After years of isolation, gardening has helped John back to society

29/01/2016

Gardening helped Thrive employee John Wetherell find a way back into society, following two decades of isolation, homelessness and mental ill health.

John was a gifted student studying Music at Cambridge. However, he struggled to make friends, and after graduation he retreated into himself, becoming homeless and withdrawing further and further from society.

By the early nineties, John was living on the streets and wandering the length of the country on foot, convinced he was under CIA surveillance. With these and similar paranoid delusions dominating his every waking moment, he was eventually hospitalised in 1995 with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Accommodation was found for him, in a hostel run by the homeless charity St Mungo’s. But six months later he was still struggling to re-adjust to civilised life — slowly becoming accustomed to using a knife and fork again, taking regular baths and even sleeping in a bed which he hadn’t done for many years.

John was then introduced to Thrive by a housing support worker and he started gardening with us in Battersea Park.

John says: "This was the first time in 20 years that I got to experience ordinary human affection in a social group.

"The horticultural therapist talked to me on an equal level – a sense of common humanity which is sometimes missing in the psychiatric system.

"I started mixing with all kinds of different people; those with learning disabilities and physical disabilities. I worked with one Thrive volunteer who was a published author, and she encouraged me with the poems I was writing.

"Because of the physical tasks shared in common, I found myself bonding naturally with the others. Lunch hours were as helpful as work periods; silence was as helpful as chatting. It felt almost as though the garden were 'absorbing’ people’s problems and anxieties.

Part of The Herb Garden in Battersea Park.
"In 2000 Thrive took over maintenance of the Battersea Park Herb Garden, and a sizeable bed became 'mine' — with responsibility for the planting. I decided on a medicinal theme, and started to research medicinal herbs with benefits which could be interpreted as broadly relevant to mental health (such as helping with migraine or sleeplessness)."

The project proved to be a turning point for John. His horticultural therapist at the time, Richard Jones, who still works at Thrive, said: "John found the project something to get his teeth into and was encouraged to take specific responsibility for an area and develop his ideas."

For John it was an unfamiliar feeling, being trusted to make decisions and work on his own initiative, and not without some element of stress, but with Thrive's support he was able to see the challenge as an opportunity. His research was documented and contributed to The Herb Garden interpretation, which is still in use today.

Richard added: "I feel his potential abilities were positively recognised and he was trusted with additional responsibilities that I feel assisted with his positive development."

John has nothing but praise for the Thrive horticultural therapists:

"There is much skill involved in the way a horticultural therapist handles the clients. A natural communicator makes it look easy, but I must have been quite a difficult person to deal with."

After spending seven years as a gardener, John moved into paid work with Thrive, starting as a cleaner in 2001 working two hours a week. Eventually in 2006, Thrive offered him a job as part-time administrative support for the Battersea office — a position he still holds now.

How John discovered his aptitude for office work is an unlikely tale! Thrive Battersea's Manager at the time (John Cliff) found himself one afternoon with an administrator having just resigned, and with a Flower Show to organise. John happened to be on site doing his weekly clean, and when asked if he would like to volunteer in the office for a couple of hours that afternoon, he jumped at the chance.  

"Getting my first ever salaried position transformed not only my life, but also my personality. I was someone who never bothered with news and current affairs, but as a taxpayer now I take a keen interest!

"I believe that plant growth can be seen as a metaphor for the way a human personality can grow. The rhythm of physical work has a symbolic dimension which can benefit you even if you apprehend it only very dimly.

"Without wanting to overdramatise, I will be grateful to Thrive for the rest of my life, for giving me the chance to discover my capabilities.

"Given the emptiness of my CV, it was a daring leap of the imagination on Thrive's part."

With his new office skills, John was able in 2012 to secure a second part-time job with Mind in Camden, which is still ongoing.

"Now my goal in life is simple – continuing stability."

Richard sums up John’s journey by saying: "Gardening really has provided a vehicle for expression and success."

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