How This Plant is Keeping Me Alive

My mental health journey from PMDD suicidal ideation to (mostly) thriving.

Katlyn Roberts
Aug 4, 2019 · 13 min read
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Image for post
Photo of my bedroom. Me. The author.

This is Savannah the Snake Plant. She’s my new mental health barometer. So far, she’s doing ok, but maybe I should set up a live feed for those who don’t want to miss any sudden developments.

I recently went through a very serious bout of depression.

Around four months ago, I sat in my doctor’s office and silently cried, dead-eyed, without the capacity for words, as my mother explained that I hadn’t stopped crying for two weeks, that I hadn’t gotten out of bed in one week, and that she suspected a hormone imbalance, due to the cyclical nature of the symptoms.

I had known for a long time that I probably had some kind of a hormone imbalance because my periods tended to knock me out for a day or two …or three or four. But that was just my norm. I figured most women have mood swings and pain during their period. Who was I to assume my symptoms were out of the ordinary or worthy of any extra attention?

I wrote a (frankly, hilarious) satirical piece called “PMS Jitters Got You Down? Yell At Your Mom” on this topic, but I’ve gotta tell you, that piece was a gross oversimplification of my situation. And I was only able to write it in the first place because the clouds had parted for a few hours to allow a shining beam of inspiration to poke through.

The problem, though, was that this wasn’t actually PMS I was dealing with. It had turned a sharp corner into PMDD.

via womenshealth.gov

A couple of days of mood swings and cramps had stretched out into two weeks of Hell. That might not sound like a long time, but if you look at the average number of days that Americans allow themselves to take for their yearly vacation, and then you add 10 days, that’s how long I was out of commission. (Americans take 4-day vacations is what I’m saying. Look it up. We’re collectively exhausted.) And the depression continued even after I’d finished with my period and was supposed to have gone back to normal.

My heart wouldn’t stop racing. I was constantly crying. I couldn’t focus on my freelance work even a little. When the tears ran dry, I felt like a shaking, scared little bunny. I could never breathe quite deep enough, and the world seemed a horrific, toxic mess.

The only thing I could think to do to survive it, and to protect my loved ones, was to retreat to my bedroom with all the shades drawn and all the lights turned off and to hide under the covers, where there was as little stimuli as possible.

That was a very bad idea.

No outside stimuli meant that I had no distraction whatsoever from the inside of my own fight-or-flight-rattled mind. Suicidal images, past traumatic memories, and paranoid, self-hating thoughts raced across my brain like someone had taped my eyes open and was showing it all to me on a projection screen. When my mom came to check on me, I couldn’t explain what was happening. All I could do was curl up in the fetal position and beg the universe to end my suffering.

Thank god my mom got me to the doctor. She saved me.

Well… her and the plant.

The kind angel doctor examined me with genuine concern, then referred me to a kind angel gynecologist who prescribed a hormone-balancing birth control miracle pill.

Within just a few days of starting to take the pill, the giant, buzzing knot of anxiety that had sat on my chest for weeks… got up and sat in the corner of my bedroom.

It’s still there, still lurking, even now. But the pill forced it to at least let me breathe. And that was a massive, massive relief.

You know what else was a massive relief?

No. More. Periods. None. No cramps, no mood swings, no bleeding, no buying tampons, no having to remember to put tampons in my bag, no sick days I wish I could save for when I have a cold, no bloating, no aching all over, no boob pain, none of it.

I can’t believe I never allowed myself to seek help before.

For two weeks, I hadn’t had a single moment of joy or awe, of self-love or gratitude. So when the darkness lifted, I was exhausted, but I craved life.

I took a shower and got dressed. I went out into the sunshine and watched the wind rustle the leaves in the trees. I nervously asked someone if I could pet their dog and they let me. I went to a cafe and successfully ordered a coffee in Spanish.

I sat beside an open, breezy window and watched a very cute baby knock things off of his high chair over and over again just to get his mom’s attention. She’d sigh, bend down to pick up the object, and place it back down in front of him with a stern look. Then the little boy would burst into giggles and she’d smile lovingly at him despite herself. The moment she went back to checking her phone, he’d drop another object to the floor.

I thought about how I was going to have to start picking up the pieces of my own life so that my mom wouldn’t have to bend over backwards for me anymore. I’m not at all saying that those two weeks had been to get attention and I’m definitely not saying that there’s any shame in needing help sometimes. But if I’d been paying attention and taking a bit more responsibility for my own health over the last several years, my mom wouldn’t have had to scoop me up off the floor.

