Internal Garden

I work as a therapist, and my experience is that all successful therapy is the resolution or transformation of conflict within the self.

One day I got a call from a man asking me to go to the local hospice and work with his wife. She had cancer, and they said she would be dying any day. He just wanted me to do anything I could for her, so I said of course I would go.

I don’t remember the exact kind of cancer, but when I arrived the nurse told me that it had metastasized to such a degree that the woman had areas in her buttocks where the cancer had eaten away so much that you could put your whole fist in it. That image stuck with me.

This woman was in a fairly delusional state. She didn’t make much eye contact, always looking off in other directions. The cancer had progressed so far and she was so ill, that I just did what I could to be supportive. I was very gentle about it, giving her a lot of choices, such as not needing to talk to me — there was very little that she could say anyway. I just talked to her, doing my best to make good contact and give her the sense that she was cared for, even while she was mostly off in her own world. When I left, I figured it would be the last time I saw the woman.

A couple weeks later I was surprised to get another call from her husband. He told me that his wife had lingered longer than expected, and so hospice had thought it better to send her home where she could spend her remaining time with her husband. Over the phone her husband asked me, “Could you come in and meet with her again? She appreciated the last time you came.”

So I agreed to come, and figured it would be more of the same.

When I arrived at their house, I went in to where she was in bed in her room. She was much more lucid this time. We began talking, and in our conversation it became very apparent to me that for a long time she had really been holding people away from her. Other people felt like a threat and an imposition to her, and very unsafe. The more she interacted with me, the more clues I got telling me that this issue was very significant for her. I got the sense that there was no place at all where she felt safe to just be herself.

So I suggested that we do a visualization. I asked her to imagine some place that she felt very, very safe, and that felt comforting and inspiring to her.

She said, “A garden.” But it was interesting, because even there she was hesitant.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Well, other things could come into the garden,” she said. “It’s too open.”

“What if we put some kind of force-field around the garden so nothing else can come in?”

At that suggestion, her whole face and body relaxed.

I asked her about the garden, and from what she told me it was pretty bare, pretty sparse. It had some flowers and that was about it. There wasn’t much there.

I said, “OK, you’ve got some flowers with a force-field around it.” We talked about that for a bit, and what that was like for her. Eventually I asked her, “Are there any other plants you’d like to have in the garden?”

“I like roses,” she said.

I told her that it was her garden, and she could plant roses there if she liked. She did.

Then I asked, “What about some fruit trees? They might provide nice shade for some of the flowers that don’t do well in direct sun.” It was a slow process, but gradually, in a way that was safe for her, we built up the sense of a true garden, always keeping that force-field around to protect it. We added nut trees, and some other plants that she liked. Plants seemed to be the one kind of living thing around which she could still feel safe.

Then, being a little bit pushy, I asked her, “Are there any earth worms in there?”

“No!” she said.

“Well do you think it would be a benefit for the plants to have some earth worms to loosen the soil?”

She had a lot of hesitation with the idea that letting in worms might be a good idea. It was a big deal. I took the plant’s point of view — what would be good for the plants. I appealed to her kindness and consideration for the plants. After a bit more discussing it she finally said, “I guess worms might be good for the garden.”

I said, “Now would that be safe for you? Would that be alright for you?”

After more exploring she eventually said, “I guess I can’t imagine that worms would be a problem.”

So I had her design some way that the worms could get into and out of the garden through the force-field, and that seemed pretty good to her.

“What about beetles?” I asked next. “Are there any beetles in there?”


“Well, do you think it might be good for the plants to have some beetles in there to eat the old leaves and help turn them into good compost for the garden?”

Eventually she agreed it would be a beneficial thing for the plants, and that beetles would not really pose a problem for her.

Next I asked, “Well are there any bees? Do you want bees to be able to pollinate the plants?”

She said, “huh?”

I asked, “Do you have any allergies to bees?”

“No, no I like bees,” she said.

So she figured out a way to let bees in and out, and we went through a few more beneficial insects — praying mantises and spiders. Each time we introduced something new we had to really work through, metaphorically, all her issues of engaging with any other kind of life beyond plants, and how she could do that in a way that was safe.

Then I said, “This garden sounds so beautiful with the fruit trees and the flowers and the insects, how about birds? Would birds be nice? To have birdsong — you know, to be able to share such a beautiful place with a bird — that might be nice.”

