I started gardening after I developed schizophrenia a decade ago. Working outside was excellent therapy for my condition, as well as depression.
If you are diagnosed with a medical condition, it can be tempting to spend a lot of time researching and reading about it. This can make you feel very depressed and I already have that problem. I have yet to come across any positive information about schizophrenia. The reason for that of course is because there isn’t anything positive about the condition. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 24 million people worldwide (around 1% of the population) are affected by schizophrenia. To some, 1% may not seem like much but I personally think that there are quite a few people in the world who all suffer from the same serious specific mental illness, to varying degrees and in different ways.
Some people with schizophrenia have devoted their lives to sharing their experiences through books and social media so they can help others understand what is often a highly misunderstood and stigmatized condition. I do applaud them for their dedication as this is a very worthy objective, but it’s not something I could do myself as spending all my time thinking, writing and speaking about my condition would make me feel even more depressed. Going outside in old clothes and getting my hands dirty actually helped take my mind off my problems. I think that was because it gave me something different to focus on. My plants have brought me so much joy over the years. In the face of a major life event which marked a significant change in my functioning, it gave me a sense of purpose again. Because schizophrenia affects your concentration and memory (among other things), doing something practical was a relief rather than spending all day reading and writing, which is what I did as a lawyer before I became unwell. It’s not that I can’t read, write, concentrate and remember things at all. It’s just that I struggle with those things more than most other people.
I was hurting very badly inside when I was first diagnosed with schizophrenia and sometimes I still feel that way even ten years on. But over time, gardening has helped me to heal inside. Nature is very peaceful and being around it is very good for the soul. To put it simply, I feel better whenever I work outside. The sheer magnitude and force of mother nature helped me to put all my problems into perspective. As I spend all day outside, I am very attuned to the weather and have witnessed first-hand how troublesome climate change is. Our summers start later, are shorter and cooler than previous years. Gardening has made me much more conscious of the environment, how it affects us and our impact on it as we go about our business.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma and misunderstanding attached to mental illness. Some people may feel frightened of you because they think you might harm them or they look down upon you for not being “normal” like other people. Not everyone that has schizophrenia is a danger to others and themselves. As for not being normal, I was lamenting that one day at the gym while talking to a friend and she said to me, “don’t worry Anita, no one is normal!”. Plants don’t seem to mind whose hands are tending to them, so long as they are given lots of love and care. Gardening has helped me make many friends because it connected me with like-minded people. I realized that I’m not alone and there are others who also find it helps them cope with their problems. It also brought Ginger, a stray cat who was living in the garden, into our home. Mum and I adopted her and she has greatly enriched our lives. She loves the garden and I love observing how she engages with it. She enjoys lying in her trough of catnip so much that she actually looks like she is in heaven.
Growing our own food also reinforced the importance of nutrition, which can fall to the wayside when you have a mental illness. It is very easy to develop unhealthy eating habits, including binge eating, when you aren’t always in control of your thoughts and emotions.
Having a disability such as schizophrenia can impact upon your ability to work and earn a living. Fresh produce has become so expensive in New Zealand over the past year due to the terrible summer we had. There were even floods and cyclones in some areas. Gardening helps to reduce grocery bills. This is actually something all New Zealanders would benefit from doing, due to the ever-rising cost of living.
Gardening has not only been an important part of my mental health journey, but it has also helped me to develop as a person. In the past, happiness always came from academic achievements and career development. I used to love coming first and it can become quite addictive! Nowadays, doing things for others is what makes me truly happy inside. That includes sharing what I grow in the garden. As much as I enjoy the fruits of my labour, the greatest joy for me as a gardener is in growing and giving. Gardening has helped me strive to become a kinder, more compassionate and generous person. To me, these qualities are much more important than success. Gardening actually helped me to put my mental illness into perspective and see it as a part of myself. There is much more to me than that and other areas need to be improved as well.
Gardening has helped me realise that there is more to life than money, power, status, education, physical appearance and being in the right cliques and social circles. I am sick of being judged by the way I look and speak, which school I attended, the suburb I live in and what I do for a living (and who my parents are and what they did for a living, too). Those things don’t wholly define me, nor does the mental illness. The garden I created is a little sanctuary, a small world where I can escape from these things.
Even still, a few months ago I was so fed up with civilization that I wished I could live alone on an island with no government, no legal system, no economy and currency, no cars (they are terrible for the environment and walking is very good for your health) and a collection of seeds and fruit trees so I could grow my own food and live in peace. Not long after that, the link to an article appeared in my newsfeed on Facebook. A Brit did exactly that. He was lucky and managed to purchase a small island in the Seychelles quite cheaply. I couldn’t help but be jealous, even though I know it's wrong to feel that way. Ever since I was little, I have been absolutely fascinated by islands and always wanted to live on a small one somewhere hot where the water is always calm and warm. There are some things I would really miss though, including Spotify as I love music. But you can't always have everything and sometimes something has to give.