustration the way a dog can sense thunder; first the hair on my arms stands up, then I feel a prickle of dread spread across the back of my neck. Right before the storm breaks, I can taste metal, like a mouth full of pennies.
But when it comes to my own moods, I lose this emotional sonar entirely. Every outburst is a surprise, every single time. No matter how many times depression strikes, I’m blindsided; one day I’m sure I’m fine, and the next I’m a weeping, snarling mess.
I’d never tried to change this because it seemed like an unchangeable part of who I was; I could read other people like an open book and I couldn’t read myself, end of story. I would just have to get used to the inscrutability of my own moods, the way people who live in hurricane-prone cities get used to hurricanes. Every time I was razed, I would rebuild myself—at least, this was what I had always done. Even after what I refer to as my annus horribilis—the year a series of calamities big and small left me with no sense of identity or future—I had somehow managed to put some semblance of a life back together. Any mental health professional can tell you that the more frequently you have depressive episodes, the worse your prognosis is; having at least three was supposed to significantly lower the likelihood of remission, and I’d had way more than three. Each time, the rebuilding was harder; my doctor called it “losing plasticity.” I called it “everything is getting worse at an alarming pace.”
Last spring, the pace became even more alarming. I kept waiting for the worst of it to pass so that I could take a breather and start from scratch again, but life was relentless—after a rocky conclusion to 2016, my friend died of an aortic aneurysm in January, and losing her sent me into a tailspin. Scrambling to put me on an even keel, my psychiatrist put me on one new medication after another. A bad reaction to one of these sent me into some kind of manic state. I say “some kind of” because the only marker that I had for mania was a persistent, incredibly drug-resistant insomnia; I couldn’t get any rest, even with the strongest prescription sleeping pills.
One night I just kept taking pills, a single blue tablet every forty-five minutes. Every time I checked the clock and realized I was still feeling nothing, my anxiety increased; by the time I’d taken five times the prescribed dose, I was in full-blown panic attack mode and wound up going to the ER. I was so wired that the doctor asked me twice if I was sure I’d taken five pills, then sternly told me to never do that again. He gave me some Ativan and sent me home, where I crawled into bed and cried even harder.
The darkness came on and on. Ride it out, I told myself, imagining that I was clinging to a raft in the middle of a stormy sea, you’ll sight land eventually. But I didn’t, or couldn’t, and I was getting too tired to hold on. It occurred to me that some, maybe even most, rafts don’t find land. Some rafts get overturned, some drift for years, and some disappear entirely.
In the middle of all this, I decided to start growing plants. The idea came to me in one of those rare flashes of insight where you suddenly know exactly what you need; I woke up one morning knowing that I had to do this, and by the afternoon I was wandering down Walmart’s gardening aisle trying to figure out what kind of potting soil to buy.
I couldn’t just start again (and again, and again); I would have to try to fix things and accept failure, both of which are much more challenging than they sound.
My grandfather had a way with plants. He was originally from Northern Ireland, and I had always wondered if his gardening wizardry had something to do with being from a notoriously green country. But it’s more likely that he approached growing things the same way he approached everything else: calmly, methodically, and with a quiet joy. He grew vegetables on a sizeable patch of land that occupied roughly a quarter of his backyard, and up against the house he grew raspberry bushes. Out front, he had flowers and—his pride and joy—a small rose garden. The rose bushes made a neat line across the yard and when I was little I loved jumping over them, running through the damp summer evenings and taking huge leaps across the pale, ruffled blooms.
I didn’t want to grow roses, though. I wanted to grow something useful, an extension of my burning desire to be something useful in the world. The further I sank into depression, the more I obsessed over my inability to be productive. I told everyone I saw about how spectacularly unproductive I was. At night I wept to my husband about how I’d done nothing all day, and during the day I sent rambling, inscrutable texts to my mother about what a failure I was. Lingering over coffee with friends, I would feel my eyes welling up with tears as I described all the things I wasn’t getting done: I wasn’t working, I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t even able to read anymore. But if I could grow useful things—well! That would be something, at least.
I bought a set of biodegradable pots in a slotted plastic container and set up a nursery on the window sill in my bedroom. After poring over the display of seed packets I’d decided on basil, mint, rosemary, lavender, dill, and tomatoes—all edible, all easy to grow on a balcony. I planted the seeds under the waxing moon, like I’d once read you were supposed to in a Farmer’s Almanac. I watered them every day and whispered to them before I fell asleep at night, telling them how strong and good they were.
The pots were like little mysteries; staring into the soil was like looking up into the sky at night, out into the dark, uncertain universe. Both contained the potential for new life and the potential for nothingness. Would my seeds sprout? Or was I wasting time on a literally fruitless labour?
After two weeks of fretful waiting, tiny bits of green started appearing in my window garden. I felt incredibly satisfied, in a way that I hadn’t in over a year. My seedlings delighted me in a way that I couldn’t articulate; watching them slowly unfurl gave me a deep thrill of pride. There were six new lives on this planet and I was responsible. Me. The person who couldn’t even manage to read two paragraphs in a row without getting overwhelmed. My plants filled me with wonder; I would stroke their stems and murmur so strong. It had been a long time since I’d felt such accomplishment.