“Oh yeah,” she said, “I hadn’t thought about that; that does seem nice and I do like birds.”

So she designed a way for birds to come in and out of the force field that worked for her. One by one we went through all these things that can help a garden grow well, becoming a whole, balanced ecosystem. We added squirrels, and even let in a fox or two. The whole time she was safe and in control, and every time she let in another critter, I could see something light up in her a little more.

Finally I thought, I’ll push it even farther.

I said, “You know, this sounds like such a beautiful place. What would you think if we let somebody come in and see what a beautiful thing you’ve created?”

It was very interesting, because I could see on her face that, after having created such a beautiful place, a part of her longed to let somebody else see it.

“But I don’t want them to always be there,” she said. “I want to have the garden to myself.”

“Hey, you’re in charge,” I said. “You could set it up so that nobody comes in, or maybe only one day a week, or maybe for just a little time during each day — however you’d like to do it.”

We talked about it for quite a while, and finally she decided that it sounded like a good idea. To be able to share her garden with other people — something beautiful that she’d created — really appealed to her. As long as she got to choose when, and whether or not she was even there at the same time.

So she set that up in a way that felt safe for her, which involved building an airlock through the force-field — two pressurized doors so the visitor would have to come through the first one, which would then close behind the visitor and seal before the second door opened. She wanted that level of control. She didn’t want anything else or anyone else getting in by accident.

By this point it had probably been about 2 ½ to 3 hours. It was a long, slow process. So we closed with that. I really thanked her, both for sharing her garden with me, and for being open about it, and for letting me spend this kind of time with her. I left her room and walked down the hall and past the kitchen where her husband was cooking up a bunch of food to have on hand for himself, since his wife was due to die any day. He and I talked for probably fifteen, twenty minutes. Then we heard this pretty big noise come from the back room where his wife was staying.

We both were thinking, “What is that? Did she fall out of her bed? Is she calling out?” We heard another couple bangs, and around the corner the woman appeared, rolling herself in her wheelchair! The banging had been her getting out of bed into her wheelchair, which she hadn’t done in weeks and weeks. She looked at her husband and said, “I’m kind of hungry.” I knew she hadn’t asked for food in a long time. I talked to them a couple minutes more and then I left, because I realized this would be one of their last real moments together.

Three months later I ran into the woman’s husband downtown. I was a little cautious, because I figured his wife had died, and so what do you say? But I went over to him and asked, “How are you doing? How did your wife’s passing go?”

He said, “Well, she didn’t pass.”

I said, “What?”

He pointed down the street, and I saw her sitting there on a bench right next to where a bunch of kids were playing. There were people all around her. She was just sitting there watching everyone with a big smile on her face, clearly delighted at being out in public.

I walked over and talked with her, and she told me that the doctors said the cancer was gone. All these big sores — everything had healed up. It was the last thing I would have expected, but there she was, talking to me.

I had direct follow-up with her six months later, and indirect at least a year later through reports from other people. After a year I know for sure that she was still healthy and cancer free, and that’s a fair amount of time given the nature of the cancer that she had.

Back when I had met with her in her home, it was clear that she had retreated from other people, and that she didn’t think she had anything to offer. Yet at the same time, as I got further along in talking with her, it became obvious that she wanted to have connection with people and she wanted to have something to offer. She had this huge internal conflict of wanting something to offer, yet feeling that she had nothing to offer. The garden was something that she had created that was really beautiful. There was clear value in the garden, enough value that it was worth letting someone else in to see it. The garden was worth sharing with others. Before this, I don’t think she’d ever had a sense that there was something of value in her. The garden also represented something that she had to take care of, and something that was worth taking care of. The framework was, this is your garden, and whatever you decide, that’s what we’ll do. As the caretaker for the garden, what do you want for the garden? She was in charge, and that also allowed her to create and have control over her own safety. That was hugely important. Without that safety, none of it would have been possible.

I think there are so many things that were important for her about the garden, and who knows exactly how that affected her cancer, which is the body’s own cells growing out of balance — the body’s “ecosystem” going out of balance. I wondered about how that related to her experience of creating a garden that was no longer just flowers, as it had started out, but a whole network of plants and bugs and animals all working together. Whatever is the case, I never imagined that creating one story might have such a profound impact. The whole thing was a very powerful experience to be a part of.

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