In her mid-twenties, studying conservation and use of water in the environment, PhD student Anna was walking into university one day when she found she just couldn’t take another step. It was the beginning of a two-year breakdown brought on by working all day, every day.
It’s a scenario that many people are able to relate to, and thanks to some high-profile people now willing to talk about their own struggles with mental health, we are beginning to acknowledge the insane pressure that our society places on human beings – and that we place on ourselves – to be constantly functional and productive.
Beset by acute distress, the only relief Anna experienced came from being outdoors, walking for hours, and starting to grow a few herbs, handling the soil and nurturing living plants.
Now, as horticulturist in a dedicated team working on the wonderful Flourish gardening-for-mental-health project at Livability Holton Lee, Dorset, Anna draws on her experience of the benefits of raising plants without use of harsh chemicals, and of raising the quality of people’s lives by enabling them to work together in a natural environment, without harsh judgements and unreal expectations.
In a world that tends to divide people into categories and reject those who don’t neatly fit them, Flourish welcomes all kinds of people to come as they are, with their unique abilities and disabilities, enthusiasms, doubts and fears.
For some, it’s a chance to recover their calm and move towards volunteering or employment, while for others it’s a chance to develop social and practical skills. For everyone, it’s an experience of community and an acknowledgement that no one can thrive in isolation from nature and from other human beings.
For Ron, a retired biology teacher, Flourish provided a chance to rediscover the person he was before illness. “I’ve always been interested in nature and wildlife and growing things but after my stroke I didn’t feel like myself any more: I had lost my speech and my ability to write, which was a part of my identity as a teacher. I had also lost confidence, especially socially, and even now I find it difficult if I’m at the rugby club or somewhere and a group of four or five people are all talking at once.
“Recovering from a stroke is hard work, tiring and humiliating, but Holton Lee is a nice place, surrounded by nature and wildlife and so many birds – I’ve recorded 156 species in the 17 years I’ve been here – and gradually my confidence came back. I’ve got back my speech, and my writing has reverted to the way it was – my signature is still the same, which for me is a sign that I’m still the same person.
“My funding ended in 2005 but I became a volunteer at Flourish. I mainly work in the greenhouse and I still use my old dissecting kit from the biology labs, which is great for sowing seeds!”
While many people on the Flourish project have support and funding due to a recognised diagnosis of a physical or mental health condition, others are struggling with less definable issues – low self-esteem, complex learning difficulties, post-traumatic stress or simply inexplicable anguish – that make everyday tasks and enjoyments feel like hurdles to overcome. It’s these unseen wounds that can be hardest for others to understand.
As one Flourish participant expressed it, “Society’s view of mental illness tends to be weakness, laziness or a threat. It all comes under the same heading, whether someone’s condition causes mild confusion or behaviour that could be dangerous.”
Caroline survived a stroke, lung cancer and osteoporosis but with a background history of loss of home, job, marriage, relationships and her beloved allotment, she was becoming isolated.
“I thought, ‘What else is going to happen to me?’ I got very frustrated. When a lady from the local social prescribing agency introduced me to Holton Lee, I was surprised: how many times had I driven past this place and never realised it was there! I was in awe when I saw it: what a fabulous place to be!
“Flourish was the best thing that happened to me. I live on my own and it’s very nice to come out and meet other people, and we all love the garden. Everything here is geared up for helping people. You don’t always know what kind of disability people have. It’s a community regardless of disabilities; we all connect and work together as a team.
“We were coming back from a walk one afternoon and I said, ‘I just love this place!’ and one of the staff said, ‘We love you!’ Well – what more can you ask?”
Lucy, a gentle-natured 21-year old, was already familiar with Holton Lee when she first came for a trial day at Flourish, as her family came regularly to the 350-acre harbourside site to walk the dog and enjoy the woods and heathland. She loved the tranquillity of the place – but found it a bit challenging to adjust to the exuberance of some of the other young Flourish participants when she started coming to the gardening project!
“I had done a little bit of gardening at home and I was doing life skills, including floristry, at college, but I was looking for somewhere that I could talk to people more because I felt I wasn’t doing that enough; I was afraid I wouldn’t get the words out.
“I had struggled at school right from the start because I have autism, which was diagnosed when I was about three. Other children would ask why I had extra help at school and say it wasn’t fair.
“I left school at 17. I did an extra year there doing a life skills course that they made up for me but that was quite hard because I don’t think they had very much understanding about people that had different problems. At college it was better and I did get to talk to people more there. I think people are easier to get on with when they have had struggles themselves, even if not the same kind of thing.
