Bodies Giving My Plants—And Myself—Just Enough Care
The Lexapro were small and white; the generic was free under my insurance. More expensive were the plants.
I got my first plant the same day I started Lexapro. The joke was that we would never know which one had helped me when I inevitably—it was inevitable, right?—started to feel better.
“I’ve killed a lot of plants,” I told the owner of the plant store, which wasn’t really true, but it felt like the socially respectable thing to say. The truth was that taking care of other living things was most of the reason I got out of bed those days, and I wanted to take some pressure off my dog. The owner selected a golden pothos for me and potted it in black-and-white ceramic, its leaves sticking up like a bad haircut. At home, I put it on a side table, next to an eastern window. I mostly forgot about it, except for on Sunday mornings when I would water it while I waited for my coffee to brew.
The days were getting shorter. The promise of rain approached, a blessing to tamp out the fires that had been raging in California for months. Only a week earlier, the sky was orange, the smoke blocking out the sun.
This is what the dinosaurs must have seen , I thought.
It felt like the world was ending, which could have been a symptom of my worsening depression. But most people who were paying attention felt the same way, I think. Though maybe that was my problem, had always been my problem. I assumed that the way that I thought and felt was the way everyone else did too. That we just didn’t talk about it. That was true in my family, at least.
Anxiety was a constant hum in my life—I can’t remember a time where I wasn’t afraid of my own thoughts—whereas the depression was more episodic. I’d have one or two bad months once or twice a year. I can see in my email the times I tried to get help, the referrals I asked for and the autoreplies to my inquiries for appointments. Invariably, they were dated two or three weeks before I did something stupid and hurt myself or someone else in some avoidable way. I was always trying to feel better. Nothing worked but time. It was reliable. It kept going. I kept going.
I always knew that my mental illness was illogical. While I couldn’t reason my way out of feeling, I could reason my way out of taking my intrusive thoughts seriously. As real as they all felt, I could recognize them, mostly, as true and not. I knew that if I just made it through the next few weeks or months, I would be okay.
That day, though, with an apocalyptic sky, I thought the world was ending, and it seemed like maybe it actually was. I was only a few weeks into a depressive episode, but I was no longer sure that I could wait it out, or that things would get better. I told my doctor this when I went in for a physical the following week. I’d seen firsthand how medication could be one of the levers to pull someone up and out of the darkness. It wasn’t an instant fix, but it provided a stable foundation from which to do the difficult work. She wrote me a prescription and gave me homework: Find a therapist .
The Lexapro were small and white. They were cheaper than the plant cure; the generic was free under my insurance. I had to taper up to a full dosage over the course of a week, during which I felt terrible, as I was told to expect. I sweat through my sheets and threw up every morning.
After a week of what felt like my body rejecting the medication, I felt cloudy and unfocused. I took my unsteadiness as a positive sign; solid land can feel wobbly after too long on rocky seas. It takes weeks for SSRIs to fully kick in; I knew that. But almost immediately, for the first time in my life, I was falling asleep quickly and staying asleep all night. Being able to rest deeply felt like a promise of things to come.
The days got shorter. The world felt inaccessible, partially due to the pandemic, but also because I couldn’t engage with it the way I always had. Suddenly, I cared less. I had the same thoughts of hopelessness, like nothing I did mattered, but they came with a shrug. In some ways, that was better. It wasn’t acute or painful or dangerous to me or anyone else. But it was less.
I pulled what I could closer to me, made my world smaller. I texted my husband when he was at work to tell him I missed him—and gave myself credit if I’d waited until after lunch. I stopped reading and running, two constants of my life. They were the only things I’d ever done that were just for me, and if I didn’t care anymore, why keep going? I stopped responding to emails (shrug). I waited to see what the less would make room for. I bought more and more plants.
My dad grew a garden of summer vegetables in our backyard when I was growing up. Squash, zucchini, tomatoes that fell to the dirt from the weight of their own juice. He woke up early to water them, staked fences to keep deer from eating them (it didn’t work), and harvested them in the evenings before dinner. In the fall, he dug the roots, tilled the land, and let it lie until the following spring. Every year, a new beginning.
In 2020, the December solstice came and it felt like a promise. Time would make me whole again like it always had. The extra few minutes of sunlight every passing day were proof. Three weeks later, in 2021—the year that everything was supposed to get better—I had my first suicidal impulse. Impulse isn’t the right word. I didn’t feel compelled to do anything. But it was more concrete than my typical depressive state of not being all that attached to the idea of living. This was the first time killing myself had felt like an option; my own brain was telling me so, clear as day.
“You could kill yourself. You could do it right now.”
I didn’t want to kill myself. I wasn’t planning on it. I had just recognized that I could, an almost banal realization.