She’d really stepped up to the plate when I needed her and I realized that the best way to show my gratitude was to get my act together while I was feeling better …so that she and I could both relax and stop waiting for the other napkin to drop.

So, on the way back from the cafe, I took a small detour to a nearby plant nursery. There were ivies and palms and peace lilies and orchids, but I went straight for the tall, curling snake plants because I knew they were the sturdiest of the bunch. And the easiest to take care of.

I chose the biggest, healthiest one there, got a nice wicker pot for it, went a couple of streets down to a home decor store, bought a tall plant stand, and carried my haul all the way home.

She’s a beeeaauty queen.

I once asked a friend of mine how she keeps her plants so lush.

“I talk to them,” she said. “I tell them how pretty they are and how happy I am to see them.” She cupped the end of an ivy in her hand and raised it to her nose to smell it. “Smells fresh. You wanna smell?”

As I smelled, she moved on to all of her other plants, gently touching every single one, dipping her fingers into the soil to check their moisture level, snapping a few leaves off of a basil plant so she could cook them into her breakfast.

“How do you know when to water them and how much to water them?”

At this, she looked at me a bit funny. I may have sounded naive but I was raised in the Sonoran Desert. Nothing in the desert is green or lush. Everything — from the dirt to the plants to the animals — is faded. Thirsty. Barely surviving. And that’s just… how they live. All the time.

“You can look it up online,” she said and took the ivy out of my hand. “Maybe you should start with one.”

What she didn’t know is that I’d had plenty of plants over the years. None of them ever lasted very long. The poor things were doomed the moment I spotted them in the nursery and said to myself, “I’ll do better this time.”

Snake plants need watering only every 2–6 weeks. The key is to check the soil every so often. Once the soil has completely dried out, it’s time for another watering. Simple enough.

When I got the plant home, I threw open the curtains to give it some sunshine, placed it on top of the plant stand, situated it just-so, put a few books on a lower shelf so the stand didn’t look so bare, and stepped back to admire my new friend, whose name came to me instantly, before I even had a chance to brainstorm-

Savannah, said a voice in my head.

Just because it starts with an S and you’re a snake plant? I responded. That’s a little lame.

I don’t know what to tell you, said the voice. The name’s Savannah. You sure you know what you’re doing?

Savannah watches me while I sleep but, like, in a loving way.

I figured I should come up with a schedule for checking in on Savannah. She may not need much watering, but I had decided that I was going to talk to her, touch her, and check her soil every single day, regardless. The goal was not just to keep her alive. The goal was for her to thrive.

And if I was coming up with a schedule for my plant, I might as well come up with a schedule for myself too.

What were my daily needs?

Listen, I know how you must feel about daily schedules.

Especially daily self-improvement schedules. Some people think they’re lame. Some people think they just add to the stress. It can, indeed, be very difficult to stick to a regular schedule. People have been struggling with this since we noticed that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.

Benjamin Franklin is probably the most famous proponent of keeping a strict daily self-improvement schedule. People have tried for hundreds of years to emulate his self-discipline. The man woke up at 5am and made it his goal to do something for the greater good every single day.

Photocopy from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

Yeesh. That’s a lot.

But what people don’t always talk about is that Franklin had a really hard time keeping up with his own schedule:

“I enter’d upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continu’d it with occasional intermissions for some time. I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish. […] My scheme of ORDER gave me the most trouble ; and I found that, tho’ it might be practicable where a man’s business was such as to leave him the disposition of his time — that of a journeyman printer, for instance — it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who must mix with the world, and often receive people of business at their own hours.”

Luckily, as a remote, freelance writer — I generally have the disposition of my time. But I knew I was going to need some help to come up with a schedule that worked for me (there was no way I was waking up at 5am) so I dug around a bit online and found an app called Fabulous. Here’s a great review of it from YouTuber Patrick Levar:

(*Fabulous is not paying me for this endorsement, but they can feel free to hmu.)

I flippin’ love this app. It allows you to set health and wellness goals for the day and you get to check those goals off when you’ve accomplished them. It frames these goals as though you’re on a hero’s journey, leaving the “ordinary world” behind to embark on a voyage to your destined, higher self.

It starts you off with one very simple, very easy goal.

Put a glass/bottle of water next to your bed before you go to sleep at night. Drink that entire glass/bottle upon waking up.

