How the wonders of nature helped to fix Suffolk author Hannah Powell's ‘faulty brain’ and inspired her to write book The Cactus Surgeon
Everyone was staring. In the middle of a crowded tube train Hannah Powell’s body was twitching and jerking uncontrollably.
Tears began rolling down her face. Outside the station, waiting for her boyfriend to rescue her, she sat down on a bollard and wept.
At the time, in 2008, she had no idea what was wrong with her.
Months later, after a frustrating series of tests and mistaken diagnoses, she was told she had Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) – a condition that even now can baffle doctors and be hard to pin down.
In Hannah’s case it struck after years of gruelling working hours and non-stop socialising resulted in burnout.
She had it relatively mildly. Some sufferers experience difficulty speaking and swallowing, blackouts, and seizures.
More than 13 years after her symptoms began, she is well and works for her family firm which runs garden centres in Suffolk and Essex.
Surprisingly, among the things she credits with helping her recovery are a spider lying in wait for its lunch, and dandelions growing in a crack in the pavement.
When Hannah was at her lowest ebb she turned for comfort to what she calls ‘the small wonders of nature’.
Now she has told how she battled her way back to health in a book called The Cactus Surgeon: Using Nature to Fix a Faulty Brain.
The title comes from a childhood memory. “When I was six I wanted to be a cactus surgeon We had them on the window sill and if one had a rotten bit I would cut it out and graft things on.”
She admits that unlike the beneficial effect of plants and wildlife on her FND, her efforts at surgery didn’t work.
Hannah was immersed in nature from an early age growing up at the Essex garden centre run by her parents.
"My grandparents bought Perrywood Tiptree in 1955, and back then it was a four acre smallholding with potatoes and pick-your-own strawberries.
“When my parents Karin and Alan took over in 1984 it started to become a garden centre.
“It was an amazing environment and we had the run of the place,” said Hannah, who has two younger brothers.
“We had a lot more freedom than children have now – it was managed risk.
“Dad worked seven days a week back then so you had to spend time with him at work if you wanted to see him.
“We would sit round the table at lunchtime and they would talk about the business – the boardroom was the kitchen table. We soaked it up, learning about the business.
“We were very connected with nature. Later on, Dad bought Perry’s Wood next door to the garden centre.
“We were very aware of the seasonal changes, and what all the wildflowers were called – very in tune with nature and the seasons and growing.
“I was always very passionate about the plants and I did a degree in horticulture, but then I wanted to go off and spread my wings a bit.
“I got the chance to move to London, took a room in a friend’s house, and did temporary jobs stuffing envelopes and reception work. Then I got a job at a PR agency.
She worked there for five years before moving on to a not-for-profit organisation that encouraged entrepreneurship.
“To start with, it was an extension of student life,” she said. “We worked very hard and played hard with no concern about the hours we were working, 8am to 8pm then out to the pub without having dinner.”
Then the FND symptoms began. “I started getting sensations where you go to sleep then twitch yourself awake. It was happening all the time, then it started happening in the daytime.
“I was seeing a physio about a shoulder injury and he was concerned because he couldn’t treat me because I kept twitching. It got worse and worse.
“They tested me for epilepsy, then tested for other things and all the time the symptoms were getting worse.
“My whole torso and arm would jerk out, often in response to sound. Every time I put my foot on the floor I would twitch.
“I remember being on the Tube, and everyone was staring at me and tears were rolling down my cheeks.
“A very kind lady gave me a seat. I got off the Tube and called my boyfriend David, now my husband, to pick me up. I sat on a bollard in floods of tears.”
After that she was off work for six months – at one point reduced to desperation when a neurologist told her: “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
“Eventually it was diagnosed as functional neurological disorder, where your brain is sending the wrong signals to your body.
“It isn’t easy when you are ill and you don’t know what’s happening. It was very challenging.
“I think if I had a diagnosis earlier I wouldn’t have got as bad – it made the anxiety much worse.
“FND is a very common reason for going to a neurologist. Not enough is known about it.
“This is one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. When I was ill I was given a website to look at, and that was all.
“There was no social media so I couldn’t get in contact with anyone who had it. It was very isolating.
“There is a lot of stigma around it – it’s what people would have called ‘hysteria’ in the 1800s, when women would faint for no reason.
“Some people never know the cause. Others say it happens after a long period of stress or anxiety.
“The NHS wasn’t really helping me. Back then there wasn’t a test for FND. There is now.
“I started having acupuncture, saw a cranio-osteopath, and had counselling. I was trying to get out every day for a walk, and made myself take a good photo every day.
“It was important to get out of those negative thoughts in my head. I was very slow. Some days I couldn’t go very far.
“Everyone was walking quite fast, I was stopping and looking and taking time to notice the small details of nature.
She and David lived near the River Thames. “I was living near an old dock that had been made into a woodland and a park.
“Even on the days I couldn’t go far I went to the water to see the horizon and remind myself of the world at large.”
She trained her camera on all kinds of objects and street scenes but it was the small wonders of nature that she found life-affirming . . . mosses, lichens, a spider in its web, dandelions sprouting from a pavement crevice.
“They gave me a reason to get dressed and go out. This was no mean feat as walking triggered my twitches,” she writes in her book.
“I came across details that others would stride past in their haste to get somewhere. While I looked and closely observed, all other thoughts disappeared and the clouds lifted to leave me with a chink of hope.
“I saw hanging purple wisteria immersed in the spring sunshine, swathes of pink campion flowers in luxuriant green grass, swans and grebes nesting.
“I sensed that, without a break from thinking about being ill and feeling wretched, my body and brain wouldn’t be able to move on. It would forget how to be well and get stuck.”
Hannah and David got engaged in London, then moved back to Essex and got married. “We hadn’t been together long when I got ill. He looked after me in London.
“We lived in a flat. Coming back and having a house with a garden was wonderful.”
She put up feeders and planted bushes with berries for the birds, set bulbs for spring colour, and scented plants to attract moths at night.
“Now if I haven’t gardened for a couple of weeks I feel a real urge to go out and get my hands in the soil . . . slowing down, noticing what’s around me. I love plants so I have a lot inside and out.”
She supports the concept of ‘biophillic design’ which recognises the benefit of bringing nature into buildings.
“People in hospital heal quicker if they have a view of nature, even if it’s just a picture. I’ve always felt that was the case and it’s nice to find out there is a scientific basis for it.”
Now she is communications and PR director for Perrywood, which has a garden centre at Sudbury as well as the original business.
Becoming a mum to daughter Eleanor, eight, has made her even more aware of the need for life-work balance. “I’m very conscious of it with other people as well,” she says.
“When I first started the book I thought it was going to be about growing up in a garden centre – then it became about my health journey.
“I have had some lovely feedback from people who say it has made them rethink how they are about their mental health. I wish someone had written something like that when I was ill.
“When I speak to people now who have FND I say go through the NHS process but if they are not helping see what you can do to help yourself.
“I spent thousands of pounds but I’m very aware not everyone can afford that. But everyone can have access to nature.
“When I talk about it now it feels as if I’m talking about someone else. It feels so far removed from how I am now. When I was in it, it was horrific. Now it’s just part of my story.”
Hannah’s book is on sale at Perrywood Tiptree and Sudbury, on her website www.thecactussurgeon.com, and on Amazon. She can be contacted by email at email@example.com