PoLLeN - Lisa's story
I noticed immediately how much Lisa used her hands when she talked. I could also see that her hands loved the soil, and I soon discovered that those hands in the soil have brought about her healing.
Lisa works as a project leader for a horticultural project known as PoLLeN (people, life, landscape and nature). Her life as a gardener today feels like a world away from her life as a mental health nurse, where she worked in a toxic, bullying environment that would see her spiral into depression and despair. The depression stayed with her for almost 11 years, and ended with her discovering the healing nature of horticulture. And the joy of turning the soil with her hands.
“Some years ago, I was working as a nurse at a hospital and I ran a project with a sculptor and a landscape designer, to design a garden for the new mental health wing at the hospital. We worked together on this for a year, managed to secure a £10,000 grant, and so the project began. Its beginning happened to coincide with my going off on sick leave, and although I had no idea at the time, this marked the end of my nursing days,” Lisa said.
Lisa ran creative groups on the ward at the hospital, as part of her nursing role and because of her natural creativity. Over a long period of time, and thanks to some serious bullying at work and a lack of clarity over roles and boundaries, Lisa became depressed and went off on sick leave.
While on extended sick leave, Lisa enrolled at university to do a degree in spatial arts. Having successfully completed her first year, Lisa was brutally assaulted during the summer holidays. She suffered severe facial injuries and then had to endure the ensuing court case which, Lisa said, added a layer to her depression. “At that stage I had to acknowledge that I couldn’t go back to university, and that I was really unwell,” she said.
“One positive outcome of my nursing career was that the workplace bullying I experienced was acknowledged as an industrial injury and I was paid part of my salary accordingly. This helped me through the seven years, as otherwise I would have lost my home,” she said.
“The geek in me taught myself web design, and I saw this as my new career, until I realised how stressful it was for me. And then, about three years ago, my GP referred me to the learning ambassador team at the Bromley by Bow Centre, so I could learn about volunteering. He thought it would be something I would enjoy, and he thought I would like the centre,” Lisa said.
It took about six weeks for the call to come from Centre. When she got there, she got involved in the art project but soon she was 'nabbed' by Vanessa (now PoLLeN project manager) to do some flower growing.
Vanessa saw the potential in me and supported me unconditionally right from the start.
As Lisa’s husband is a gardener, he was very encouraging and delighted that she was taking an interest in horticulture. What started at two hours a week, soon grew to two to three hours a week and then to five hours a week to cover the cutting garden. Lisa was paid a nominal wage for this work: “My wages made such a difference to my self-esteem. There is something about collecting a pay cheque at the end of the month, that meant so much to me,” she said.
By the end of the first year of 'volunteering' at the Centre, Lisa was working 17 hours a week. It was about then that she came off her anti-depressants, after 10 years and 11 months of taking them.
I couldn’t bear to think of 11 years on anti-depressants, so it was significant for me to go off them before then.
She also joined an adult education singing class, called Find Your Voice. This was something completely new and therapeutic for Lisa – “there is something very powerful about singing, about using your voice, about hearing it and having the confidence in what it sounds like, being able to communicate that to other people”.
During her time of depression, Lisa had a very limited social life. She rarely spoke to anyone apart from daily phone calls from her mother, a mental health social worker who unconditional support was a lifeline for Lisa at the time. She felt like she never used her voice. It compounded her depression to feel like she was never having her voice heard. Recently Lisa sang solo at a music evening at the centre, and at PoLLeN’s official launch at the end of May, she spoke to the gathered guests – funders, volunteers, corporate representatives and community members – and found it amazing that she was able to do that; her voice didn’t go croaky and she spoke with vigour and confidence. Something she could never have imagined herself doing.
“So, through all of this, I have ended up as a gardener!” Lisa said. “It is so strange to discover that I love gardening, that I love getting my hands dirty and feeling the soil under my nails. What’s also interesting is working in mental health again, as I never thought I would want to do this again. I love working with people who, for whatever reason, have their own challenges, and I am so glad that I am able to use the skills I developed over the years in nursing. All of the things I was interested in have come right back round to where I am today, in a much healthier way,” she said.
There was a time when I thought I would never be well again, that I would always be depressed, and find everything exhausting.
"I did not think I would manage the 9 to 5, but I am doing just that right now. I don’t go home and have to sleep, which was so much part of my life when I was depressed. I have also lost four stones in weight, and feel I have regained my self-esteem. I am the most physically healthy I have been in my life, and this is because I am mentally healthy and physically active. This is beyond recognition from any other time in my life, and a total revelation to my family,” Lisa said.
Her soil-ingrained fingers point to two photographs of herself taken aged 40 and 41 (the most recent taken last year): the difference is remarkable, the energy she exudes today is inspiring, as her hands itch to go and water the plants on the roof before heading off home. Gardening has brought Lisa back.