Gardens of the Mind

By Gergana Manolova

[This piece was written for the King’s Experience Award’s ‘A Beautiful Mind: Art, Science and Mental Health’ module.]

Did you know that you carry a garden around in your head?

It’s probably a lush, beautiful garden, although I can’t say for certain before I’ve seen you. That’s what I saw the first time in Biology when the teacher showed us a picture of neurons: a tree. The wilder the tree, the better; it has more branches, it can get tangled with the other trees around it and make your head into a real, actual, Tarzan-level jungle. And jungles are better than Wuthering Heights.

I’ve seen both versions and myriads of in-between states in people walking around. No, I’m not sick in the head, not more than anyone else. But whenever I sit down to work with someone, I see their mind spread out before me. And I see the plants.

The first barren place I saw terrified me. The only thing growing was the lichen, which looked dry and long-dead, but even that covered only half of the wasteland. The rest was dusty, crumbling blueish rock, it looked like a moonscape. I didn’t dare look up at the sky. The winds were bad enough; relentless, buffeting, howling at me things that were almost like human cries. At that time, I was still working in prison, but it had never been that bad.

I was there to work with this guy, who the prison psychiatrist told me was a lost cause. And really – have you ever tried to grow something on the moon? I would have had just as much luck. Every time I could get a seed to sprout, I came back a few days later, and it was gone like it had never been. At least by the end, there was lichen everywhere. Was that good? I don’t know. That guy was a lifer anyway, and I wasn’t. I quit.

But I missed the wild gardens, I suppose. Secret gardens. So secret that even the people who were carrying them around in their heads didn’t know about them.
I signed up to a course to retrain and became a counsellor. Easy, even if I had to study hard to remember all the terminology instead of going on about soil density and epiphytic plants.

They are a thing of beauty, epiphytes, many of them are orchids. Grow in the minds of artists, but philosophers have a fondness too. Theirs are usually beset by ferns, like a hothouse – I suppose for them they are, as they have to support the kind of thing that rarely thrives outside simulated conditions – and then, bang, among all this there is a blooming orchid.

I love moments like that, when I get to see these gems hidden away. Did you know the Victorians competed who would get the rarest and most expensive of orchids? You can imagine it went on for a while till they exhausted thirty thousand species. Myself, I’ve seen some that I’m sure don’t exist in the natural world. Mostly due to a sweet old lady who was trotted up to me because her kids said she was roaming around the neighbourhood. They thought she had Alzheimer’s; she didn’t, she had all her orchids beautifully spread out as far as the mind’s eye could see. What a full life. Some of them had polka-dots!

The gardens change sometimes from the start to the end of the session, but there is method to the madness, always. I’m not talking about the math professor who had his tulips in a fractal pattern – although you couldn’t see it from the ground, you’d have to lift up a bit, and even though I can sort of fly, I prefer to walk around and run my fingers through the leaves. I just discover more things that way. Some plants shrink away from the touch and to me that’s important diagnostic criteria.

Sometimes you look around and you see how the garden was shaped by others. The working mother was so determined to make it that in the centre of her garden stood a tall oak tree with a swing. When I saw it, I made the mistake to wonder aloud if she had a favourite. Next time, there was an identical tree with a swing right next to the other one, and then we had to work on her guilt for at least three months, because the oaks were blocking the sunlight of some timid, sweet-smelling dog roses.

The teenager whose brother had died in a car crash had sad, yellow dunes overlooking a sea. Here I had always thought beaches were a lovely thing, but not anymore. Desolate plants had dug in deep and refused to go away, but the whipping sea wind was salty and unforgiving. Tasted like the tears she never allowed herself to cry. The first time she let go in front of me, it was a torrential downpour. The dunes ate it up and bloomed immediately. Bright, simple, primary colours all the way. It didn’t stay like that permanently, of course, but with the more frequent showers, the microclimate recovered in time and the breezes were balmy again.

I like the gardening, even if sometimes it takes the patience of a saint or a Japanese monk doing bonsai. Twisted trees are the saddest sight, and usually it’s abuse, physical or verbal. To the mind, it seems not to matter – the trees are twisted all the same. Some branches are still malleable, so I can direct them carefully to the sunlight, let them grow as they should have been. Some are already dead, having given up under horrible memories. I never prune them. But I do observe carefully and sometimes can notice when a storm has passed through. Storms are violent things, but they spell renewal – the dead branches are torn off and fall to the ground, and in time, they will become the food of new plants.

I do work with psychiatric patients. I can see the drugs boost their systems – like fertilizer, the new plants go wild. Only, too much fertilizer makes them grow too fast and unable to support their own weight, or too leafy and they never have the chance to flower. That’s what I’m for, to train the climbers and ground them properly. We keep a dialogue with the psychiatrist – a lovely lady with a mind of medicinal herbs – and when the patients reduce the dosage, I mulch the trees and tie up the saplings to prepare them for bad weather. I don’t like the fertilizer, but it’s is a necessity in the wilted gardens. Depressed people often need that boost badly, but too much of it and they slip into mania. The garden erupts in wild blooms, then it wilts again and you are exactly where you started, but with dead snapdragons and baby’s breath in your feet.

Recently, I’ve taken on a trainee counsellor. She is frighteningly direct and a little aggressive – nothing like me, since I prefer to wait out people’s gardens. I go with the cycle of the mind. No use going against it, because the plants will stubbornly resist any changes you try. But Ciarah does not yet realise that what people need the most is space, sunlight, and love. She marched into my office yesterday and complained that her patients all seem determined to lead exactly the lives they have chosen despite her trying to show them how it could be so much better. I looked at her for a moment, half-smiling.

“I never promised you a rose garden,” I said.

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