“Holton Lee is very peaceful and I always felt relaxed here. When we were shown round the gardens I really liked it. But the first day was a bit daunting! There was a mix of people and it was quite noisy! It was challenging talking to people I didn’t know but I did enjoy the work I was doing: picking and arranging flowers and making up veg boxes for sale.
“My parents and people at college said they saw a change in me. When I first started, they could see how nervous I was – and I do still get nervous but I am doing it!
“Everyone brings something to the project and people have said I’m good at listening and that I’m a very kind person. I pick up what people are feeling, without them having to say it, and I have sympathy for people if they find life difficult. I know what they mean.”
Mike, a self-employed builder who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, was at first resistant to the idea of attending a therapeutic project. “I knew I needed to get out of the house. I couldn’t work or drive any more, I lost the pension I was building up and I nearly lost our house as well. But I told my wife and the lady from social services, ‘I’m not doing pottery and I’m not doing painting!’
“I wasn’t particularly keen on gardening either – I’ve got plenty of gardening to do at home. But here at Flourish there’s no pressure to do anything; you can try things and see what you like. I started making things out of wood. I had a lot of experience of working with wood, as a builder, and that skill side of my brain wasn’t affected, though my memory was.
“From the beginning, everyone was friendly but it took me a long time to connect with people and not to switch off when they were talking. And when a scan showed my brain had got worse, I said I wasn’t coming in any more. But some of the boys here are worse off than me – even though they can use a mobile phone and I can’t!
“Being around people with different disabilities has shown me that there are people out there – thousands – getting on with life when it’s difficult. I look at people in a different way now; I see people as people, not as a disability.
“At my last hospital appointment the doctor said my brain had got worse again but he couldn’t understand how I was doing the things I am doing – volunteering here three times a week now and teaching the young lads woodwork and mechanical skills. He said the work I’m doing here is better than any medication and told me to keep going!”
For myself, when I started volunteering at Holton Lee five years ago, my only intention was to help out with a bit of weeding. But after a few weeks I was puzzling to work out what was going on here: it was more than a successful therapeutic project or an organic market garden; there was something else happening.
This widely diverse range of people was not just a random group engaging in shared activities; they were building a genuine community, based on respect for everyone’s strengths and limitations and acceptance of each other’s differences.
The dividing lines are blurred here. A non-verbal young man with autism and physical disabilities shows a volunteer how to change a drill bit. Staff members talk honestly about their own struggles with maintaining mental health. Support workers and carers say that accompanying their clients to the project doesn’t feel like work but benefits them as well.
I love the absence of ‘us and them.’ And the fact that absolutely everything – even uprooting a whole patch of plants in the mistaken belief that they are weeds – is not only forgiven but likely to prompt gales of laughter. But most of all I love the way that people change from numb and terrified newcomers to confident members of this thriving community – within a couple of weeks of arriving.
That’s why an offer to write a few paragraphs telling people’s stories, in an attempt to promote awareness and aid much-needed fundraising for this worthwhile charity, somehow grew into a whole book. If you’d like to read more, it’s on Amazon: Flourish! A gentler way to grow people – price £5.99, with all profits going to the Flourish project. To purchase a copy, or perhaps even several copies, click here!
Or better still, if you’re in the area, pop into the farmhouse shop, pick up a copy there and come and see us!
Clare Nonhebel is author of 14 fiction and non-fiction books – the latter covering subjects including homelessness, Death Row, faith and doubt, and spiritual healing. Details of all of them are on her website https://clarenonhebel.com
Her first novel, Cold Showers, won a Trask Award for new fiction writers, was serialized in a women’s magazine and broadcast on BBC radio, and some books have been translated into German, Swedish and Slovene.
Before becoming a freelance journalist, Clare worked for charities and a social work agency and as a PR agency account executive. She has been a regular feature writer for women’s and business magazines and a columnist for a Christian publication, as well as writing newspaper articles and reviews and producing company in-house magazines.
Her own experience of health problems has drawn her to explore the realities of genuine spiritual, physical and emotional healing, and has led to a belief that people can only be healed into community, not back into their pre-symptom individual lives.
Clare graduated in French Studies with Philosophy from Warwick University and enjoys gardening, swimming in the sea, and has a love/hate relationship with sewing. She lives with her husband Robin, a retired history teacher, in Dorset.