Jewel Thief by Hannah Austin

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budding plants, glow against black background

There’s an old adage in Alcoholics Anonymous that, before embarking on a romantic relationship, recovering addicts should get a houseplant. If the plant is still alive after a year, then they should get a pet. If both plant and pet are flourishing another year later, then — and only then — are they ready for the humbling work of love.

My poison is opioids, not booze, but this technical detail hardly eclipses the fact that, as usual, I’ve got it all arse-backwards—I’m already in a relationship when I decide to get clean. Miraculously, she’s still around, and we already have two dogs, lifesavers, both; try staying in bed feeling sorry for yourself when you have border collies.

Plants, though. Plants are a new thing.

Over the initial hellfire of cold turkey, craving evidence of life but still too anxious for human interaction, I subscribe to a monthly home-delivery service for houseplants. The first arrives on my one-week-clean anniversary — my own living, breathing NA chip. I’m a Jewel Orchid, reads its introductory card. An orchid? There must be a mix-up; it’s just a stubby little thing, broader than tall, with a knotted nest of asparagus-like stems and no flowers. But, my god, the leaves. Emerald surfaces with ruby undersides, rose-gold veined, and velvet to the touch. I decant it into its art-deco pot and give it pride of place on the kitchen table.

A few days later, skinny shoots of the palest green emerge from its overachieving foliage. By one month clean, they’ve grown to a foot tall—three times the height of the original plant. And then (in November, mind you; in England), the shoots flower. Delicate white petals halo the tiniest citrine centres. I am the proud new mother of a hybrid species: one solid, shy, huddling close to its roots; the other fragile, curious, yearning skywards.


If thirty-four is a little old to discover plants, it’s far too old to encounter the world sober for the first time in adulthood. At six weeks clean, with nothing to take the edge off reality, I feel like I’ve been skinned; the unadulterated beauty of everyday life—the dawn chorus, shadows of clouds staining the sea, sunlight dappling the Jewel Orchid’s leaves—reduces me to tears.

There’s a theory that addicts’ emotional development pauses when we start using and only restarts when we get clean. That would explain why I’ve been blubbering over chord changes on nineties indie albums. It would also explain why I’m suddenly missing Wales, my homeland, the last place I felt any unmediated emotion before filtering life through the smog of drugs. In the shimmering rawness of early sobriety, I’m craving belonging, rootedness, safety in this shipwrecked body. I’m craving home.

Not that I’ve moved far; just an English seaside town, separated from Wales only by a gun-grey stretch of water. How glamorous England seemed when I was a kid on the opposite shore—and how the Welsh hated it. Who could blame us after centuries of English rule, their oppression of our language and culture? Only one in five of us speaks Welsh, now, and I’m not one of them. But I treasure the few phrases I’ve smuggled across the water like a jewel thief, hiding them in my arteries, between my ribs, under my tongue.

My favourite is dod yn ôl at fy nghoed, which means “to return to a balanced state of mind”—literally, “to return to my trees.” It’s one of several maxims swimming through my veins these days, these nights, while my body recovers but my moods still rollercoaster. I so badly want to return to my trees. But returning implies having been there before, and I’m not sure I have. Would I even recognise a balanced version of my mind? Would it recognise me?

Perhaps this is why we keep houseplants at all. Easier to buy new trees than return to our own.


Three months clean. I wake from another dream in which I am shooting up, the veins in my forearm blasted, my throat aching with chemical desire. The cravings I now rarely feel when awake are snaking their tendrils through my sleep. I’m told it’s normal.

I heave myself out of bed, make sugary tea, and slump at the kitchen table, nursing the phantom ache in my arm. Winter winds hurl pebbles of rain at the morning-black window. The Jewel Orchid’s fragile petals glow against the glass. It’s half a world away from its rainforests—yet it flourishes here, despite the odds, in this cold foreign soil; it blossoms here, where it’s landed, far away from its trees. We sit together, uprooted, and we wait for the sun.


Meet the Contributor

Hannah Austin is a queer Welsh writer and editor based in Somerset, England. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Mslexia, The Moth, New Internationalist, New Welsh Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and The Real Story, among other publications. She was a finalist in the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, the Fish Short Memoir Prize, and the Center for Women Writers International Literary Awards (Creative Nonfiction category). Earlier this in 2019, she was awarded an Arts Council England grant to write her first book, a hybrid memoir on living with trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder).

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/wiserbailey

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