This summer will mark two years since my family and I got sent to “Covid camps” in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was two and a half weeks of forced empty space — the emptiest time I’ve ever experienced.
My brother Rex and I had a running bet to see who could beat the most levels of Plants Versus Zombies, while my little sister, Pyper, got really good at finding new spots to sling her hammock in our open-air room, if you could call three walls and metal cots a room.
My mom spent her energy trying to recover from covid, with limited medical attention from faceless hazmat suits — the volunteers who checked our breath rates and brought us boiled cabbage and rice thrice daily.
Due to the nature of our upbringing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we tried each day to think of things to be thankful for. Our list was never longer than two or three items long, in part due to our low energy levels and in part because of just how difficult a task it was.
Here is what we typically came up with: being together, the little Vietnamese boy next door who would slide candies under our door and didn’t like to wear pants, and the large oak tree we could see through our window. During the day, between three and four, the sun would shine in perfectly through the leaves and onto our beds, reviving us.
To the question “what am I thankful for,” that tree was my mom’s answer every day. Two weeks and two negative covid tests later, we were free. Suddenly we knew what trauma felt like.
We returned to the same apartment that we had been taken from, but it felt different. What was once our home no longer felt safe, because we knew how easily everything we loved could be taken.
Our beloved dog Loki, scared of being separated and doused with toxic cleaning chemicals again, started to howl any time a door opened. And so my parents, my siblings, my dog and I began the difficult task of trauma recovery.
Mental Health, Physical Health, and a Sense of Purpose
My family’s healing process began with a succulent. There was a noticeable difference in my mothers eyes each time she returned home with a new plant. She took control of her space with splashes of green and brown, and in doing so re-adjusted to our once comfortable life in Vietnam.
After a few months, we moved to a house with a yard and windows big enough for open-air style living, bringing us even closer to the beautiful nature in Vietnam. Green invaded our house, and with each new plant our family’s spirits raised a little higher.
My brother Rex, who had previously obsessed over a game about carnivorous plants, took up caring for real ones with my Dad. Even now, I get a rundown of their latest venus fly trap any time I call.
Plants have shown to be healing and therapeutic for those who suffer from mental illness and trauma. Watching a living thing develop, being responsible for its growth, and incorporating the calming natural colors into your living space help to see life from a larger perspective.
Touching soil triggers dopamine and serotonin to be released when its bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, gets into our systems, according to a study by Aerify.
Other research points towards physical health benefits simply from breathing the same air as all the little green friends. House plants increase the air quality in your home by releasing extra water vapor, oxygen, and absorbing toxic substances like formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene, also known as “off-gasses,” according to Swansons Nursery. They also absorb carbon dioxide, freshening up our air and our lungs. They truly seem to make us healthier and happier in every way!
Won’t caring for plants just give me more to stress about?
Many avoid adopting plants under the assumption that it will only add additional tasks to their to-do list. Certainly, plants require varying levels of attention, and to some, the additional work is daunting.
However, studies show that caring for a plant can quickly become an anti-anxiety ritual, reducing stress and taking as little as minutes to care for. If you feel intimidated, start with a succulent. They need to be watered as little as once every two weeks, so the work-to-joy ratio is off the charts!
Keep one on your desk for the little boosts of serotonin every time you glance up, or on your bedside table to remind you to persevere through the hardest nights. My own zebra plant (look it up, they’re very cool) sits in a teacup on my windowsill.
The pandemic prevented millions of people from getting their daily dose of nature, and massively contributed to a steep decline in mental health. One plant at a time, my family’s once cold and empty home became a spattering of color and light.
As we cared for each plant, we turned our house into a tropical oasis of safety, giving us purpose and happiness, and putting control back into our hands.