Plants Make Me Ill (Revisiting Chronic Illness in the Garden)

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With all of the recent changes it has been difficult for me to sit and think about being chronically ill. Mostly that’s because it’s what I thought about for so many years; the diagnosis robbed me of many things and it hurt deeply. Gardening kept me busy, but mostly I read about it. Actually being outside all of the time was another thing altogether and that became more and more difficult as I became more ill. But who out there amongst us isn’t an armchair gardener at one point or another?
Now I am feeling better, so I don’t have as much time to sit and think, but the avoidance is mostly due to my not wanting to accept or even acknowledge what I’ve seen as a roadblock and an obstacle for so long. So much of my current divorce has to do with the illness, but it is certainly not everything and I know that too.
Peony bloom I snapped from the sidewalk.

Currently, when I don’t have plans with friends on Friday nights, I take leisurely 6-mile walks to Powell’s Books on Hawthorne and then I walk back home through Mt Tabor Park. These are productive walks where I not only get the much needed exercise I’ve missed for the last decade or so, but I also get to feel the joy I used to feel at just looking at things—mostly plants.

Rockery overflowing with Basket of Gold, Aurinia saxatilis.
During these walks I am in awe of how thrilling it is to be able to breathe and to walk. And although plants do still make me a bit ill—at least their pollen that is—I am learning how to better manage my asthma and to feel the symptoms in my body. For so long I was unable to do so because I’d become so numb from all of the swelling but I can feel a lot now.

Walking past Portland Nursery still makes me giggle a little since it’s no longer an escapist refuge for me as it once was when I could barely get anything done all day.

Seeing the cherry blossom petals scattered on the sidewalk while standing amongst them has made me smile with pleasure this year. They won’t be here for long and this year I won’t have to see them solely from the car as I fly past them. I savored them the other night because they’ll be gone next week.

No one knows this yet but I have lived at the base of Mt Tabor Park for almost 8 years and it was only within the last few months that I’ve been able to visit all of its reservoirs.

False Solomon’s Seal, Maianthemum racemosum.

Finding native plants in the park has been a great boon too.

Vine Maple, Acer circinatum.
Lastly, while up at the park, walking and thinking about chronic illness, I thought a lot about the native Vine Maple. It is so tiny among giants, stretching for the sunshine, doing its best as an understory resident. Thinking about how much I’ve always liked this tree, and how calm I’ve felt beneath them spring, summer, or fall, seeing them during my walk home in the woods of Mt. Tabor felt like coming across another old friend.
Somehow this comforting end to my walk on Friday helped me to find the courage to do some research into what to call the current stage of my chronic illness experience. From inside, I have felt so much certainty about so many things but I haven’t understood at all why. I have felt very isolated, but I just knew that if I looked hard enough I would find something—and I did!
Just as my disease is new and unknown, so too are the studies of people living as I do. We become chronically ill as adults, suffering for many years with uncertainty and change, there comes a moment when we face death, we get through it, and then with extra medical attention, we improve suddenly after something is changed or adjusted. We are the lucky ones. Many living with chronic illness will never get this opportunity and I think knowing this is part of the catalyst for what happens internally to some of us. I, like many others, have been rewarded with just the outcome we’d spent so much time trying to let go of so as not to create false hope within ourselves. We had to learn to live in that moment between enduring and suffering, committing to ourselves not to dream about being able to live in the reality I have just reentered—one with so much more freedom.
One study said that there may only be 5-10% who experience what they called self-reformation, but I think that further study will show a higher number of people who enter into this process. Medical science seems to improve daily and there will be more people like me. There must be others out there already too who, like me, simply don’t know what to call what they’re going through.
Here are the phases that have so far been identified, but I am putting them in my own order, as they occurred within myself: need for reciprocity (to help others who are suffering), value suffering, appreciate one’s abilities, a disregard for material things, maximizing today, reordering priorities and exiting from unsatisfying relationships.
This last one is the tricky one. It shows my part in the divorce, and I agree with what I read about other people in my situation. When I read the experience of one woman, I was shocked to see myself in her words. This list also points forward for me, and what I read also made me think so much about plants and gardening—funny how that always seems to happen. I am sure that many of you out there already understand this too in your own lives.
Plants might still make me a teeny tiny bit ill with allergy or an immune response but there is no way I am ever leaving the garden again. All roads seem to lead right back to plants in my life and that’s just the way it’s going to be…

5 thoughts on “Plants Make Me Ill (Revisiting Chronic Illness in the Garden)

  1. I never imagined that recovery would involve it's own process of acceptance, but of course it does. It's good to see you making your way through things, and coming back to gardening 🙂

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  2. Ryan,
    I may be falling harder than ever for gardening. It's a good thing to realize right now how much it truly has meant to me. I'm still miffed I didn't get to start all of my new and amazing seeds this year, but I'll be back in shape for germinating before you know it…

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