Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of monthly mental health guest posts. This time we hear from writer Vivienne Tuffnell. Vivienne is the author of the book Strangers & Pilgrims, blogs regularly at Zen and the art of tightrope walking and has her own website at www.viviennetuffnell.co.uk. Honest and open about her struggles with depressive illness, Viv has shared her experiences here in an original and wonderfully creative way.
A man who took great pride in his lawn found himself with a large crop of dandelions. He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. Still they plagued him.
Finally he wrote to the Department of Agriculture. He enumerated all the things he had tried and closed his letter with the question: “What shall I do now?”
In due course the reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them.”
I’ve always loved this little story from a great master, but it’s taken me years to finally figure out the real meaning.
For a long time, it made me think of my hair. I’ve got dandelion hair. There are photos of me as a baby with white-blonde hair sticking up like I’ve had an electric shock, for all the world like a dandelion clock ripe for blowing away. As an adult I have vicious hair, rough like a horse’s mane or tail. I’ve broken many brushes, finding the handle snapping off mid way through disciplining my mane, or even having a brush disintegrate completely. It’s curly enough not to be straight but doesn’t wave enough to form proper curls. I have it long because that seemed the simplest way of leaving it; I can do a dozen or more things with it and it’s a kind of trademark. But I still envy women with hair that is straight and shiny and that behaves. Mine might go on a psychopathic rampage and throttle people. It’s not quite the thing, my hair. About once in twenty or so years pre-Raphaelite hair becomes fashionable and mine suddenly seems the ideal. The rest of the time, it’s at best a talking point.
But the dandelions story has become more poignant for me lately as my long-standing depression came roaring back and I’ve become acutely aware of the years of trying everything to ease it and finding I am without remedy. Over the years I have tried pretty much every medication that was offered, with initial success in terms of alleviating symptoms, which tapered off and then ceased to help. Usually this resulted in taking higher doses, which resulted in increased side effects. I also explored a good number of alternative methods, including exercise, herbal medicine and homoeopathy and even some counselling. I tried energy medicines, flower essences, crystals and pretty much everything wacky and wonderful. Most things worked for a while and then stopped. It’s analogous to different ways of dealing with a lawn full of dandelions. You can mow the lawn and cut off the flowers, but three days later they’ll be back. You can use a weed-killer that kills off both flowers and leaves, but only the most toxic of weed-killers reach the roots and will leave your soil sterile for years, before the new seeds blow into the garden and start the process again. You can even dig up the entire lawn and try to remove each root by hand (I’ve actually done this with a new vegetable garden, taking away barrow-loads of roots) but leave even a fraction of root and the whole plant will regenerate. Whatever method you use, the dandelions will eventually grow back.
In terms of my psyche, those dandelions are the symptoms of my depression and they are growing from the very ground of my being. Do I really want to poison my system with mental weed-killers, wipe out and sterilise my psyche by radical treatment like ECT or some of the powerful psychoactive medications? Or spend years digging over and eradicating every root I can find with major psychotherapy (not that this is an economically viable option) only to have new shoots spring up to start the whole cycle again as new seeds settle into the fertile and well tilled soil?
No. It may be time for a new approach, one that is based on acceptance. Those depression-dandelions are growing out of my soul and they’re growing to tell me something I surely need to know and I’ve been unable to face my whole life though.
“I too had a lawn I prided myself on and I too was plagued with dandelions that I fought with every means in my power. So learning to love them was no easy matter. I began talking to them each day. Cordial. Friendly. They maintained a sullen silence. They were smarting from the war I had waged against them and were suspicious of my motives.
But it wasn’t long before they smiled back. And relaxed. Soon we were good friends.
My lawn, of course, was ruined. But how attractive my garden became!”