Using gardening to cope with a diabetes diagnosis

BY Victoria Bennett

6th Dec 2023 Life

4 min read

Using gardening to cope with a diabetes diagnosis
Author Victoria Bennett reflects on the way that gardening helped her and her young son to find joy after his diabetes diagnosis at the age of two
"You should throw me in the bin, Mummy."
Those are the words my son say to me; words a mother should never hear their child say. When I asked him why, he told me that like his digger, he was broken and could not be fixed. My heart cracked a little more at that and I knew that however I was to do it, I had to try and find a way to bring back the joy into our world.
"Motherhood changed in that moment"
At age two, he was diagnosed with type one diabetes. It had not been a straightforward diagnosis. For several months, the changes I witnessed had been dismissed as just "the terrible twos" and he was "just losing his puppy-fat". Despite my concerns, the doctor told me I was being "overly anxious". My son grew sicker and sicker until eventually, he was admitted into hospital with severe diabetic acidosis; a life-threatening condition that develops from extremely high blood glucose and ketones.
Motherhood changed in that moment. I went from "Mummy" to nurse and advocate, always keeping a watch for signs he might be in danger from his own body. It can be hard to find the balance between the demands of being a full-time carer for a child with chronic illness and being a mother. The former sometimes meant having to make choices and behave in ways I would not have done had I just been his mummy, and in those early days, it broke me to hear him plead and cry for me not to hurt him with needles again.

The demands of type one diabetes

Type one diabetes demands a constant vigilance on the otherwise hidden processes of the pancreas. Well-meaning people told me it would "be okay when it’s under control" or that he would "grow out of it". Neither of these are accurate.
Our blood glucose levels are affected by multiple physiological and environmental factors—food, drink, stress, hormones, lack of sleep, excitement, activity, temperature, illness. The risks that come with it are as big as they can be: blindness, amputation, organ failure, coma, death. His life is, and always will be, dependent on the monitoring and assessment of all these factors (and more), every day, every hour of the day.
Yet, I had to find a way to raise him to know that he could live it fully and with all his dreams within reach. I had to learn how to live with these two roles, just as he had to learn to live with the demands his body would place on him for the rest of his life. What I had not expected was to find the way through in the mud and rubble of a new-build social housing estate.

Creating a garden oasis

My husband, son and I moved to the new estate in Cumbria when my son was four. The back garden was nothing more than a patch of newly sown grass, and a thin layer of topsoil. Underneath that was rubble and rock. The site was a former industrial stoneworks, and this was its legacy but to us, it was a place of hope.
Soon after we moved in, my son and I decided to plant a garden. He drew out plans which involved, amongst other things, a dinosaur world, a mouse-house, a pond for ducks and frogs, a forest, a wild meadow, and a fort. He was four-and-a-half-and-a-bit, after all. We took his drawings and with a little modification, started to plot out our plan and dig, slowly seeing the bones of his dream become reality.
"Plant by plant, our garden grew, creating a place of magic and medicine"
We used what we could find: old pallets to make a compost heap, discarded drainage for plant pots, raised beds and vegetable frames from cracked pavement edging and an old, broken cot. We taught ourselves how to build permaculture beds and ponds, and how to grow food. For plants, we rescued the weeds that would otherwise be dug up or concreted over: oxeye daisy, great mullein, clover, nettle, dock. My son tenderly transplanted these into our new beds with a welcome, as if each were the most delicate of flowers. Plant by plant, our garden grew, creating a place of magic and medicine, for all that lived there—plant, animal and human. 
It was a slow-growing life that let us both live again in the moments of our days. He brought delight into my world, and I scattered into his the magic of small seeds. As our little garden took shape, we both discovered an important thing: that even though things might not be perfect, even though there might be things that are hard and hurt, even though the ground may be broken, this soil still holds the potential to nurture and grow our dreams. We imagined ourselves a secret garden that began with the simplest of things: a weed. From it, we grew joy.
Book cover
All My Wild Mothers – motherhood, loss and an apothecary garden by Victoria Bennett is out now, priced £16.99
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