My houseplants know when I'm stressed out

February 16, 1997

Stress breaks you down and tears you up, and then unceremoniously spits you out. I hate stress. It does ugly things to people.

Just thinking about it is enough to give me an anxiety attack.

Some friends and I who feel equally stressed talked recently about the causes of our anxiety, and the ways we deal with it.

One friend in a customer-service field noted that her job makes her brain dead. Her husband doesn't understand why she can't remember anything after work. He doesn't believe her when she says she doesn't remember marrying him. He doesn't understand why she walks around in circles muttering "duh?"... and that is stressful for her.


When my friend is stressed, she gets hot flashes. When she gets hot flashes, she wants to kill someone. Usually it's her husband, simply because he's available. Poor guy. She loves him dearly. It's just that hot flashes make her want to kill. It's hard to explain, unless you've had one - a hot flash, that is.

This friend, when she is not brain dead, copes with her stress by trying to alleviate it. That means she makes it very clear to her loved ones that if she is not left alone NOW, the only way they'll be able to see her in the future is if they visit her at an institution for the seriously mentally ill.

If that doesn't work, she starts to salivate copiously, and begins very, very quietly telling everyone how they are driving her very, very nuts. They become very afraid of her. As a result, they leave her alone.

Another friend does jigsaw puzzles when she's stressed. The number of pieces corresponds to her level of anxiety. If I go to visit and she's sitting at a card table ignoring the animals and children and the pieces of a 5,000 piece puzzle are scattered in front of her, I know she's in serious trouble.

If the animals are hiding and she's growling ... if her jaw is set and her eyes are glazed and she's trying to fit a "Y"-shape piece into a "Z"-shape hole, I leave and come back some other time.

Another friend takes drugs. Legal drugs. She becomes very relaxed and happy until they wear off. Then she becomes very mean and nasty.

Another friend eats voluminous amounts of chocolate. She would make a great Hershey's commercial.

Unfortunately, eating chocolate makes her gain weight, and when she gains weight she gets upset with herself. When she's upset with herself, she gets stressed out.

As for me, I disassociate and I repot my houseplants.

When I dissociate I leave reality for a period of time. I may get in my car and drive somewhere and not know why, or not remember driving there at all, or start driving somewhere and end up somewhere else altogether, without a clue as to why.

Ever go to the grocery store, and just stand there in the exotic fruit aisle staring at a carambola while you try to remember what you came to buy? It's scary, isn't it?

Sometimes disassociative behavior is directly linked to sources of stress. For example, on more than one occasion I have left home for work, only to drive right by the building. On one occasion, I did that twice in a row. It was embarrassing, going around and around the block like that.

I did the same thing once on the way to my brother's house.

When I'm not disassociating, I'm repotting. I know I transplanted one pot three times during a particularly anxious week. The last time I had an awful time getting it out of its pot. It was clinging to the drainage holes with its roots.

My houseplants seem to know when I'm stressed.

When I approach them they sort of sway away from me.

Poor things can't run.

Terry Talbert is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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