On the back deck of my childhood home, sheltered and shadowed by the heavy green limbs of the woods behind our house, was a potted fern. I sat there on my heels, hands folded close to my stomach as I watched my dad plant it, patting the dirt until his hands were wet and sooty with soil. I was still wearing my watercolor blue-and-pink dress from church, so I waited patiently for him to finish before I could run inside and change into something I could wear to run around outside and play.
"Watch this," he said once he was done, and he reached out and touched the center of the thin, soft leaves of the fern.
In a lazy ripple, the leaves folded in on themselves. It closed for a minute or two before slowly opening back up again. He did it a second time, to another leaf. It did the same thing, closing and opening.
With the gentlest manner an excited five-year-old could muster, I reached out and stroked the leaf, letting the fern curl around my finger for a second before letting go. I laughed, half relieved it didn't snap closed on me like I'd imagined Venus Fly Traps did -- catching prey in its mouth and digesting them whole -- and half thrilled with the fact that a plant reacted to my touch. Fern Gully being one of my favorite movies at the time, I could think of no greater excitement than having a thing of nature recognize me.
The little fern had thin, sensitive leaves, as soft as that robin's feather I'd found a few days prior. Immediately, I was mesmerized. I spent hours that day, sitting on the splintered deck in my dress and white buckle shoes, petting the plant. I gave it a name, though I can't remember it now. What I do remember is wondering if there would be a time when I could touch the plant and not have it close up; would we eventually reach a moment where the leaves would no longer feel the need to hide themselves and realize I was a friend, not predator?
The plant was a Mimosa Pudica, though I knew it by the less-scientific names: the sleepy plant, or the touch-me-not. It was the brightest green with small, almost translucent-purple bursts of flowers, and I loved it more than all of the colorful geraniums, impatiens, and marigolds that lined the railing, buzzing with fat little bumblebees. Even though it only lived on the deck under my bedroom window for one summer, it is one of the memories of the dewy months of May-June-July I remember most from my childhood.
Recently, I found myself thinking about it again. Out of nowhere, those leaves. The nervous plant that I felt some strange kinship to nearly twenty years ago. It's an apt and timely metaphor, as I've been fighting back some stubborn anxiety these past two weeks. It's been a stressful time full, and like the mimosa pudica, my instinct is to fold up, close myself off from potential harm.
Panic disorder is an incredibly skilled liar. It sends a signal to some primal part of my brain that there is a perceived threat, a predator before me. The alarm for fight or flight sounds, and all I can do is react. Sometimes I have a sense of control over my reaction (mainly, sitting there, still and silent, waiting for the panic to pass because -- guess what! -- there's usually no real threat before me and, with time, my brain might finally react as such). Other times, I have no control. I fold.
There's this article I read about the mimosa pudica and how it evolved in such a way to differentiate between threat and non-threat. The way it folded in on itself whenever the sensitive spines of the leaves were touched prevented it from being properly watered. It would rain, and the plant would seize up. Something that was good for was perceived as dangerous, and the possibility of a threat was enough to send it into its natural, ingrained reaction of closing. But, eventually, it learned not to curl up when rain drops landed on it. Scientists aren't sure how, but the plant's reaction changed.
The plant learned.
The plant opened up.
What a lesson to be learned. The times my anxiety wins and that fear in my head steamrolls over all other thoughts, I start to fold in on myself. Slowly, though, I'm reworking that reaction. I don't want to close down, to shelter myself to the point of being counterproductive. It's not protecting me; life is going on without me as I peel myself out again and realize there's no danger, no predators waiting. I just have to open up and let the rain drops fall.