bonsai tree

The Bonsai Tree

by Sara Wetmore

A few months ago, I gave up on my office dracaena. I’ll admit, it had been having a rough time. Its leaves had all nearly fallen off, its stems soggy, its color faded. Truthfully, I had been thinking of letting it die for a while. Not just gradually either. I wanted it to suffer, and then in one swift decision, I would smash it on the ground and watch the pot’s sickly ochre pieces scatter on the hard, unforgiving pavement.

The dracaena was a gift from my former boss about five years ago. I remember arriving at the office and looking at my shiny new desk as I started my shiny new job and there, on the cold surface, sat this horrendous potted dracaena wrapped in a green bow that reminded me of bile. Though I quickly disposed of the bow, I didn’t know how over time, the ribbon would wrap around my mind, constricting and corroding until my personality splintered and eventually fell apart.

At that time, my boss was a plant person. I’d never met one before, but I found it both alluring and appalling. Her house was a life-size terrarium, filled with plants of every size and species you could imagine. Each weekend, she would arrange her massive array of plants in her beautiful copper kitchen and care for each of them individually. I imagine her sticking her fingers in the soil checking for moisture, watering each plant the perfect amount for its own unique needs. Then, with her green vision, she could detect changes below the soil, so she would remove a plant from its stagnant prison and rehabilitate it by pruning the roots and filling the pot with fresh, nutrient-rich dirt. This woman was pure sunshine. She would smile constantly, carrying herself with a confidence and power that I would have admired if it didn’t cast such a large shadow. She was only a few years older than me but had an unmistakably impressive resume and an even greater drive to accomplish more. I think, despite my contempt for her boundless happiness, I wanted to be like her. The only way to do that, it seemed, was to become one of them: a plant person.

I began to care deeply about my job—one that perhaps I got purely by accident and not by skill. I thought I was promoted to the position because of my strong writing, but in retrospect, I believe I really earned it with my endless energy, and that energy sustained me for nearly a year. Every day when I went into the office, I would perform eight hours of work in as little as two. But I kept going. I pushed myself until I was working even when I wasn’t working. I’d dream of solutions to my work challenges, wake up at two in the morning and ponder it some more. Like a phantom, my obsession with work, with validation, and with growth followed me even in my seemingly detached, solitary hours. I was plagued by ambition, but unfortunately, I also owed everything I had achieved to this paradoxical disease.

If I am being honest, I never wanted a career in marketing. It was never part of my plan. Throughout college, I swore I would never work for a business. I wanted to be a writer, or a teacher, or a quirky bookseller. But as those things didn’t come to fruition and the debt swelled, I took a job as a copy editor at an agency, and after demonstrating that limitless source of manic energy (and a moderate interest in writing), they promoted me to content marketing manager. I was so excited to have clout and money that I didn’t think twice to accept the job offer. I blinked, and like waking from a slow nightmare, suddenly I was still there, doing the thing I promised I never would, with a spidery dracaena waiting to greet me.

Over the years, I had begrudgingly cared for my dracaena, watering it weekly until the pot flooded and the bottom leaked foul water all over my desk. I hated watering it and I hated cleaning up its mess. Even when I left my job for a similar position at a much larger organization, it followed me there too, sitting menacingly on my new desk, mocking me for the decisions I had made. All the while, whatever sickness that had overtaken my one and only plant infected my life.

After several months in my new position, I began to feel the weight of it all: the drudgery of repetitive tasks, the guilt of conning my audience and insulting their intelligence, and the growing lust for more money and more power. While my insatiable ambition had led me to new jobs and new opportunities, I found myself still doing the same thing. I was an addict, through and through. The rush I got when a client or a colleague would acknowledge me as “a real writer” (though I knew in my heart I was not) was enough to carry me to the next performance review. A pat on the back from one of the agency’s partners was enough to stop me from siphoning an entire bottle of pinot noir into my bloodstream at night. And although I cried, and I cried often, I kept using. It was like whirling about on a roller coaster at one hundred miles per hour, stomach sour and brain on fire, unable to slow the momentum.

Then one day, the praise ceased. The days heaved toward the next like a swelling tide, and there I sat on my sterile office throne wondering why I was still there. When did this accidental career become my reality? How did this path to satiate my ambition devour everything else in its wake? This thing that I was supposed to care nothing about suddenly became my entire universe, the center of every thought, breath, and movement. Without it, I feared I would explode and dissolve into nothingness like the embers of a dying star. And this dracaena simultaneously thrived and died with me. I kept watering the cursed plant despite its sickness and lo and behold, found myself surprised when it grew.

As I grappled with the nature of my new reality, I was distracted and isolated, leaving me defenseless against the tension rising within. All of these choices I made, directing my life like the helm of a ship, cast me into the eye of a storm. In this void, I found both anxiety and calm, feelings of both success and failure, satisfaction and discontentment. Two parts of myself were pulling at each other with no clear victor. Yet, there was more than one obvious loser, not limited to my many selves. The people I loved drowned with me, casting a line into the sea and hoping some part of the old me would catch hold to be saved. But I kept flailing in the water and eventually stopped coming up for air. People stopped offering to help as there was no clear solution, no bandage for the brain, no helping someone who didn’t want to be helped. I was self-destructing as I couldn’t let go of just one of two opposite poles. I was grounded in this dichotomy, no matter the discomfort, even as something much darker was approaching.

