“It’s difficult to feel alone and isolated listening to birdsong – nature feeds into wellbeing”

“Four years down the line, I am here, and I am helping people talk and connect. It feels good.”

These are the words of Isla, a volunteer at Sage Gardener. We were fortunate enough to be shown around the group’s site near Lincoln recently, to see first-hand what difference it makes to people’s health and wellbeing. As reported, the group was the worthy winner of our £1000 bursary at this year’s Community Awards 2021. If you’ve not yet read part one, you can find it here … and now, let’s return to Isla, who is happy to share her experience.

Isla had a breakdown in 2016 and suffers from PTSD as a result of working in the emergency services. She first came to Sage Gardener three years ago, and now regularly makes the short journey to the site. She is a key volunteer here, running all the workshops and taking the lead on certain groups.

“I’ve not always been into nature and so on. Since I’ve had my breakdown, I’ve used it to help manage my mental health, and the more I learn about it, the genuinely better I feel,” Isla explained. “I feed my brain pictures and try to fill it up with good stuff, as opposed to trauma, and this has happened over the past few years or so.

“I’m very fortunate that I can focus on the good stuff. I say fortunate, but I’m not, because this is what helps my mental health and makes me well – but it is lovely being able to tune into nature and elevate yourself above the day-to-day things and notice what’s around you. Just walking around and being able to name trees or birds… it’s that connection, and that makes nature more accessible.

“It’s difficult to feel alone and isolated when you’re listening to a robin or a wren – you’re not alone. There’s been a lot of research recently, and it’s still ongoing, into trees; it’s been shown that trees are able to communicate and that they’re aware. If you went outside and started hacking at a tree, they send signals out to all the other trees to say, ‘I’m being attacked – protect yourself’. That’s so incredible, and it makes you wonder where is that going in years to come? Probably not in our lifetimes. I mean, they were here before us, so exactly how developed are they really? We have trees that are a thousand years old… what have they experienced?

“For where I am compared to a few years ago, thanks to Sage I am grounded. For me, it’s about making sure I don’t get lost with anxiety or I don’t get stuck ruminating on what’s happened… I am grounded in this moment. I am here, I am alive, I am breathing. That then feeds into my wellbeing.

“Emotions change all the time. So, if you’re worried for a moment, it feels like it’s never going to end. Depression feels like that; when you get in a depressive state, you can’t see that it’s ever going to end. To be able to remind yourself that it does pass and that the only things that are constant is our breathing, the blue skies, that the sun is there behind the clouds… the moment will pass, so it’s using nature to bring you back down to this current moment, to try and draw back a little bit and get the bigger picture of what’s going on – a case of ‘I feel this way right now, but it’s not always going to be like that’.

“It’s about being grounded and safe… using your safe space… when your head’s going mad and you’re having a panic attack, you need to feel safe and nature can do that – a connection with something solid and safe, a tree that may have been here for hundreds of years already and will also be there in the future, and whatever caused that panic attack is gone now, it was momentary, a moment that happened. Now we are in this moment, and this moment is safe.

“If anyone is feeling they’re in a difficult situation with their mental health and wellbeing, my advice is to look for nature on your doorstep – it truly is everywhere, in front of you already. Sage Gardener is brilliant but it’s not essential to be involved in a group like this to find it – that’s what we like to do here, spread the word about how to connect with nature by yourself.

“Use all your senses – senses we’ve had all along – and use that to make a connection with the nature you can see or hear from your window, for example, and use your imagination, too. I used gardening as a safe place in my mind, and then coming to Sage made me realise that here is also a safe place, and that my garden is too, and then using that knowledge further reinforced the safe space in my head and that it’s all around me, all of the time… connecting myself back to the fact that I’m okay – and if I’m not okay, then that’s also fine. I will be okay again because every bad day I’ve had is evidence I’ve survived. It all adds up.”

Isla spoke of how very few people talk openly about their mental wellbeing. “We shut it out,” she said, “and if someone asks if you’re well, you reply saying ‘yes, I’m fine’, when sometimes you’re not.

“We’ve been developing a wellbeing package to help people with less severe mental health to prevent a crisis from happening. It’s about accepting and connecting to those emotions and using really simple skills to self-soothe.

“In the first session I gave some basic coping techniques, one of which was to focus on your breath, as this enables you to connect to the sympathetic part of your brain, which helps to calm you down; whatever’s going on in my head, I just focus on my breath work. Ultimately, it’s how meditation works but some people freak out at the word ‘meditation’ – it sounds a lot more than it is, but it really is just breathing… feeling the breath go into yourself and then emptying back out and repeating that process. There’s one lady who’s been to all of our groups and she now says that she swears by it.

