Terrarium Therapy

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Author: Brandi of Sunshine & Succulents

(For our inaugural Plant Stories post, I thought I might as well get really intense and share my own very emotional, and very long, Plant Story. There's a happy ending, I swear!)

Life is pretty good at throwing curve balls. I got hit with a pretty awful one when I was 28. It was January 2013, and I was going through a huge career shift. My business partner and I had owned a handcrafted gift shop for 2 1/2 years, but we decided to part ways; while she kept the shop, I was striking out on my own. I was ambitious and excited. While I was still a partner at the store, I had started teaching succulent terrarium workshops, and now I was hoping to turn succulent design into a full time gig. I spent January setting up my new business, which I cheerily named “Sunshine & Succulents." I was thrilled for my new adventure.

(I’m going to insert a warning here… this gets pretty sad before it gets happy again. Bear with me, if you’re interested in how this ultimately ties back into succulents.)

In December 2012, a week before my last few days working in our store, I found a lump in my breast. I immediately went to a doctor and was told that there was no way it was cancer- I was so young! But they scheduled me for an ultrasound in January to check it out. I wasn't worried because, after all, "there's no way it's cancer!" But by February 3rd, I had a "breast cancer" stamped all over my medical files. It felt like it was stamped across my forehead. I could almost hear “dead man walking” as I walked in a daze through life and the hallways of so many doctor’s offices for the following weeks.

My life was suddenly on hold. I had so many impossible decisions to make about my body and my treatment plan. And all the while, I was mourning the loss of my twenty-something sense of immortality, the loss of my ability to plan for the future since I didn’t know if there would even be a future. I couldn’t even handle the idea of making plans for my 29th birthday, which was a month away, because I was so terrified it would be my last.

From a business perspective, I was also paralyzed. I had been working with a bride-to-be on her wedding arrangements, my very first client in my new business, and I sobbed while emailing to let her know I couldn’t do her wedding after all, because I might be puking my guts out from chemo treatments by then. All the plans I had had for my new business came to a screeching halt because I didn't know how sick I was going to be or what I'd be able to handle.

Throughout 6 months of chemotherapy, I suffered through the things we all associate with cancer: losing my hair, nausea, exhaustion. I also suffered from the invisible symptoms of cancer that those who haven't experienced cancer might not be aware of: the constant fear that the drugs weren't working and the cancer would come back; the random PTSD-like fits of uncontrollable sobbing that came on when I'd have sudden flashbacks of the moment I told my best friend that I had cancer; the morbid obsession with planning out the music that I'd want played at my funeral. I tried one-on-one therapy and group therapy sessions, but I've never been good at therapy and it often made me feel worse.

Me with my trusty red bandana, which I chose to wear instead of a wig.

Me with my trusty red bandana, which I chose to wear instead of a wig.

While getting accustomed to the new chemo-me, I started spending more time in the tiny 6x8' greenhouse in my yard. A store in Petaluma, B Street Mercantile, wanted to carry my succulent arrangements, and that was just the motivation I needed to get out of my sick-bed and start creating again. (P.S. they are still open, and still carrying my terrariums 3 1/2 years later!)

Therapy was awkward, but succulents- they weren't awkward at all! Creating arrangements with these tiny, weirdo plants that hate to be watered or fussed over- that was therapy for me. I had no interest in mindfulness or meditation or yoga classes, or many of the other things I was "supposed to be" doing according to the well-intentioned cancer advice-givers of San Francisco. But when I was in my tiny outdoor studio, surrounded by dirt, plants, rocks, funky planters, pieces of driftwood, seashells, bits of nature I picked up on walks and used in my designs, I found a kind of peace I hadn’t really known or appreciated before.

Some of my favorite tiny creations - weirdo succulents in minuscule handmade vessels.

Some of my favorite tiny creations - weirdo succulents in minuscule handmade vessels.

The most magical days were the rare ones when it rained, even just a drizzle, and the sound of the raindrops was magnified on the plastic roof while I crafted and planted away for hours, or the evenings when I turned on the Christmas lights in our yard and worked under the twinkling lights after dark. I can’t quite unravel the skein of feelings I was experiencing while working with my plants, but the peace I experienced came from some tangled combination of having a sense of purpose by making things with my hands to earn a living and of feeling productive despite my illness; of managing to find the creative energy to make so many beautiful things while I was living surrounded by the ugliness of cancer; of having tiny living things that depended on me and needed the care I gave them in order to survive; of being able to create "tiny worlds," as I imagine terrariums to be, that were brimming with beauty and nothing else; of having a space in which I could focus my mind on beauty, color, form, and life, allowing me to forget about death and cancer for a few brief hours.

And here I am, almost 4 years from my initial diagnosis, with 3 1/2 years of Terrarium Therapy under my belt. My body is currently free of cancer. I have a thriving business in which I get to share my passion for succulents with the public through the Succulent Terrarium Workshops I teach. I think I'm happier than I was before I got cancer, and that's in no small part due to the plants I have in my life. Succulents helped save me, and I repay that kindness by sharing my joy for them with the world every day.

Me, post-cancer, in my tiny greenhouse in San Francisco.

Me, post-cancer, in my tiny greenhouse in San Francisco.