I college I had an aloe plant. One summer, I left it with a friend. Aloes are sturdy plants, evolved for dry areas. They’re sensible, only growing when they have the sun and water they need and huddling into themselves when they do not.
I had known that my friend got sad sometimes and didn’t leave her room when I asked her to care for my aloe. But I didn’t really know about depression; I hadn’t read The Spoon Theory; I hadn’t spent the years in the open-circle that is tumblr; I didn’t know how hard caring for someone else is when your brain is telling you trees don’t have leaves.
That’s why I was surprised and pissed when I came home to Pittsburgh and found my plant withered and brown. I took it to my room, watered it back to a sort-of grey-green-health. I kept our friendship but was mistrustful.
Today, if I was going to ask a friend who was working on her own health to help me care for a plant, I’d be prepared for her illness to stop her from doing her best work. I’d ask her about her spoon count before giving her another responsibility, I would check in proactively so she didn’t have to fight past her personal Radio Station KFKD to ask for help.
That aloe didn’t thrive for the next 2 years in Pittsburgh. It never grew a new leaf, it never lost its ghostly pallor. It didn’t get better, but it didn’t get worse. I figured that, like me, it had little love for the sunless seasons of Western Pennsylvania. We hunched in the cold together, enduring until spring and warmer climes.
When Matthew and I moved all of our things to Seattle 2 years ago, the plant wasn’t allowed in the shipping truck. So I unpotted it, dumped its dirt, wrapped it in hand-towels, and smuggled it through airport security in my shoulder bag. I bought it a bigger pot and good soil in Seattle, and when I left to spend the summer in Boston, the plant stayed in Matthew’s care.
Matthew had never cared for a houseplant before, so I knew enough to prepare myself for it to be dead when I next visited. Don’t get me wrong: I trust him to care for me. I trust him with dogs, and family, and the students he taught in gymnastics. But plants can catch people in their blind-spots; they just don’t feel as alive to everyone as they do to those of us who like their curmudgeonly selves.
The next time I took a close look at the plant, I was shocked: it had tripled in size.
I asked what Matthew had done. Had he replaced it with another bigger, healthier aloe like the parent afraid to tell their child they dropped the goldfish?
No, it was the same plant.
It had started to thrive in the west coast sun, in new, good soil, and the constant care Matthew had provided it. It’s now a huge, glorious, green monster.
In the 2 years we lived on opposite coasts, the plant tripled in size again, and then again. It had 9 babies. I repotted them in the bathtub of our 520 sq ft apartment and they grew to incredible sizes. It has 10 more sitting crowded around its base in its pot as I type.
The friend is doing ok. She moved jobs, kept her friendships, and is working hard against her unkind brain.
Today, I’m unpotting one of my original aloes’ smaller babies to send to another friend, one who’s working every day to remember that there are leaves. I know now that she may not be able to care for the plant. That the issues she’s working on may riptide all of her good intentions out to sea.
I still don’t know how to handle depression in the lives of people I love. I don’t know if I’ll ever get it right as a friend. But I have some better tools than I did in college: I’ll ask this friend about her spoon count, I’ll proactively check-in on her through the foil of the plant, and I’ll have a better idea of when not to push and when to dig in with her. And maybe as the children of my aloe find their soil and sun, they’ll bring her with them into the sunlight.
“[O]ne of the things depression is really good at doing is disguising itself as normality. At saying that it isn’t what it really is. At refusing to acknowledge that you’re not wearing your glasses, at saying “no, no, there were never individual leaves on that tree. It’s always been a green blob. Everyone in the whole world only sees green blobs.” — Helen Rosner, Not Everyone Feels This Way