Emotional Health

Dr. Moffett on Emotional Health: Trauma, Spirituality, and Healing

It turned out that what sustained her, what allowed her to be of service, and what offered a form of transcendence was the beauty of nature. She began volunteering with the park service, working in public gardens. For session after session she would come in wearing overalls, her fingernails dirty, her skin red and raw from being outdoors in all weather, and her muscles aching. In this state she felt more at peace. The physical exhaustion allowed her to sleep and reduced her anxiety and depression. As she dug trenches and hauled underbrush, the sense of herself as unclean or in some way dirty, which came from her supervisor’s abusive behavior, gave way to feeling strong, healthy, and useful. She couldn’t undo the previous two years, but she could make a children’s vegetable garden, a beautiful peony bed, and a tulip border that would give others enjoyment.

In confronting the senselessness of some of the things that had happened to her while at the same time continuing to ask what it is that created meaning in her life, she was able to leave room for doubt and exploration. Unready to return to her church, she didn’t share in weekly hymns or spoken prayers, but she felt that she was in touch with something greater than herself when she worked in the garden. What she had lost in international service she found again in the cold earth. Her “church service” was in preparing flowerbeds, clearing weeds, and ensuring that the green shoots coming out of the ground could grow.

I knew she was better when one early spring day we bundled up in coats and left the office so she could take me to one of the gardens where she had been working.  With a quiet pride, she showed me the bulbs sprouting from under the soil and the places where she had torn out briers and weeds to make room for sunlight to come into the dark spaces. We both knew that the work she had done in the garden was parallel to the work she had done in therapy.

I wonder from time to time how this young woman is doing. It is a time of year in the Christian calendar that asks that one take time out and examine our life choices and directions, correcting those that may be problematic for oneself or others. It is also a time to give to others who need help and to indulge less in the things that keep us from being mindful and present in our own lives.

In her work in the gardens, my young patient went through her own metaphorical 40 days in the desert, withdrawing from the social world of her peers. She spent the early springs into April doing horticultural spring-cleaning: planting, and pruning at the same time that she was doing her own sorting, clarifying, and cutting away. Ultimately she made sense out of her story, and left it with me, as many do, for safekeeping, so that she could move on with her life.

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  • Diane Dettmann March 12, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Dr. Moffett, thank you so much for sharing this insightful and meaningful story on emotional health and healing. In 2000 the sudden death of my husband threw me into a down hill spiral of grief. You’re so right, we can’t undo the past and time doesn’t heal the wounds. I found that the steps we take within that time can bring meaning back and help us move forward into a renewed life. What you do for others is truly a gift.