“The more people I can get this message to, the better. When I was bad, I didn’t think anything would ever be good. I remember people saying to me, when I was at my worst, that I’d be able to use these techniques to help other people. I’d sit there and say, ‘that’s never going to happen; I’m never going to help another soul – there’s no point even being alive’, and now, what, four years down the line, I am here, and I am helping people talk and connect. It feels good.”

Talking about what she’s experienced is good for Isla’s wellbeing. “It’s so freeing,” she said. “My PTSD is as a result, mostly, of being in the emergency services and dealing with very traumatic situations – repeated trauma, which I didn’t realise was affecting me. You bury your head in the sand and suddenly your brain goes pop.

“I was in my job for 13 years, and I just assumed I was okay. I liked my job. I had no idea what was going to happen and that I was going to get PTSD. When the first flashbacks came – that was one of the first indicators, I was like, ‘Woah, what is this?’

“It just came on so unexpectedly and so quickly, and then everything had to change. I used to watch and read psychological thrillers and horrors, and it was one of those that triggered the flashbacks… just a very small sentence that someone said who I was watching a movie with, and all of a sudden, that was it.

“We don’t talk about things enough and unfortunately there will be people out there, like I was, who have no idea something’s going to happen. There’s a big stigma surrounding mental health. Speaking of my own experience, for example, there’s a thing about people ringing 999 for attention – that’s just not true. At one point I became a priority missing person, and I didn’t do it because I wanted attention – it was because life was that unbearable, but my body wanted to keep me alive. I had a few incidents where I could have reached my ultimate aim, which was death, but the brain and body prevented me from doing it – and it’s not attention-seeking. You’re so desperate to end that pain but your body protects you.

“Also, you can prevent PTSD. There are things you can do to make it 90% certain that you’ll not get PTSD… play Tetris on your phone for 10 minutes after seeing a traumatic event and the eye movement it creates allows your brain to process that event in a safe way. One of the therapies for PTSD is eye movement therapy; it puts trauma into the back part of your brain and file it away, as opposed to keeping it forward, which is what PTSD is – the trauma stays at the front and never goes away.

“I mean, the brain is amazing – too amazing! And then the brain is also naughty – when you don’t want to be affected, and suddenly you are. That’s where nature comes into play; I get a lot of nightmares and night terrors. I wake up absolutely petrified, and that can make me depressed… oh, it’s just horrible. If you’ve ever had depression, to try and do anything is so difficult… but to get in a car and get to Sage Gardener, I know the second I get into my car I will start feeling better… ‘It’s okay, this is only a nightmare, it isn’t my life, I don’t have to do this, I’m going to Sage Gardener to sit and listen to the birds and feel good’.

“It can be so easy to minimise what depression is – the phrase is often misused. Having a bad day or being in a bad mood is not depression; depression is being unable to get out of bed and face the day. That’s why we need to talk more. I just want to fight the stigma – for anybody who’s out there, thinking they are alone. Self-harm and suicide are things that happen, and if we sweep it under the carpet and don’t talk about it, no one is ever going to get better.

“I could never go back to my job; I’m a very different person now, in a good way. I’m not glad that I had a breakdown, but I’m glad of the knowledge it has given me and how I’ve been able to change my life and make it worth living… and get real hobbies, do authentic things, and not have to put a mask on and pretend to be okay.

“One sentence was all it took, and now it’s managing it for the rest of my life. It’s been a long journey.”

Isla is not alone in her praise of Sage Gardener, which is why, in partnership with Lincs FM, we awarded £1000 to the organisation as part of the Community Awards 2021. As reported in part one, directors Dave and Jane Newman have big plans for next year. The group will leave its current leased home in the village of Eagle to move closer to the communities it serves.

Jane said: “The pandemic has changed things – some people are still frightened to come out. For those who did come, we spent an entire winter outside to comply with social distancing guidance. Our oldest member, who’s 96, said it was like being let out of prison – she saw nobody at home.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to stay home for all that time; I couldn’t just sit there. We delivered wellbeing boxes in snow and all kinds of weather and held activities as much as possible.

“That’s partly why we are moving to new locations, to be closer to the communities we serve on the basis that if perhaps they could walk to us, they’d come, or the fact that it’s their own community.

“People with dementia, for example, who are no longer attending the activities they used to means that the kind of thing we do at Sage is needed more than ever. We do things as a team – and that’s the most important thing. We lead it, but really the team support each other now; there’s a strong peer network here. Every single member of our team is selfless.

“It’s come to the point where we want to do more, like we used to before coronavirus struck, and move forward. While we will be really, really sad to leave this site, we need to get out into the community more. It’s a new future – and an exciting one.”

That’s it from Sage Gardener for now, but we will be touching base in the New Year to see how things are going… watch this space! For more information about the group, visit https://sagegardener.co.uk