Healing Talks Back

Of Weeds and Warfare

Historically… I hate gardening. 

Growing up in the midwest, my mother spent hours planning and planting beautiful gardens around our home. She solicited my brother’s help for weeding, trimming and watering. My dad helped with heavier tasks like digging new beds and shoveling soil. Thanks to the three of them and their hard work, ours was the most colorful, most fragrant, and most flavorful yard on the block.

As for me, I stuck to indoor chores like dishes and laundry. I didn’t like getting dirty, scratchy and hot. I didn’t like bugs or worms or bees, and I REALLY didn’t like the occasional visit from our neighborhood garter snake.

Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy the FRUITS of my family’s labor. The flowers were beautiful, the vegetables were delicious, and I loved the delicate butterflies that graced our outdoor space. But none of that seemed worth the work my loved ones put into gardening.

Leaving home, I was more than happy to disavow my family’s green thumbs—along with much of the hands-on heritage passed down from my family of origin.

Then came the day I bought a new house, surrounded by seven empty garden plots. For some crazy reason (I can probably blame addiction, right?) I declined the idea of sodding them in with grass. Instead, I decided pick up a trowel and see what I could learn about making things grow in Southern California.

The results weren’t pretty. For a girl whose idea of hardy plants meant “able to survive sub-zero winters,” my first attempts at drought-friendly gardens produced a pitiful mess: I got nothing but clumps of sodden roots, soggy blossoms and rotten leaves.

And then there was pruning. (I’m beginning to feel the onset of a traumatic flashback.) For a girl naturally inclined toward all-things-extreme, my attempts to “trim things back” went irreversibly awry: in no time flat, I’d decimated my lavender bushes, reducing them to mere skeletons, all with a severity and compulsivity that even Edward Scissorhands would deem butchery.

Lessons learned. Lots of time and money later, I’m ready to retire my gardening experiment. I think it’s time to hire a professional, something I probably should have done in the first place. I’ve got enough green blood on my hands, I figure, without shedding any more. I’m ready to reclaim my childhood relationship with gardening: the one wherein everybody ELSE handles the responsibility.

I’m so ready for all of that. But why haven’t I done it yet? Why haven’t I put down my gardening gloves and picked up the phone instead? Because somewhere, deep in my heart (and despite my misadventures), I’m keenly aware of a new and undeniable fact:

Surprisingly… I love gardening.


Part of me is shocked by this new idea, but another part of me honestly isn’t. Here in recovery, I’ve learned to EXPECT such dramatic reformations. These days, one-eighties are an everyday occurrence. These days, most of what I thought I knew is flipping upside down.

Nature has, as nature does, managed to render me impressed and inspired. In spite of myself, I am now utterly enamored with outdoor gardening. I find myself relaxed and absorbed and enchanted, sitting in the dirt for countless hours, hot wind blowing and tangling my hair. Up to my elbows in the fragrant earth, I feel supremely connected to this terrestrial soil, in the very spot where my God has planted me.

My hands are busy working, but my mind is free to meander and meditate. I find myself tenderly expressive toward my seedlings, as I struggle to save them (from myself, quite ironically). I’m gratified by the nurture I invest into these living things. It’s sensual and satisfying work, I realize. My fingers tend to synchronize with my emotions, settling into a rhythm that’s entirely hypnotic and almost surreal.

Admittedly, my garden isn’t “producing” much, in terms of fruit or flowers. But I don’t actually care about that, for one beautiful, bountiful reason: during my dirt-covered hours in the garden, I’m gleaning a cornucopia of spiritual awakenings.

Here’s an example: today I found myself getting worked up, resenting a patch of weeds that audaciously crept into my favorite flowerbed. I know. It’s silly to feel “resentment” toward a few blades of glorified grass, right? But in that moment, those weeds represented something invasive and intolerable; I saw them as some kind of mortal enemy, threatening to overwhelm the tender blooms I was striving to protect.

My attitude toward the weeds began as annoyance, but quickly escalated to flat-out anger. (Anger, incidentally, is my go-to emotion, especially when I feel threatened or powerless.) And when I get angry, I take action. Quick as a wink, I traded serenity for strategy, poised to attack the ill-advised existence of those roguish weeds. Seized by the same compulsion that stripped my bushes naked, I yanked out those weeds by their deepest roots, determined that they WOULD NOT steal one more molecule of energy from my baby seedlings. Sunlight, water, nutrients provided by the surrounding soil—all of that belonged to my flowers, NOT to those stupid green wannabes. I was fighting for the survival of these helpless seedlings, and I was willing to annihilate anything that encroached upon that mission.

Take a deep breath. Calm down. Note to self: “This isn’t really about flowers or weeds, now is it?” No, it’s not about flowers and weeds. Instead, it’s about self-care, self-soothing and self-preservation. This is about pain that interrupts my peace, and this is about fear that hijacks my freedom.

Because, here’s the truth: In this particular moment of “fight, flight or freeze,” my outsides don’t match my insides at all. Outside, my body is kneeling in the garden. Inside, my soul is kneeling on a battlefield. Outside, my fingers are pulling weeds from flowerbeds. Inside, my instincts are pulling pins from hand grenades.

I’m still in the throes of “early recovery”—and this, my sponsor tells me, is exactly what early recovery looks like. Today, gardening is my tool to process and cope with compound trauma; I’m engaging this dirt as a way to stay present, to keep myself grounded and healthy and safe. When faced with something that compromises my emotional wellbeing, it’s really no wonder I lose my Zen. My lizard brain takes over, donning its Kevlar, and launching an offensive against such infringement.

Threats to my wellbeing (today they’re pain and fear) tend to show up in very odd places. Today, they’re presenting themselves smack in the middle of my geraniums.

These days, I can’t afford to ignore anything that could violate my recovery. If I see potential risks (aka weeds) and do nothing in response, they can and will destroy the life I’m trying to regrow. They’ll choke out every tender sprout of hope I’ve been fostering, and they’ll smother any evidence that beauty can emerge from my grief-sodden soul.

Call me stubborn, but I’m not about to let that happen. Instead, when it comes to the make-or-break factors of my early recovery, I’ve become my own most passionate, proactive and protective interventionist. I take threats to my serenity seriously, and I refuse to give them one single inch of room to survive or thrive. That may sound severe, and it may be extreme. But addiction IS severe, and its impact IS extreme, so why shouldn’t my response to it be equally radical?


Just to be clear, NOT all of my spiritual awakenings present with such life-or-death drama. Many of them show up with ease and relief, and I celebrate those perennial moments by (you guessed it) digging in the dirt.

Because the fact is, despite my encounters with weeds and warfare, I am now a gardener at heart. I treasure those quiet interludes between trauma triggers, tenderly reconnecting with the earth beneath my knees. As I do, I dream of the day I shed my Kevlar and slip into khakis, exchanging my Molotov cocktail for a piña colada. Perhaps, on that day, my garden will have served its highest, most holy purpose.

And perhaps, on that day, gardening will love me back.

(Based on reflections from my personal journal, 2008)


©2015–2019 | All Rights Reserved

OF WEEDS AND WARFARE was written by Gaelyn Rae Emerson in 2015. It was originally written for Sisters of Sobriety and Serenity, a social media blog for recovering women, with special thanks to its creator, Katie Maslin. Republished by Women Ever After, with minor biographical edits pending.

For more writings by Gaelyn Rae Emerson, click here or email gaelynrae@womeneverafter.com.

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