In 2013, just before Christmas, I lost my brother to sudden death. My brother was a very healthy and fit man who was only forty-six years of age. It is no exaggeration to say that one day he literally dropped dead at work. After his death a post-mortem found that he had no substances in his blood and his organs were healthy. He only had a BMI of eighteen. My brother had never been ill. He seemed to have the constitution of an ox. Always happy and funny, he delighted in travelling overseas and more than anything, discovering new experiences.
The days following his death, I seemed to sleep walk through life. No one can ever state how they will react to the death of someone close until it happens. For several days, even weeks, getting through each day was a laborious and lamentable task. The Doctor gave me some zopiclone, a very strong sleeping pill, to try and help me through the first difficult days. I can remember going into a shop. It was Christmas time. A sales assistant came up to me and asked if I wanted to try a spray of perfume.
“How can you ask me that?” I said in disbelief,” Don’t you realise Sean’s dead!” It felt very much like that feeling in films, when someone is standing still in the middle of a busy street and yet everyone else seems to be moving quickly around, oblivious to anything. I wanted to shout and scream but I couldn’t. I felt numb.
When someone dies from unexplained causes, a full post-mortem must be undertaken. It can take months. Thus, it was that we didn’t bury my brother until several months later. In a way it kept me going, as I knew I had people to speak to and arrangements to be made. I experienced immense grief but looking back, this was relatively easy to go through, until something happened about eight months later.
I was in Sainsbury’s and it was late September. Sean had been dead for over nine months. Sainsbury’s had started to put out their Christmas decorations in the store. I remember looking at the shelves in disbelief that nearly a year had passed, and it was about to be Christmas again. Then, I felt as though an immense black cloud had suddenly decided to land on my back. I could physically feel its weight, as the tears started to pour down my face. I stood there unable to move for about ten minutes. My husband must have wondered where I was, and he came looking for me. He took one look at me and started to steer me out of the store back to the car.
“I think we need to go.” I was still crying as I sat in the car. Over the next few days, I struggled to do the simplest of tasks. Getting myself out of bed and dressed, suddenly became a monumental task equivalent to climbing a mountain. I stopped doing everything and I could not even muster the energy needed to care for myself, let alone my children.
My husband made me an appointment to see the GP. He came in with me so that he could listen to the doctor’s advice. My usual doctor was away and so I saw a doctor that I had never seen before. He was originally from South Africa. His office was full of artworks, photos of his garden and perfectly arranged books on a variety of artists. I found it hard to look at the doctor as there was so much else to look at. I explained what had happened in Sainsbury’s and how I couldn’t even get out of bed now. His response shocked me.
“Well if you can’t get out of bed, don’t. If you can’t get ready, don’t. Just give into it.” I found this advice unusual given that I expected him to just tell me to snap out of it. “Do you have a garden?” He suddenly asked.
“Well, yes but we haven’t done much with it. We live in a new build.”
He then proceeded to show me photos of his garden in England and how he had brought back plants from South Africa. His garden looked beautiful. It was blooming but still incredibly ordered.
“A few years ago. I felt just like you.” He explained,” Then I discovered gardening and it all changed. You see you have depression and we can help you with some medication. But it will really help you to do something physical as well.”
I paid little attention. I wanted just to take the medication and hope that it would magic it away. Over the next few days, I did exactly as I had been told. If I needed to stay in bed, then I would. The tablets seemed to be taking forever to work and I still had no energy to do anything. After a couple of weeks, my husband suggested a trip to the garden centre to buy some plants for the garden. We went to a local nursery, Horsfields in Penistone. Whilst there I started talking to the owner who advised against putting in any plants until we had prepared the soil. So, spurred on by her enthusiasm and advice, over the next few days I started digging with my husband. A good spell in the garden made me sweat and I could feel my mood starting to lift as endorphins were released. It started to become highly addictive. I’d always need to force myself to get in the garden, but once I did, I could feel my spirits lifting the more I sweated.
Over the next few months I began to add shape to my garden. The trouble with sudden death is that it can leave you with so many unanswered questions that it is hard not to become paranoid that your own death is imminent. I used to check my children when they were sleeping at night. I’d sometimes have to wake them up just to check that they were ok. I’d lie in bed worried that I was going to die next without warning. I also had to have endless tests at the cardiac hospital to see if I had inherited a heart condition.
But the more I gardened, then the less I worried. Instead of lying awake all night petrified of my death, I’d lie there thinking up new creative ideas for my garden. I’d research plants by pouring over books. And thus, it was that as the garden started to take shape and blossom then my own mental health started to recover, and I felt less and less depressed. I began to enter gardening competitions. I genuinely felt that I had found my purpose in life and something that I could truly excel in. It wasn’t long before I had articles and photographs of my garden published in magazines.
There has been much research about the benefits of exercise. It promotes changes in the brain, such as neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. It releases endorphins which invigorate and produce a feeling of well-being. But the right exercise for the individual can also serve as a distraction, enabling escape from the cycle of negative thoughts that encourage depression.
As I started to recover, I would still go and see my doctor regularly as he had requested and the more I saw him, the more my mood seemed to have changed. By the final visit we spent much of the time sharing gardening tips and advice.
My story shows that there is no magic instant cure for depression. Recovery takes a great deal of time. It is also vital to adopt a multi-pronged method for fighting depression. I would say that medication, exercise and support from family and your doctor are paramount. I am incredibly fortunate as my husband has always been so supportive and I credit him for helping me to get through these difficult times.
It is now over four years since I was diagnosed with depression. I feel well for about ninety-nine per cent of time. I still have the occasional lapse when I can feel that black cloud ominously hovering over me. In the past I would have remained in bed and waited for it to pass. Now, however, I put on my gardening boots and gloves, turn on Radio 4 and go and have a potter in the garden. It isn’t long before I feel the balance of my mind restored. And on top of all that I have something beautiful to look at and admire, as I stand back and say, “I made that.”
My brother may be dead but he lives on in my garden.