Nature and Anxiety/Depression

A recent emotionally difficult situation has triggered a return of some anxiety and depression I have lived with off-and-on for a decade or so. Many others – celebrities, acquaintances, and unknown strangers – have used online outlets to share their experiences with these types of mental illness. These have helped me become more comfortable with this part of me. They have also pushed the zeitgeist regarding mental illness to one of mainstream acceptance. Now is the time for me to fulfill an obligation by adding my voice to the chorus.

To those close to me, this is not a cry for help. I am fortunate in that I recognized my old nemesis early. My therapist already has me on the path to recovery that has worked before, and I can feel it working now. Of course support is always welcome, but I will be OK.

IMG_6646One thing to understand about anxiety and depression is that the triggering event doesn’t matter. It’s not “I’m very sad or upset about this thing.” In my case (this time) it was a sudden serious illness of a much-beloved dog. I am very sad about it and the continuing maintenance and care is stressful. That’s not depression, though, nor is it exactly the source of the anxiety (in my case, the more pronounced of the two issues). My mental illness is not caused by having other intense life problems. I live a very comfortable life. It’s aided by straight white male privilege, only lacking the “obscene wealth” checkbox (but neither do I live in poverty). None of this matters to anxiety brain. The knowledge of the utterly incomparable suffering of so many others layers guilt for feeling bad in my position of comfort atop the existing depression.

When my brain gets word it’s time to be anxious, everything becomes difficult. Work is hard: can’t focus, feels pointless, seems overwhelming. The same applies to home obligations. At the worst moments, it even applies to carrying out basic bodily functions and routine daily tasks. Escapism into my hobbies doesn’t really work – too transparent for that asshole brain. It knows I’m trying to fool it. The anxiety and slowdown of accomplishments makes me depressed, which leads to additional anxiety about the depression itself. Anxiety about depression makes me feel stupid, which depresses me – you see where this is going. It’s all a big ugly feedback loop of nothing. Since it’s not rational to begin with, rational thinking is no escape.

What does help – for me, and for many others – is the right combination of medication and psychotherapy. In general those of us suffering from these conditions do not need non-professional advice, except for this: if you think you may be experiencing mental illness, seek help. Call a licensed therapist and explain what you are feeling. They’ll know whether you should come in, and once you go they’ll know whether you need continuing treatment. It’s not an easy step. You may go down many other avenues of identifying your problem first (I sure did, the first time). But calling for and accepting help is the single most important step.

There’s no instant fix, and progress won’t be wholly linear. But while the meds and/or the therapy are still taking hold, I’ve found some tricks that help. Keeping myself busy is one, to occupy my mind and keep it from spiraling. Most human contact – even when I don’t really want it – helps some. If I enlist rational brain in the fight firmly enough, sometimes together we can subdue anxiety brain for a time. All of these methods can be draining and hard to keep up for long. Of course different things will work for different people, and we all have to find our own allies against our demons.

It’s my intense appreciation of nature which may be my own strongest ally. Whether it’s getting some exercise in the fresh air or just basking in the immensity and complexity of the natural world, it can ground me. It brings a feeling of significant insignificance. I am so small, and yet connected in so many ways to such elegant and harmonious beauty.

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One such boost came while taking our other (healthy) dog for a walk in a local park. It was a lovely day, and I was enjoying the sounds of the birds. We took a familiar route along a paved path and past a small lake. Nearing the end of our loop, we passed a family with a little girl who pointed and said “what dog?” or some similar question. All I got from it was “dog!” so I smiled and kept walking. The father said, “I think it’s a dachshund mix.” I turned around and said, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t quite catch the question. Yes, he’s a dachshund and… ‘something.'” We all laughed and I moved on. Such a tiny interaction, but my spirits were nonetheless lifted.

Another instance involves my medication. The short-term fix, Xanax, does its job. However, the first few days of taking it, while my body adjusts, keep me pretty sleepy. For now I need a couple doses to productively get through a work day. So one of those first days I timed a dose around lunchtime, took my lunch to a local park and ate quickly. Then I let the birds sing me through a thirty-minute nap and returned to work much fresher and clearer.

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It doesn’t always work. I’ve tried gardening, which usually leaves me fulfilled and energized, but sometimes even that feels as pointless and overwhelming as anything else. Right now I am in an adjustment period, and during that time there doesn’t appear to be such an animal as a thing that always helps.

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Still, yesterday’s brief trip to McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area was another success. It was a hot day, but beautiful. A Washington Post piece Laurel shared with me reminded me of the huge sunflower fields they plant there. The section known as “Hughes Hollow” is also one of the better birding sites in the county, so I was all-in for an excursion. We went around midday, so the birds were less active than I’d hoped, but I saw quite a few common yellowthroats and two yellow-billed cuckoos as highlights. Of course the sunflower fields themselves were filled with darting goldfinches. The Post article did its job – quite a few people made the same journey on Saturday, but not quite enough to make things feel over-crowded.

I do think that when my brain chemicals are in the right balance and my mind mostly settled, my love of nature is one of the major factors keeping them that way. Combined with the medication, anxiety brain is no match for hikes through the woods with the sights and sounds of other living things all around me. Trees, mountains, lakes, streams, oceans and beaches all confer a placidness I would otherwise struggle to find.

