Tom’s story

Tom, a trainee at Chrysalis, a SAMH therapeutic horticulture service in Dundee, shares their experience of using the garden.

Near the beginning, I was sitting in a hole. More specifically, I was sitting in a grave - the freshly exhumed plot where the roots of a raspberry bush had previous taken hold for a long, long time. My bare toes wriggled in the soil, while my thoughts wormed their way into darker corners of my mind. In contrast, it was an almost intolerably sunny day and suddenly the shadow of Joyce was cast across the ground. Or was it Lucy? Both? Visual memory tends to be obscured during depression, which is why the time of joining SAMH Chrysalis (via occupational therapy referral) is still a bit of a blur. Luckily, each of the Chrysalis team carry a unique lantern, and they shine brightly as they talk me out of the hole and into a chair with a nice cup of coffee at break-time.

Here, there are people who know how to help dig you out of a pit when you lack the ability. They will support you to slowly learn to handle these tools yourself, and teach techniques to loosen the mud. Oh, you protest sometimes- of course. It feels nice to be tended to. But you need this encouragement. You always needed it.

Living with late-diagnosed autism is like learning that for the past 30 years you actually shouldn’t have let a tractor run over saplings and through your flowerbeds for all that time. A useful machine in particular contexts but certainly not the replacement for a gentle hand. For an inconceivable age, I never really figured out how to live, let alone thrive, for longer than a few months at a time before everything came crashing down. I lacked consistency, struggling to maintain friendships or the same job for long. Survival mode is tiring, and I suppose I grew so used to full stops that I forgot commas could exist.

SAMH’s Chrysalis project quickly became one of the most important parts of my week. Just showing up became a central cog in designing a new life. Being around the team regularly has been so helpful both in identifying changes in my internal ‘weather’, but also in acknowledging progress made over longer periods of time. Learning about pruning and planting also teaches patience and perseverance. I have learned to look at the seasons experienced in the garden and translate that to how I move through my own day-to-days.

Spring - What is growing in me and what do I look forward to? Summer - How am I flourishing and what makes me bloom? Autumn - What rewards can I harvest, and when will I stop and admire the changing colours? Winter - In what ways can I warm myself and how will I choose rest and reflect on the past and future seasons?

I have joyous memories of the ways Team Chrysalis encouraged and laughed with me as I explored creative projects. No idea was too silly or ridiculous. A giant spider sculpture in a tree. The ‘renovation’ of a huge bug hotel (and roof-top garden). A paved yellow brick road leading to ‘Sunflower Hill’. An archaeological dig and excavation! Even after I leave, I hope to create a travel brochure for this spiralling wildlife resort - vital documentation for tourists and future tenants (human, insect and animal) of the historic landmarks and features!

In terms of what’s next, I have applied to volunteer at a local creative recycling project. This is a big step for me as it is not only a new situation with new people, it will (hopefully) be a brand new chapter with more things to learn and connections to make. It will be a challenge, but attending Chrysalis helped me feel like part of society, so I feel more prepared. I’ve learned to advocate for myself, to manage expectations, maintain connections to people and, perhaps most importantly, to ask for help.

I have also been writing and performing spoken word poetry for years now, and I am finally working on my first page poetry collection. The team has often been the first ones to hear my new words and I am grateful for their kind ears and support as I continue to write and perform, celebrating with me in my awards and comforting in my disappointments. I also moved to a new home last year and I now have my own little garden! I will keep using inspirations of my time with Chrysalis to transform it into a haven for all manner of beasties and beauties.

I am so grateful to have experienced this significant period of mental health and wellbeing in the company of Team Chrysalis. Don’t get me wrong - I’m only slightly in denial about leaving. I’m still making jokes about setting up camp in the tool shed and chaining myself to the orchard trees. But overall, I feel so lucky to have stumbled into the garden in the first place, and for them to accept me as I am and help me thrive. I wouldn’t be here without them. I would like to end with a verse from “A Bucket of Hope”, a poem-presentation I performed at Pecha Kucha Vol. 30 at Dundee Rep Theatre, 2023. It was a piece about the idea of belonging - I had to dedicate a section to Duntrune Community Garden.

Thank you Team Chrysalis!

"change takes time - it takes community, community that found me, slowly

community that surrounds like the green spaces of our city where I create a seed bomb in the form of a stegosaurus skeleton

place it in Duntrune community garden, Dawson Park where the SAMH Chrysalis Project tends to a maze of polytunnels, flowerbeds, wild foliage

a hedged haven allowing volunteers to bloom in supportive company learning new skills while improving mental health along the way across Dundee similar projects exist - allotments, orchards, growers... people like me find a place in the garden and a sense of duty

there is always work to do, and one day a week really helps to weed the brain, to plan ahead for the next drought or flood

we plant bulbs and seeds of thought - maybe talk more than we dig sometimes that’s exactly what we need in our internal ecosystems"

 - (excerpt from ‘a bucket of hope’ by Tom Bird, 2023)