“I was raped when I was 19. Over the next four years, my life became increasingly unbearable until I finally became suicidal,” explained Iris at a fundraiser for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center (OCRCC) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina a few years ago. She kept visiting the crisis center’s website, but just could not pick up the phone to get help. “But when the horticultural therapy group popped up, I became much more interested in actually making something happen… I thought, “Ok, plants. I love those; they are in my comfort zone. Maybe this won’t be so uncomfortable and difficult if plants are involved.” I’m not sure I would have been strong enough to throw myself into a group without that element of familiarity. But I really had no concrete ideas of what I wanted from the group; I just knew that I didn’t want to live like that anymore.”
“I’m not only alive now, but I have the courage to be standing here (sort of). I am thriving,” Iris bravely told her audience of over 250 people. Meet Christene Tashjian, the horticultural therapist who has been helping Iris and many other victims of sexual violence for the past 8 years. In 1991, Christene read a news article about accessible planter boxes in a home for seniors and handicapped residents. She started exploring horticultural therapy, attending conferences and joining AHTA and its local chapter. She also took classes from a local university and from HTI. In 2005, she presented a project to OCRCC to help women who have been victims of rape and sexual abuse in childhood. With a 500 dollars grant, she started a pilot group, which has turned into an 8-week session offered every spring.
“Our activities deal with anger, fear, rage or shame. We do the activity and then have a discussion. We also keep a journal,” explained Christene. “ For example, we use the image of composting our fears by writing them on a piece of paper and burying them in a pile of compost. With pruning, we are talking about pruning our particular fears or our anger. What we prune can be replanted or composted. We transform that into something else. It is always a matter of tying a physical activity to an emotion to help them get out of their head.”
At the beginning of the 8-week session, the group plants seeds. The result might be visible before the end of the session. Otherwise, participants take the plants home. Christene also includes activities that help women learn to take care of themselves again. “We make creams and eye pillows with lavender and we talk about the calming effects of that plant.” Christene and Amy, the other volunteer who helps her run the group, offer activities with cut flowers, locally-produced flower essences and white sage which was commonly used by American Indians to get rid of bad energy. A local herbalist, Suki Roth, prepares herbal teas for the group. Week one, it might be “Trust” (chamomile flower, lemon balm leaf, passionflower leaf, oats (milky stage), lavender flower) on to “Rage and Anger” (peppermint leaf, nettle leaf, red clover flower, lemon balm leaf, parsley leaf) and finally “Happiness” (lemon verbena or balm, lavender, spearmint, chamomile, meadowsweet)
During the first years, Christene would give tests to evaluate stress levels before and after the activities. “They may appreciate the activity. But since they are sharing painful feelings, they don’t always feel better at the end of the group.” Christene now waits for the end of the 8 weeks and suggests the beginning of a sentence “Participating in this HT support group has…”. Here are some of the responses.
- “…changed my life for the better. The best part is feeling confident that I will be able to continue healing and growing even after group has ended”.
- “…given me strength to carry on.”
- “ …brought me to realize that I only need the deep violet of dirty hands to find myself connected again.”
The program went through some changes. It started in an OCRCC house with a big garden and a comfortable space for indoor activities. It later moved to a conference room in OCRCC new offices. “We promised ourselves we would not use that space again”, said Christene. Last time I spoke to her, she had found a church with a garden, a kitchen and an indoor space. She also takes into account some comments from participants who want longer meetings and the last session held in a different location. “After spending this time together in a cocoon, we organize a dinner one month later. Some groups who wanted to stay in touch are still getting together. It is always amazing to see what the women go on to do.”
Let’s hear from Iris again. “There is so much symbolism in nature and in horticulture, if you start paying attention. The cycle of planting and cultivating and composting and weeding, death and rebirth, growth and blossoming provides a perfect metaphor for the healing process that survivors of any type of trauma go through. Having these activities made my own healing so real and so apparent; and it made processing those changes much easier. It became something I could literally see happening, and not just something I was trusting my intuition or sub-consciousness to take care of. I found that sometimes, I didn’t even have to think about what was happening, I could just do the activity, and watch my emotions follow my physical actions.
Based on her experience, Christene presented at a conference for those who respond to calls from sexual violence victims. She also developed a kit that nurses seeing those women can hand to them: herbal teas, creams, bath salts chosen for the calming properties bring some comfort to women in the time of crisis.