For the first time since I’d started Lexapro, I felt my chest tighten. I left the house and walked until I could breathe again. I didn’t tell anyone. I knew how it would sound—like I was an imminent danger to myself and couldn’t be trusted alone. But I didn’t want to kill myself. I wasn’t planning on it. I had just recognized that I could, an almost banal realization. “Woman realizes a thing she and everyone else already knows.” Not anything to worry about.
Still, the thought kept coming back, like the anodyne facts I kept somewhere in the back of my mind: Plants can communicate through a network of mycelium, i.e. tree internet. There are no muscles in human fingers. Most people who die by suicide do so within fifteen minutes of making the decision. I don’t even know if the last one is true, but I read it in coverage of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, to absolve those who saw him that day. I started organizing my life in those units. How many fifteen-minute blocks could I walk the dog, was an episode of Succession , until my husband would come home?
I didn’t renew my Lexapro prescription. A few weeks later, I sent my doctor an overly cheerful email, saying I had gone off it cold turkey, even though I wasn’t supposed to. I explained that I wasn’t suicidal but I was thinking about killing myself, but I only meant that I was thinking about it as a concept , not about doing it , and I was only even thinking about it because my brain was telling me I can, and no, I’m not hearing voices, it’s a thought, and that’s different, or at least I think it is.
My reaction was unusual but not anomalous. For roughly 2 percent of adults on SSRIs , it makes them worse in some way, usually exactly like this. The on-call doctor who called me immediately upon receiving my email had a theory that the SSRI lifted me out of my depression just enough that my anxiety tried to “solve the problem,” the problem being the pain of existence. He told me I’d done the right thing by stopping without titrating. He also told me I would feel much worse before I felt better.
I started crying. Everything I’d done had been the right thing. I’d asked for help. I’d taken medication. I’d waited for it to do what it was supposed to. I became approximately suicidal. I went off the medication. I lost my mind.
It’s reductive to say that— lost my mind —but that’s truly what it felt like, that I was a person with a mind and personhood both floating in anxiety and depression, that suddenly I was gone and my mental illness was all that was left. I was still sleeping, but the thoughts that used to only find me in the quiet became constant and more invasive. I was so afraid, not of the world around me but of myself: that I was going to do something entirely out of my control, or that I’d never be able to think the same way again.
My attempts to seem okay read as manic, an overcorrection, not to be trusted. I binge cleaned the apartment and talked too fast and too much. I researched what it would mean to institutionalize myself, then ruled it out because I was afraid of going back on medication. I got a full night’s sleep. I waited for my mind to come back.
Every morning, I tended to the plants that weren’t growing. In the fall and winter, plants are in their dormant season. Houseplants can survive inside, but they need less. What I needed then was to give them everything. I corrupted them with excessive attention. Too much water, too much light, too much tweaking of their soil or their surroundings so they could thrive.
The one that was closest to dying, perhaps already dead, was the calathea ornata. It’s also called the pinstripe calathea, named for the pink lines on its dark, waxy leaves. I’d gotten a calathea because all of the plants crowding our windows were the same lush green, and my husband said he wanted more color in the house.
Almost immediately, it started to crisp and brown—first at the tips, then along the full length of the leaves. I watched YouTube videos on how to make calatheas happy. That’s what they all said: “Look how happy she is.” I kept the soil moist, but not wet; in light but not too much. But I couldn’t get it to thrive. I trimmed off the death with nail scissors until only half the leaf was left, and then cut it off at the base, going one by one until nothing was left but stubs.
I thought of my dad, who would emerge from his depression cave to teach us how to garden. My brothers and I refused to help. We didn’t take it as the branch he was extending, a lifeline, but as a chore, angry that he could ignore us in the basement for days at a time and then ask us to work.
I didn’t tell my dad how I was feeling, but I did tell him about the plant. He told me to be patient, that the plant would grow back in time. I put the pot in an east-facing window. A misplaced hope, probably, but I watered it anyway. I did what I could to give it a chance.
I did small and big things to feel better. I learned new songs on the piano to feel creative. I walked in the woods on the weekends. I quit my job, which let me start my day slow and quiet. The morning sun was made gentle by dirty windows. I touched every new growth like a meditation. I waited for the thoughts to roar in. After enough mornings, they slowly subsided. I woke up and realized, for the first time in months, I hadn’t slept well. My brain chemistry was reverting. I was tired and so relieved.
My brain chemistry was reverting. I was tired and so relieved.
It was springtime, the growing season. The plants started to flourish, vining down the sides of bookcases and unfurling new leaves, each bigger than the last. The calathea, which had been just a pot of dirt for months, unveiled the purple back of a new leaf. It had spent months establishing roots, settling in, doing the invisible work of survival.
Now, in the fall, I’m preparing my plants for their dormant season. I prune the brown leaves and rinse them clean. I dust the pots and move them back from cold window panes. I cluster them together on tables and the floor so they can work together to stay alive. The calathea sits on my desk. Today, it has four leaves. It’s not thriving, but it’s still alive, which makes everything else possible.