Saturday, 9 May 2020

No Future?

One of the most pernicious things about severe/suicidal depression is that it tells you that you have no future. It tells you that you will never work again, never experience any happiness again, never love again, never leave you bed or hospital ward again and that you might as well get it over with now and kill yourself. But amid this catastrophic racket - there may be another quieter voice which tells a different story - if you can only hear it.

At the Garden Centre

Let me tell you a little story about garden centres.  In Spring 2017, I was in a bad way. I had just given up work at the college after returning for 10 months after my initial breakdown in 2015. It wasn't working out. The college was a toxic place for my mental health and despite huge efforts on my part, I literally couldn't summon up the energy to move anymore. I was suicidally depressed, had chronic dizziness, brain fog, leaden paralysis and anhedonia. I was also extremely socially anxious.

One day, in an uncharacteristic energetic moment, I decided to go to my local garden centre to buy some bark chippings for the front garden. How I managed to concentrate on such a mundane activity with everything else that was going on I have no idea. But I managed to drive the mile up the road to the centre and ordered a bag of bark chips. While I was there a lady mistook me for one of the staff and asked if I could carry some compost to her car. I explained that I didn't work there and she apologised  - but the incident planted a seed in my mind. If one of the customers could mistake me for a member of staff - maybe the owner might do the same. So a week later, despite my mental anguish,  I went in again and spoke to the owner - a man in his 60s with a long grey ponytail - and enquired whether he needed any staff. To my amazement he said that he would give me a trial and could I start tomorrow.

So there I was, the next day on the end of a yellow hose pipe watering the perennials and earning £7 per hour in a garden centre.  My duties included potting on plants to bigger pots in a ramshackle potting shed, watering, sweeping the paths, carrying out compost to cars and assisting the customers with enquiries. The last duty was altogether laughable as I knew next to nothing about gardening and, in any case, found any interaction with people difficult. I remember one day a customer asked me about patio roses and I had no idea.  However, no one seemed to be too bothered by my lack of knowledge and by the end of the week I went home with some cash in my pocket. I returned the next week and gradually fell into a routine of watering and potting on. I remember that the weather that year was very fine and that the garden centre was something of an oasis - albeit located on the Norwich ring road. The plants and trees seemed to muffle the noise of the traffic. I would move slowly round with my hose - hiding from time to time in the bamboo or behind the fruit trees. At lunch time I would eat my sandwiches in a cramped room above the shop surrounded by boxes of Tomorite and weedkiller. But I don't want to give the impression here that things were good - because they weren't. Most days I was suicidal and spent hours wrestling with various different plans to kill myself. This usually went on all day until about four in the afternoon when, for some reason, the voices lessened. But despite feeling horrendous - I could still perform my duties. I also started to try and memorize plant names in an attempt to distract myself from the self-destructive voices. In the evening I also started to jot them down in a note book. So the weeks past, and despite my various issues I started to absorb some knowledge. My brain was still clogged with anxiety and depression but by repeatedly going over things - some of it started to seep in. I learnt for instance that fruit trees are grafted onto root stocks; I learnt that foxgloves were OK in the shade and that clematis like to have cool roots and that you can split bamboo. I learned the difference between bedding plants and perennials and between evergreen and non-evergreen. I started to know what type of compost we sold : multi-purpose, ericaceous, tub and basket etc. But as the summer rolled on it became clear that this conveniently located temporary job would come to an end and that I would need to look elsewhere.

But once again, the universe bizarrely came up trumps - this time with a job at a tree nursery 10 miles north of Norwich. The nursery was located in a glade among the trees and was fenced in on all sides to prevent rabbits and deer. I worked here throughout that winter of 2017 and boy did I work. I planted trees and dug up trees; I unloaded root-ball laurels from lorries, I moved leylandii about and I dug in thousands of bare-root hedging plants and then dug them up again for customers. I remember that most of the time it was cold and muddy and the only shelter we had was a polytunnel where we did the potting. The site had no facilities like toilets or washrooms. I was still suicidal on and off, and although working was hard it was better than sitting at home staring at my phone. Then in the spring of 2018, I had a bit of a blitz and circulated my CV to some garden centres in and around Norwich. I didn't expect to hear anything but surprisingly I got two calls - went for two interviews and was offered two jobs. I subsequently left the tree nursery and began working part time at the two garden centres. By now, I was fairly well-versed in garden centre procedures - so simply got on with dealing with plant arrivals, putting them out, reorganising them, sweeping down the benches, watering, carrying compost etc. This time I also had a few colleagues and I started to interact more. I would actually come home in the evening with some conversation: Bob did such and such today - Paul told me something interesting. That Christmas I actually went on two staff Christmas dinners - one in a pub and one in a smart hotel in Norwich.

Unfortunately, one of the jobs didn't work out long time - but the other one did. I have now been there over two years and have become part of the team. Everyone knows me now and I'm sure that they think I am good at my job. My plant knowledge has increased and my customer care has improved. I now use my own initiative rather than waiting to be told what to do. I'm also involved in helping new Horti members of staff. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all was that I passed my forklift truck licence. To be honest, I'm not sure how I manged to do this with my dizziness and other issues but I did it. I sat a short multiple choice test and did a 40 minute task moving and stacking palettes in a tight area. Using the forklift is now the best part of my job. I love unloading palettes of compost from articulated lorries or moving stuff around the loading yard.

During the Coronavirus period, I was kept on as a caretaker at the centre to water the plants and look after things generally. As the centre has slowly opened up again I have been closely involved in the company's emerging delivery service and click and collect service. I still struggle with concentration but I've been checking and collecting orders and telephoning customers and taking card payments. My life is still very hard - but I hope that this story illustrates that the voice of depression is not necessarily a fact. Even in the most adverse circumstances things can still happen and potentially change. There can be a future out there - even when the voice of doom in your head is telling you to abandon hope. If somebody had said to me in 2015 - as I was pacing the psych ward in an agitated fashion  - that I would be driving a forklift truck at a garden centre in the sunshine four years later I would never have believed them.