I adjusted this goal to include taking my pill with that bottle of water and I’ve never missed a day ever since.

The app allows you to create a morning routine, an afternoon routine, and a nighttime routine. You can add your own goals or choose from a list of suggestions.

The app doesn’t shame you when you miss a goal.

There’s no, “Better luck next time!” or “Let’s think about how we can do better tomorrow.” It just tracks your days so that you can look at your progress and decide for yourself whether you want to adjust or not.

Even more importantly, I don’t beat myself up either. If I don’t have time or I don’t have the energy to get something done, I just do the activity later in the day, do part of it, or I try again the next day.

Most days aren’t perfect. Life gets in the way. But my day is better for having done as much of my checklist as I can. My mind feels organized. I never feel worried that I’ve missed or forgotten something. I have a mid-morning/afternoon routine that mostly consists of practicing my Spanish and working, and an evening routine that incorporates self-care, comfort, and a gradual winding down before bed.

You guys.

I’m reading books before bed.

Actual physical novels you hold in your hand.

I’m not scrolling through Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram anymore, completely losing track of time and stressing myself out with the day’s news until I fall asleep with my phone still in my hand at 3am.

Social media hour is now between 9pm and 10pm. At 10, my alarm goes off to let me know it’s time to start my evening routine.

These days, I’m actually getting to sleep at a reasonable time — and with as sound a mind as possible.

And look who’s started growing some new stalks!:

Savannah! You’re getting so big!

Look at her! She’s thriving! I know it’s a tiny thing, but I did that. I showered her with light and water and love and praise. And while she’s been growing, I’ve been growing.

Now, obviously, if something unexpected were to happen to Savannah, I’d be devastated. She could fall off the stand. She could get a disease. She could get famous and decide she’s too good for me now. But I’m doing well enough that I’ve mentally prepared myself for that. She’s not the only thing keeping me going.

Here are a few other things I’ve been doing to throw open all the windows and let in all the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes that keep me in the present moment:

  • I’ve started going over to the park and lying down in the grass for a few minutes after work. I like watching the parakeets. Sometimes I get some gelato and eat it on the walk home.
  • My sister bought me some silk pajamas a while back that I never took advantage of so now I delight in putting them on after a sweaty day in the Spanish heat. It’s sensuous AF.
  • I have some incredible perfumes from a trip to Egypt which I’ve begun to ritualistically apply to my wrists and neck before settling into bed. The smell is soothing, makes me breathe deep, and helps me fall asleep.
  • I listen to a gratitude meditation on Insight Timer as I’m falling asleep. Just a few days ago, I bought a premium membership and added some anxiety relief courses to my morning routine because the anxiety monster is still hanging out in the corner of my bedroom and sometimes he still shouts really mean things.

It took hitting my lowest point, an intervention from my family, medication, and adopting a plant to get me to realize that the way I was treating myself and the way I was living weren’t how I would want any other living thing on the planet to have to exist. My hope for anyone who’s struggling is that you can decide to take some steps before you reach that low point yourself.

Why learn lessons the hard way when you can just read a Medium article and have a revelation vicariously, am I right?

You don’t have to go out and buy yourself a metaphor plant to get the idea here, but if you do decide to get one, best to go for one that’s sturdy enough to allow for some trial and error. Anytime you shake your life up, there’s going to be some adjustment. I’ll write another article about that aspect soon, so stay tuned.

What I’ve learned, in the end, is that I’m worth taking care of. Worth checking in on. Worth making changes for. We spend so much of our lives just going through the motions, getting shit done and not paying any attention to the fact that our leaves have begun to wilt and we haven’t watered ourselves in months. So take a second, right now, to ask yourself – what do I need?

It could be something as simple and seemingly unimportant as getting some sunshine and drinking some water.

And, seriously, reach out. To me, to someone you love, a doctor, a therapist, anybody. This stuff is SO much easier when you’ve got support. I could have saved myself years and years of stress and pain if I had reached out sooner. Only you can know when enough is enough, but feel free to take this as a sign.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Katlyn Roberts

Written by

Snarky writer of weird-ass little stories that connect history, travel, and culture. Get updates and writing tips at www.KatlynRoberts.com.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 126,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Katlyn Roberts

Written by

Snarky writer of weird-ass little stories that connect history, travel, and culture. Get updates and writing tips at www.KatlynRoberts.com.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 126,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

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