When I received word that once again, I was not receiving a raise or a promotion, something inside me snapped. The power I was chasing became unattainable, and I didn’t even know how bad I wanted it until it was given to someone else. After dragging me along for months of interviews, the other jobs I had applied for within the organization were given to others more deserving of them, though I didn’t think they were worthy at the time. I couldn’t understand how other people could have so much happiness and success in their lives, especially at one given time. In fact, I was bitter about it and wished nothing but misery to every other person that lived just so I wouldn’t feel like the only woeful failure in the world.

The fuel for my addiction gone, my spirits drowned and I spiraled with it. It was, without doubt, the darkest corner of my mind that I had yet encountered. Each morning, when I walked into my office to see that hideous dracaena staring me dead in my darkened eyes, I thought it might finally be the day that I kill myself, ending this stale horror at last. I wanted to thrive but couldn’t figure out how no matter how hard I tried. The dracaena wasn’t growing anymore either. The leaves fell limp more than usual, and the tips of the leaves started to become petrified, snapping at even the lightest touch. Perhaps its confinement became too baneful, as well.

For months, I could not work. I spent hours crying in my office with the door closed and the blinds drawn. I stared at my sick plant, wondering why the world was so resistant to our growth. Then I stopped eating. I was wholly defeated—body, mind, and soul—by something that was supposed to be so insignificant to me. I grew worried that I might actually die from grief if I didn’t take my life first. It became clear that I needed to seek treatment.

I took a month leave from work to focus on my health. As I clung to life, I left that horrible plant to rot and die in my office. It was finally time to stop caring, to let go, to stop nurturing something so toxic. Instead, I began my mornings late. I slept in (something new to me after years of work-dreams and insomnia). I went to therapy. I saw a doctor. I exercised. I tried to eat. I exercised again. I read books. I forced myself to shower. I took my medication. I learned an entirely new routine that wasn’t centered around living the comfortable lie. I learned to be present, to take care of myself, and to appreciate things in my life other than work.

Sometimes when a plant is dying, all you need to do is remove it from its hazardous environment, cut out the infected parts, give it fresh soil and light, and leave it to heal itself. I thought of my old boss, tending her plants in her gleaming kitchen, and realized maybe she was really healing herself. I needed more time for that in my life. If I was going to fix myself, I needed to make room for something other than poison.

A month passed, and I grew strong enough to look someone in the eye without collapsing into a torrent of tears. That easy money I had saved was drying up, and though I felt like I needed a few more weeks to recover, it was time for me to return to work. I gathered what I learned, all my coping skills neatly packed like a boxed lunch, ready to withdraw if I needed them.

Finally, I returned to the office and was immediately greeted by the ugly dracaena. My coworker commented on how she tried to save it, but it was just too far gone. I appreciated that they left it there for me to dispose. I threw the dead dracaena in the trash. There was no greater satisfaction than watching it crunch and crumble as it fell into the garbage. The leaves crackled and the soil exploded, drawing up a dark cloud of ailing dirt as it crashed to the bottom.

This chapter, I told myself, was over. I was going to apply to graduate school and achieve my dream of becoming an English professor. I would get a new plant, one I selected myself, and bought on my own terms. I submitted my graduate school application and waited. Months passed, but I felt confident that I would be accepted. After all, I worked hard on my application, and it got the seal of approval from the dean at my old college.

Things were looking up, and my mood was steadily increasing. In fact, I counted the days until they sent out acceptance letters. I also counted the days until the semester would start and I could quit my job once and for all. I even prematurely bought that brand-new plant: a ficus bonsai tree, which I began minding with my most delicate green thumb. It was important to me that I selected my next leafy companion without sickly bows or pretense of who I would become; not a consolation prize for picking an unmistakably wrong career, but one that celebrated who else I could be in the future. I loved how thick and strong the trunk of the bonsai was, and how the leaves grew out what appeared to be nowhere from its ferocious tiger-striped bark. I needed that strength for myself, to be able to see my potential in its growth. And I did. For at least a few months, I was pure optimism. A ray of golden light enveloped me, and I felt for the first time that things would finally work out the way I had intended.

The thing about bipolar disorder is it’s hard to know which emotions are reliable. They all come on so strongly, that sometimes it eclipses reason. What I perceived as optimism was actually blind confidence. So, when I got the rejection letter, I was completely blindsided. Perhaps even perplexed. I never truly considered rejection a possibility. How could it be?

When I want something so badly, there’s no space in my mind for anything but my desires. But the trouble is, I want everything, and always in excess; so much that I would be willing to destroy anything and everything—including myself—to obtain it. I had recovered only to find that I had just done the same thing that broke me before.

I’d always heard that recovery is cyclical, like the weather that both crush and bloom the same tender flowers as they shift from one season to the next. While I may feel success at any given time, I must find comfort in knowing that failure is not far behind. And conversely, when I fail, there is a better day ahead. This opposition inside me will not cease, so I must find flexibility and familiarity as it pulls me in each direction. If I wanted to live, resistance was not an option.

So, when I returned to the office after I was rejected, I sat upon my rigid desk chair and stared at my bonsai. Though some of the leaves were black at the tip, I could see new growth emerging from the bark: one tiny, vivid green leaf yearning for life.

About the Author

Sara Wetmore

Sara Wetmore is a creative nonfiction author based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her work has appeared on Nature.org, Treehugger.com, and Etched magazine. She enjoys experimenting with themes and form, finding deeper significance in the common and mundane.