Down to Earth

A Surprising Audience for Herbs


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Recently, a friend of mine who is a psychologist at a treatment facility for juveniles asked me to speak about being a writer for the facility’s career day. The facility accepts 6- to 17-year-old kids who have been abused, most often sexually.

I went prepared to present some examples of my books; thoughts on how one’s life choices matter; ideas on how when you are young, you can do or be anything you choose if you only have the information to help you choose. I also took along a few herb clippings from my garden, tucked away at the bottom of my box, just in case I fell flat with everything else.

My first group included nine boys, ranging from 13 to 16. They had heard all of the life choice stories before, having been in counseling for many months. One boy folded himself up in his chair with his knees drawn up to his chin, pulled his T-shirt over his head and proceeded to doze off. Another put his head down on his desk; another was drawing.

There were two boys, about 14, sitting with their chins on the desk where I was speaking. When I took a breath’s pause from a story I was telling, one of them reached into my little box and pointed at the rosemary sprig and said, “So why did you bring rosemary?”

Before I could answer, he said, “My grandma grows rosemary. We use it to cook with. Can I touch it? I like the smell.”

I handed him the rosemary and he inhaled the fragrance. “Taste it,” I said. “You probably will remember what it tastes like.”

From the back of the room, the kid drawing said, “You can actually EAT that? Gimmie. I want to taste it, too!”

“What else is in your box?” someone said across the room.

Within seconds, the tide had turned. I laid out the herbs I’d brought: rosemary, mint, lavender, thyme and basil. Immediately one of the boys said his mother grew mint. Another said his mother always put some lavender under his pillow so he could sleep. I pulled out the dream pillows I’d brought and one of the boys immediately understood how to use them to help ease restless sleep. The room was fully awake, every boy was asking questions.

Somehow, I’d missed the obvious connection between having been abused, being in that treatment center and not being able to sleep. I thought back to when I was 14 and had been molested by a teacher I trusted, and how much difficulty I’d had sleeping. I remembered the nightmares, the fear, the inability to tell anyone, and the lack of power to confront the teacher. Yes, back then a dream pillow that quieted my nightmares would have been profoundly helpful. So I switched gears, and gave a shortened version of the dream pillow program I often give to adults.

The kids responded. They all had sleep problems; they all wanted a dream pillow. I promised I would find a way to get them a dream pillow. For my next session in the afternoon, I gave only a brief nod to the career subject and concentrated instead on herbs and dream pillows. The second group of boys all responded as enthusiastically as the first. The counselors who sat in on the sessions seemed impressed and encouraged me to come back and talk to the kids in a longer session.

When I returned to present the dream pillow program, I took along the herbs and made dream pillows. The boys chose between a pillow that would ease their nightmares and give them a good night’s sleep, and one that would encourage dreams and remembering the dream. One of the boys who’d been in my earlier short class had used a pillow that prevents nightmares. He was satisfied that the nightmares had disappeared and asked if he could now have one that let him remember his dreams, as he was sleeping much better.

The usefulness of herbs for people in crisis never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes I’m caught off guard, surprised by how far reaching these fascinating plants can be. Who would have imagined that a group of abused teenage boys would respond so excitedly and warmly to a box of assorted herbs? Once again, I’m moved and inspired by herbs’ profound ability to soothe and heal.

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