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Butterfly Garden Year 3

It’s still winter, but in mid-February it’s already about time to start planting some seeds. I couldn’t be more excited to get started on my butterfly garden’s third year. I’ll be digging new beds, prepping some annuals to add color and beef up the variety, and starting a few new perennials as well. Now seems like as good a time as any to recap the process so far and talk about the ways I hope to improve on the garden for 2017.

2015 saw a modest beginning to the garden. Some of the plants flourished and by summer I had a few lepidopteran visitors, but there wasn’t a ton of activity. I’m sure part of that is due to nature needing some time to adjust to the presence of my little island of native plants, but part of the problem was certainly also due to my rookie mistakes. I started with some common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and tried some butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosa) as well but didn’t plant enough of the former and had no success growing the latter. My New England aster and golden alexander (Zizia aurea) did not really thrive, neither making it much past seedling stage. I left the Japanese honeysuckle the previous owner had allowed to grow up the fence, and this attracted hummingbirds to the yard but not butterflies (that I spotted, anyway). Partridge pea, bee balm, and green coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) were really the stars that first year, alongside a couple of nice sunflowers. It was a nice start, and by June it added some significant beauty to the yard, but hindsight tells me it had a long way to go.

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About half of the garden in mid-2015

Last year was a lot more rewarding, with the wildlife seeming to explode into the yard from April all the way through October (as discussed in my first post about the garden). Of course, most notable were the butterflies and moths. I also started to see other insects I hadn’t before in great number and variety: beetles, flies, bees, mantises and more. I found a cool-looking green crab spider hiding in the coneflower and welcomed some small orb-weavers as well. I had a visit from a juvenile gray treefrog, and the number and variety of birds visiting my yard has already begun to increase. So what did I learn or accidentally do differently to see such a dramatic difference?

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Lesson 1: More!

This lesson applied to everything: more space, more plant variety, more of each plant, more maintenance. It was great to establish some native plants in the garden, but one or two per species isn’t really enough to support a solid population of butterflies or attract them in enough numbers to make a difference. That said, the greater the plant diversity the greater the animal diversity will become. The only way to achieve both is to expand the physical space of the garden and that in turn requires more time and energy. The payoff has been well worth it. I guess one last “more” is more non-plant features. I’ve added a home-made puddler and a bench and expanded the rock pile, with more little changes to come.

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Apparently also “More Yellow”

 

Lesson 2: Barriers

Full disclosure: it was mostly the dogs who taught me this lesson. I put up a small fence within our existing fence to stop them from a) shitting in the garden and b) digging up my plants. It’s also helped with the deer. I have bird netting up to keep them out of the back yard, but that doesn’t always stop them. However, since I put up the inner fence I’ve seen no evidence of them breaching that second perimeter. I caught some eating whatever sunflower and morning glory leaves and flowers grew up over the fence, but last year that was the extent of it. In this immediate area, that is a major and hard-won victory.

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Lesson 3: Go Natural, Go Native

This was the general intent all along, but it took some doing to fully implement. For example, there was a massive quantity of Japanese honeysuckle in the back corner when we bought the house. It was pretty, and smelled nice, but it’s an invasive species that’s ridiculously hard to control. So throughout the second year I systematically and with prejudice removed it. It did do a good job attracting hummingbirds to the yard, and after I took it down I hardly saw any, even at my feeder. But it did virtually nothing else except try to choke out my plants, my fence, my neighbor’s trees, the dogs, and the universe at large. In late 2015 we had to have a dead tree taken down, and that gifted me with an abundance of natural wood. I made a large bench (mostly) from it, and used more of it to border our fences and for benches around our fire ring (not inside the garden, but nearby). I used bark and twigs mostly from that tree as natural mulch underneath the bench and it has performed better than I’d hoped. By collecting leaves in the fall I’ve been able to mostly replace purchased straw as a winter cover for the beds.

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Lesson 4: What’s a Weed?

The last thing I’ve picked up is how to tell a seedling weed from a desired plant. Of course, part of this is marking and remembering where you planted but it’s not quite that simple. Some perennials like to move around, and often one will find volunteer annuals coming up. I don’t know that I can really teach this skill – it’s just something I’ve picked up. I suppose it starts by learning the most common weeds in your area: for me ground ivy and garlic mustard are two big ones. The other side of the coin is to recognize the seedlings of the species you want. This is easier than you might think, and this way you can safely discard something you don’t recognize. That said, I’ll leave a lot of native “weeds” like violets, dandelions, and clovers alone where I can. I tend not to pull something until I have a fairly good idea what it is, unless the plants around it are particularly sensitive to the wrong neighbors.

With all of that said, what do I want to do with the garden this year? Well, it starts with lesson 1: more! I already dug some more beds in the late summer and fall of last year, and will begin digging more within the next week or so. Eventually the goal is to have no lawn within the fence I’ve put up, but I don’t think that will be doable in one more year. I’ll fill the space I do clear with more of a few existing plants (milkweeds, joe-pye weed, and purple coneflowers, in particular) and some new plants as well. I’d like to go big for some of the new plants – bushes like viburnums and/or buttonbush. I may also try adding some Dutchman’s pipes, though I hear they come with a foul odor. If I feel ambitious I may build a butterfly house from some of that remaining natural wood. I certainly plan to add a fruit feeder (haven’t settled on bought vs. home-made). I look forward to sharing the results.