Suddenly, it is so obvious it is almost a relief. The slow mornings, forgotten words, tearfulness, and heavy limbs; I am depressed again.
Now I can see depression’s long fingers snaking through everything; there is mascara on my pillow cases, and a growing pile of dishes on the bedroom floor. It is not a particular surprise. I experience depressive spells fairly regularly—having been diagnosed with a cycling mood disorder at 22, depression is an environment with which I am intimately familiar.
I am also late for work. I sit on the edge of the bed and try to remember the last time I had breakfast. There’s definitely no food in the house. I make coffee and find a clean shirt. I check myself at the door, and double back to wash the cup and plunger. After rinsing them, I pour the excess water over a fiddle leaf fig that sits on my kitchen bench, and an umbrella plant next to the door.
Depression won’t work around your schedule. But when lists and planning fails, rituals remain. Tending my houseplants is one such observance for me. A plant is not a pet; you don’t have to be home in time to water it; there’s no fallout if you mess up when things are tough. The gentle, repetitive work of loving something that demands nothing more than ritual is one of the structures of my life that helps keep me waving, not drowning.
The first houseplant I cared about was my peace lily. I chose it for two reasons. One was whimsical: I learned that peace lilies are shiniest and healthiest when you regularly wipe down their leaves. I was immediately drawn to the softness of that image; I wanted a life filled with that kind of tenderness. I dreamt of an apartment filled with leaves and light, and a part of me thought, deep down, maybe a world where I take the time to wash a flower’s leaves is a world where I feel more kindly towards myself, too.
The other reason was that they are famously hard to kill, and I really, really needed a win.
Self-care is hard work. It’s hard, because it is hard being kind to yourself when you are depressed. Not just because your energy is low and you have trouble feeling invested in much of anything, but because frankly, the idea of feeling better can be kind of stomach turning.
You can believe that eating well, and cleaning your house and seeing your friends will make you feel better, but you might also believe you don’t deserve to feel better—that you deserve to feel that drowning feeling, to isolate yourself, to do badly at your job—feeling bad isn’t just an emotion, it’s something you excel at.
Next I bought an air plant. It’s small and spiky and, I had heard, entirely self-sufficient. The woman in the shop advised me otherwise; she said many people kill their air plants labouring under this illusion. Air plants may not need to stay rooted in soil, but they do need water. Soak once a week, for about 30 minutes, and dry thoroughly. In summer, spritz with water, or keep in a humid space, like a bathroom or laundry. This anchorite had plenty of needs; she just didn’t know how to express them. I ran a bath and took the air plant in with me. Before long she had taken up permanent residence in the soap holder, so I never forgot about her.
The needs of plants are not demands; they are just facts. Respond to their needs, and they thrive. Fail to do so, and they struggle. Needs are neutral—you feed them plant food in spring, you wash their leaves. A plant is not a bad plant for faltering when it doesn’t have enough light or water. Keeping houseplants means encountering, in small and consistent ways, the fact that needs change in different circumstances. When you are spectator to the fact of a growing thing, it’s harder to see this as a moral failure.
One sunny day, I left the peace lily in the courtyard after repotting. When I came back from work, I found her comically withered. No plant has ever looked more dead. I dragged the pot back into the living room, despairing. After a few hours and some water, though, the leaves started to lift again. Within a week, unbelievably, she was glossy and green: my little Lazarus, back from the dead. She’s like me, I think, she doesn’t like hot weather. I notice I have started to refer to the plant as ‘she.’
My friend Rebecca brings over a bottle of wine after work, and tells me my monstera isn’t dead; it’s dormant. They always go quiet over winter, she says. She also tells me the soil is hydrophobic—caused by infrequent watering, followed by overwatering, which I own to, guiltily. She explains that after a period of inconsistent care, the soil protects the plant from drowning by repelling all water. If this is allowed to continue, the plant eventually dies of dehydration instead. She mixes a bit of dish soap with plant food in a watering can, and digs her fingers deep in the dirt, while I watch, awed. It takes so little time for the soil to relearn how to take in water, even after such uneven attention. Soon the leaf node I watched all winter will start to bud. Easy, she says, wiping her hands on a tea towel. You should have told me sooner, it’s such a quick fix!
Houseplants can teach you a lot about accepting care. They are living reminders that you are living too, and sometimes, that can be hard work. It’s good practice for caring, because the stakes are low. If you really can’t look after your plants, nothing terrible will happen. They might wilt, and if you want to, you can buy new plants, and start again. Gentleness takes practice, and plants are beautiful, ritualistic kind of practice. It’s going to be okay, and messing it up is okay too. And for the truly non-committal: there are succulents.