Depression and Gardening

May 19, 2015
Depression, whether in bipolar disorder (my diagnosis) or not, is both mentally and physically debilitating. When it is accompanied by anxiety, the problem increases. Today, it is keeping me from doing any gardening.
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The arborists have come and gone, and my new driveway is “curing,” meaning we’re not supposed to walk on it till later this afternoon and can’t drive on it till Friday.

The sumac and the willow tree that fell over are gone. This fall I will root prune the young pagoda dogwood, then in spring move it over where the sumac was. It will, in time, cast more shade than did the sumac, but it won’t send suckers out to hell and back, which is why the damned sumac had to come out.

I’m a little stunned by how much garden space I gained when the willow came out. I’ll be putting the larger mock orange in part of that space instead of in the foundation planting, then grow a clematis or two through it so it isn’t boring after its own blooms fade. The soil there is very poor, though, so amendments will be needed.

But what do I do today? I can’t decide. My mood is low – that happens with bipolar II disorder even when it’s well-controlled as mine is. And it’s common to feel overwhelmed during bipolar depression with anxiety, especially when, as now, there are too many choices:

  • Pour amendments over the soil of the island and dig them in. Obstacles: The soil is extremely dry (and I can’t water it because of the new driveway), and my back is aching some already.
  • Prune off small dead twigs and things that the tree guys missed. Issue: While not too difficult, this is really non-essential just now.
  • Continue cleaning out the shade bed. Included in this are such things as:
    • Cut down, then dig out, a couple of huge, boring hostas. This appeals to me, for some reason.
    • Paint thug plants (mostly ligularias and dandelions, but a couple of cup plants as well) with Roundup. I can’t spray them as they are too close to good perennials. Obstacle: This is a pain in the ass to do.
    • Turn over soil where I’ve taken plants out already. Yesterday I pulled out a TON of Virginia bluebells. Underneath I found an adorable plastic raccoon, a baseball (undoubtedly from the kids next door), and two heucheras, along with a lot of bare earth. Obstacle: My back hurts.

       Issue: None of this is critical. I have nothing I planned to plant in this bed.

  • Plant into the slope garden. Obstacle: I have no design. However, I could use this as a nursery bed to get plants out of pots and into the ground. Issues: Doesn’t appeal to me at all, and would be making double work for myself.
  • Plant the two mock oranges. Obstacles: The soil is poor in one place and moderately poor in the other, so I’d have to add amendments. (A) I don’t have what I need to enrich the soil, and (B) my back hurts.
  • Go around the whole property applying Roundup where necessary by painting or spraying as appropriate. Issue: I just don’t want to.
  • Put plants intended for pots into planters. Obstacle: I ordered new decorative planters (the ones I have are very old and very battered), and they won’t come until tomorrow.
  • Move new plants that are in very small pots into larger containers. This is both possible and fairly important. Would just need to go buy potting soil.
  • Measure slope bed to make design. Obstacle: Difficult and something I hate doing. Issue: Important job.
  • Make design for island bed. Obstacle: I don’t feel up to it. Issue: Important job.
  • Weed by hand and hoe. Obstacle: Once again, my back hurts.

REAL OBSTACLE: I just don’t feel up to doing much of anything. Reason: depression and anxiety.

ANSWER: Get moving!

I’m tired and depressed, which means getting off my butt and doing some garden work would be extremely good for my mood and maybe my lack of energy as well. Giving in to it and going back to bed is only a good choice if I am actually too sleepy to function.

Yet I would wind up going back to bed if the depression were worse. I’m actually very fortunate to have the right mix of medications to keep severe depression at bay. For most of my life that wasn’t the case.

So what I’m going to do is go buy potting soil and put the new plants in small pots into larger pots. I might buy one new hanging planter if I can find one that’s not too expensive, for fuschia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ that I want to hang from the balcony ceiling outside my office. I have to move my car anyway so my roommate can go to work – I parked behind him on the other half of the driveway – so this is a good time to get my butt in gear.

Finally, a decision.
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My formal diagnosis is Bipolar II Disorder, and my current mood would almost qualify as Depressive Episode with Anxious Distress, except the depression is not severe enough.

Depression can take away the pleasure you normally have in activities – like gardening. This is called anhedonia. Anxiety can both cause and be triggered or exacerbated by having too much to do, and this is what happened to me today. I’ve learned over the years that the best response to a situation like this is to force myself to get up and do something constructive or productive.

Still, low mood, anxiety and a situation where there is too much to do are a bad combination. While I know that the best thing to do is to get up and do something, it’s just not that easy.

I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in 1994 when I sank into such a deep depression that I couldn’t get out of my easy chair after getting home from work. I just sat there with the TV on in a state of emotional paralysis. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after latent hypomania was uncovered when I started taking antidepressants, but not until I saw a good psychiatrist in 1999. The power of the concomitant anxiety really only became apparent last year, and adding an anti-anxiety medication to my regimen made a vast difference to my mood.

Getting out of the house and going to the hardware store for potting soil broke the cycle of anxiety over what to do, and changing my environment was therapeutic for the depression. While I didn’t actually DO anything with the potting soil today, I had redirected my focus enough to get past the anxious depression.

This can work even for more serious depression, but it might only be temporary, and it might be impossible. If depression continues for more than a few days, with or without anxiety, and repeats at intervals, consider contacting a doctor. If the depression includes any thoughts about death or suicide, get professional help immediately.

Finally – gardening is healing. There’s actual scientific evidence that contact with the earth is good for you. If you can’t bring yourself to do any actual work, take off your shoes, walk in the grass, plunge your hands in the soil.

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