Content warning – references to suicide, self-harm, state violence, imprisonment, cancer
Yesterday was a hard day. Back to back calls from friends in prison. News that one of my closest friends, Taylor, had slashed his face open and tried to kill himself yet again. His self-harm and suicide attempts are escalating in number and extremity the longer he is in prison. He’s now 6 years over tariff as an IPP prisoner, a sentence so unjust it was scrapped yet him and thousands of others remain in a purgatory perpetually denied parole. My best friend Sam, whose journey with cancer and unrelenting medical neglect that I have been documenting, called and told me that her hospital appointment that she’s been waiting for the last 3 months has just been postponed by the prison. RAGE.
I observed the stress hormones surging through my body. The frustration and anger coming to a head with sadness, desperation and grief at the sense of powerlessness I feel in this ongoing nightmare of the last decade. Like I do in nearly all situations, I reached for the plants. The plants that have kept me going all these years and so I thought it could be useful to share these herbal allies for anger and rage.
I swear down, I want to be buried with dandelion roots. These babes have had my back for as long as I can remember. After the first phone call, I knew I had to ground myself, what better than root medicine. I made a cup of dandelion coffee and as soon as that taste hit my mouth I could feel my nervous system chill the f**k out. I’m a pretty ‘hot’ person and dandelions are always very powerful for me as they cool me down. They are a supreme liver ally and it’s well recognised that it can often be our liver that bares the brunt of the chronic stress we are constantly trying to process. You can read a longer profile of Dandelion that I made recently here.
In England, Roses have a bit of a bad reputation, like they are somehow only the domain of posh gardeners or that they are only for vicarages or valentines cards. But honestly, roses are bad-ass medicines. Those incredibly beautiful flowers and scents, combined with serious thorns that scream, “If you try it, I will hurt you!” – can you get more of a fierce femme remedy?!
When I’m full of anger and rage, Rose softens me but not in a pacifying way. Not so much a ‘calm down now’ but more of a ‘I got you, just breathe’ kind of feeling. Yesterday I added dried rose petals in a little infuser and dropped it in my soya milky early-grey rooibos tea. It felt like a comfort blanket that allowed me to finally feel safe to cry.
Rose as been an amazing ally when I’ve been in a grief hole. The tincture is a wonderful support for the nervous system, and one I regularly post to people on trial or who are experiencing a hard time. Rose water is also a wonderful support and somehow more subtle than the tincture. My ex-partner who was killed last year, Anna, loved roses. Whether it was rose tea, or rose body lotion, rose shampoo. So now somehow roses are simultaneously a trigger for grief but also a massive ally for it. For people who can be emotionally shut-down or self-repressive of their feelings, rose can help gently open us up to remember to breathe.
Skullcap is a serious ally for an overwhelmed nervous system. Herbalist Alexis J. Cunningfolk, who I have been studying with over the last year writes how: “For nervousness, fear, and a sense of being overwhelmed, Skullcap stimulates the brain to produce more endorphins in the system due to the presence of scutellarin in the plant which becomes scutellarein in the body. For those who suffer from insomnia, especially when there is difficulty shutting off the busy chatter of a restless mind, Skullcap helps promote healthy sleep patterns. The herb can be used for a variety of nervous conditions and imbalances stemming from hyperactivity including ADHD, anxiety, hypertension, nervous exhaustion, hysteria, neuralgia, pre-menstrual tension, and the affects of withdrawal from caffeine.”
I find skullcap knocks me out too much in the daytime, so I have an infusion before I go to bed. I always know when it’s taken affect because my neck starts to seek the pillow! I believe it’s been a powerful ally that’s helped to shift my rib pain due to its effect on my nervous system which has reduced the overall tension in my body. Skullcap has really helped my sleep including reducing nightmares which obviously helps the body in general to reduce inflammation, recover and build resilience to stress.
Calming down or fighting back?
It’s really common in herbal or alternative health circles to envision the desired state of human existence to somehow be as calm as a pond at all times. We learn that stress is ‘toxic’ and punish ourselves for our reactivity. If we get angry, we obviously haven’t done enough personal development work. Yet, faced with the horror of state violence harming the people I love with all of my body, is it not totally normal to be angry? Is it not anger that propels me to fight to free IPP prisoners or to overturn Sam’s conviction? Yes, it’s love that drives me, that sustains me, but anger plays its role.
Yes, 100% we need to engage the parasympathetic nervous system for rest and recovery. I’m not minimising this, but I want to share from my heart that the aim of my herbalist practice is not pacification. I do not want to calm myself down – I want to channel my rage into fighting oppression from a deeply-grounded place. I want to nourish my body as a weapon and I want to sustain myself so that I can do this work over the long-haul because it will take generations to dismantle these systems built by my ancestors.
So I work with plant allies not so that I can feel more serene about the daily violence I witness, but so that I can feel strong, supported and nourished to keep doing the difficult work of organising for liberation. If any one also contending with the violence of the prison system feels like they would benefit from some of these plant medicines – please get in touch.