Dirt Therapy: Cope with Hope in the Garden
By Christine Leccese
Elijah Ochoa, an Army medic who did two deployments in Iraq, wasn’t sure what was happening to him when he returned home to Fresno, California in the summer of 2008. He suffered nightmares, intrusive memories, panic and otherPTSDsymptoms. Looking for a change, he moved up to San Francisco to continue school, only to find that the big city may not have been the best place for him.
Being in a busy city triggered his anxiety and he started to experience flashbacks on city buses and other crowded spaces. “It would creep up and I’d feel disoriented, scared, and very on edge. As a result, I was drawn to a neuroscience course in order to figure out how to help my brain and body adjust to the normalcy of life back home,” Ochoa says.
He found some great care at the VA and became close with his providers. “I’ll never forget the level of care and empathy those health care professionals showed me,” he says. Ochoa stumbled upon a community garden in the SOMA District of San Francisco. Ochoa describes the garden as a beautiful oasis amidst a cement jungle. Elijah instantly clicked and made friends with Rob, also a veteran, who had a community garden plot in the run-down part of the city and brought Ochoa, where Ochoa learned the healing powers of gardening and visualization meditation.
There he met the tight-knit group of members who shared the gardens, a few others veterans themselves, and Rob introduced him to the powers of meditation and visualization. He would even bring Ochoa branches, flowers and other clippings from the garden to help him during panic attacks.
After a particularly rough panic attack, Ochoa ended up in the emergency room, certain he was dying. He learned that he was experiencing withdrawal from the medication being used to treat his panic. Rob, along with Ochoa’s mother, came to the hospital to see him. Rob introduced Ochoa to Kim, the owner and operator of Nurturing Spa for Wellness in San Francisco. She uses singing crystal bowls in her practice and helped Ochoa learn meditation usingsinging bowl therapy. “The wooden mallets in the crystal singing bowls create a beautiful pitch and vibration, and help you as you draw breaths in and out over what feels like minutes. The sounds are very pure and healing. This creates a peaceful and silent awareness where real growth and healing happens. It’s changed my life for the better,” Ochoa says.
Ochoa was finally finding some relief from his PTSD in the form of some peaceful therapies different from the mainstream treatments. Singing bowls, meditation, deep breathing, and gardening brought Ochoa more peace than the more traditional therapies and medications. “It changed my life for the better. I recently read Tibetan refugees suffering from trauma have been helped by the singing bowls, too,” Ochoa says.
Looking to share with other veterans the peace he gained from these activities, he talked with some people in the town of Fresno, and embarked on a partnership to form a nonprofit as an initiative not only to raise awareness about nutrition and farming, but also to bring the healing powers of gardening to other veterans.
“A lot of veteran friends of mine have experienced the garden and meditation and see their lives are changing for the better. Taking that time to gaze inward helps them,” Ochoa says.
Calling it “Inward Gaze Gardens,” Ochoa’s program is shaping up with a lot of community and VA cooperation. He has enlisted the help of friends, many of them veterans, and is working with the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, the Fresno Grizzlies Farm Grown program, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition to build up their 10-acre farm in Selma, just south of Fresno where Ochoa was born and raised. They are applying for local and federal grants.
The Fresno Grizzlies (AAA ball club for the San Francisco Giants) invited Ochoa and the organization to be vendors at their Friday home game farmers market and participate in their Farm Forum events. “The amount of support and care the community has shown us is really humbling,” says Ochoa. Later this year Ochoa and Kim will present singing bowl meditation workshops to the staff of the Fresno Vet Center and VA Central California Health Care System in order to make this experience available to more veterans.
Christine Leccese is the marketing and communications manager at Military Pathways.