When the seedlings grew big enough to need re-potting, I realized that the new clay pots I’d bought were too big to fit on the window sill. It was late May by then, and the weather was consistently mild, so I decided to finally move them out to the balcony. I told myself that once they were outside, in the real sunshine (as opposed to the light that filtered through my bedroom window), they could properly flourish. After all, plants were supposed to be outside. Plants came from outside. I was just putting them back where they belonged in the first place.
After two days of rain, my seedlings began to wilt.
Then, after the weather turned nice and we had three days of scorching sun, their leaves began to crumple and turn brown.
My first impulse was to cry, which I did, right there on the balcony. What began as a feeling of anxiety and frustration over singed leaves quickly outpaced itself and grew bigger than the situation, bigger than me. It wasn’t just about the plants, it was about my life. Here I’d had these perfectly beautiful plants and I’d ruined them, just like I ruined everything else. It was an omen, the worst omen—if I couldn’t even keep a pot of basil alive, what hope did I have for myself?
one day as I was out on the balcony watering and pruning my plants, it occurred to me that I might try being as tender to myself as I was to them.
My second impulse was to throw the plants out and start again, the way I desperately wished I could start again on myself. I decided that I would dump them in the garbage when no one was looking, and plant another window sill nursery, except this time I would do everything perfectly. What, exactly, I meant by “perfectly” was incredibly vague, and the only item on the to-do list of how to be perfect was “accept zero mistakes.” What I meant by “mistakes” was also vague. The only thing I knew for certain was that I had to be harder on myself.
The only problem with my plan was that I knew it was too late in the season to start growing tomatoes again. The herbs could easily grow indoors, but the tomatoes needed the space—and summer sun—on the balcony; I might not have known much about gardening, but I knew at least that. It was that one small, actual fact that stopped me from destroying all of my hard work in one swoop. I couldn’t just start again (and again, and again); I would have to try to fix things and accept failure, both of which are much more challenging than they sound.
Instead of throwing my plants out, I watered them and told them it was all going to be okay. I took a picture of their discoloured leaves and posted it on Facebook with a request for advice on what to do next. I curled up on the couch and tried to breathe.
I slowly learned how to take care of my plants, partly through reading and soliciting advice but mostly through trial and error. If it rained too much, I brought them inside to dry out a bit. If the sun seemed overly bright, I moved them into the shade. As July melted into August and the temperature climbed, I stepped up my watering schedule. The more I got to know my plants—now strong, sturdy and far beyond the seedling phase—the more intuitive caring for them felt. In fact, it felt far more intuitive than caring for myself.
By this point, the worst of my long, drawn-out emotional crisis had passed. I kept waiting to start rebuilding, and yet I just couldn’t seem to get there. Every day I tried to build on my old foundations, and every day I failed. The stormy seas had calmed, but I was still stuck on the raft with no land in sight. I tried all my old tactics: getting angry at myself and scolding myself and telling myself I was worthless. For the first time in my life, none of these things knocked me out of my post-breakdown holding pattern. And then one day as I was out on the balcony watering and pruning my plants, it occurred to me that I might try being as tender to myself as I was to them.
I started looking for patterns and making notes. Instead of just naming what I was feeling—sad, bad, mad—I tried being tortuously honest about where that feeling might be coming from. Every day I scribbled out two pages of stream of consciousness writing and then tore them up and flushed them down the toilet so that I couldn’t critique what I’d written. I was still being hard on myself, but in a different way; I still had expectations, but they’d shifted from trying to be outwardly productive to trying to meet myself where I was.
I’m not fixed. Growing plants—even useful ones—didn’t magically heal me. But going through the work of tending them—work that had its rote elements, like watering them every day, but also required a capacity to be equal to the unexpected—did change how I care for myself. Sometimes I still yell at my reflection about how useless I am, but sometimes I catch myself and instead whisper so strong.
I thought about my grandfather as I picked bowlfuls of my beautifully ripe tomatoes. I know that he and I loved each other. I also know that he—steady, quiet, sure—never understood much about me, and the feeling was mutual. He would have understood this, though, and I felt like I knew him a little bit better, too. I wished I could call him and speak to him in our new, shared language. I wished I could ask him if the immigrant experience of being uprooted and then replanted in foreign soil had taught him to be a better gardener. I wished I could tell him that he was right, that it was important to balance joy and beauty with functionality.
If he could have managed to get a word in edgewise among all these wishes, maybe my grandfather would have reminded me of what I’d known that day on the balcony: that there are seasons for things, seasons for planting and seasons for harvesting. You can’t plant your vegetable garden in August—at least, not in this country— and you won’t be able to pick fresh cucumbers in January. That’s just how it is. He might also have reminded me that there are other seasons, fallow ones, when a stretch of soil is plowed but left unseeded during the spring and summer so that it can recover its fertility. An unproductive season, maybe, but still a part of the cycle.
I don’t think I can ever make peace with my depression, but maybe I can figure out how to live with the unbearable feeling of uselessness that it brings. A fallow season is just a season, after all, and has to end eventually. The trick is to imagine what potential the quiet earth might hold once the growing begins again.