From projects to plants - how Clare Gardner Nieto created a new path that healed more than her career.

A year ago, Clare was one of those project managers that you'd consider your "right hand". She had the budgets, timelines, schedules, technicalities, clients, teams all under control. She was there before and after you. She was keeping everything together. 

Everything that is, apart from herself. 

Wracked with daily physical pain and a mounting realization that unhappiness with her career was affecting not only her health but those she loved, Clare quit her job in December 2016 to practice herbalism. In a matter of months, she went from managing multi-million dollar technical projects with global clients, to 1:1 herbalism consultations and an expansive knowledge of "tinctures". And, she's happier than she's ever been. 

What does it take to take such a leap? And is it worth leaving the "big job" behind?

We spoke with Clare to find out. 

Clare Gardner Nieto

Clare Gardner Nieto

So - what is herbalism and why did it attract you?

Herbalism uses plants and herbs for healing and for building and maintaining good health. Herbal medicine can help people regain lost balance in both body and mind. 

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Plant-based healing was speaking to me for quite a while before I actually let it get through! It’s taken me a long time to learn to listen.....

I grew up in New Jersey on a small farm with a big garden and a healthy dose of horses, sheep, chickens, cats and dogs, surrounded by trees, rolling hills and streams. My mother is a self-taught naturalist, a wiz with animals and an expert gardener who imparted to me from an early age the names and signatures of plants and much knowledge of the natural world. I spent my childhood roaming the fields and forests and feeling the earth under my feet.

We lived near enough to New York City to visit frequently and I as I grew older, I connected to its allure of bright lights, excitement and drive. After college, I moved there, choosing concrete and asphalt over grass and dirt. I loved it but gladly escaped back to the farm when I could, reveling in the peace and solace I could not find in New York. I lived there for nine years and got tired of it after six, longing for something smaller and more human. In 2005, I moved to Minneapolis. It’s strange to look back and realize that my subconscious has been trying to steer me back to a more natural way of living ever since I moved to a city.

What prompted you to look into herbalism?

My initial connection to Western Herbal Medicine began in my 30s as part of a larger journey towards my own personal health. Over several years, I’d been looking for alternative methods to control my severe, chronic back pain. In 2004, I’d herniated a disc in my lower back and it had deteriorated over time so that by 2014, I only had 10% of my disc left and was experiencing constant nerve and muscular pain from mid-back to the bottoms of my feet. 

Through the modern medicine route, I had quarterly cortisone shots (which hurt like hell and provided unreliable amounts of relief) as well as taking opiates daily to control the pain. Once opiates became more regulated, they switched me to anti-depressants which had awful side effects like brain zaps, inability to sleep and severe depression, and really only seemed to cover the pain rather than relieve it. I severely doubted that any of the pharmaceuticals were actually all that good for me!

I had a list of daily, weekly and monthly activities including yoga, restorative yoga, pilates, strength training, acupuncture, cupping, physical therapy, chiropractic, massage, craniosacral therapy, ice and lots of hot baths. I was spending about $600 a month not including medical costs just trying to keep myself walking upright. 

By January 2016, I was miserable and exhausted. Everything I was doing was helpful, but nothing truly relieved the pain. I was ready to try anything; even something in which I didn’t really believe. 

So, how did you get started?

My first foray into plant-based medicine was through working with essential oils. I didn't take classes, but I did my own research. I mainly used them in bath salts and massage oils. Perhaps I would have found different results with formal study, but in the end, although I found them very pleasing and relaxing, I did not find them terribly effective against the pain.

I began my formal herbal studies that January with Lise Wolff’s class, Three Seasons of Herbal Wisdom. I was a true skeptic at this point, however I was looking for something - something better, different, more centered, more natural. So—after mulling on it and procrastinating for a month or so, I contacted Lise a week before class began to see if she had any space left. Although it was full, she kindly let me in because she’d “had good experiences with various Claires/Clares in the past”. I will be ever grateful to her for that!

From the first day of class, listening to the concepts and tenets behind herbalism, flow and health, tears sprang to my eyes and I just knew that this was my path. This is what I’d been meant to do all along. I can't even pinpoint why, but it spoke to me and just made sense. I felt it well up from deep inside. I’d started listening.

It wasn’t until a month later that I believed that it worked. My anti-depressants were wreaking havoc on my life - one Sunday, I melted into a puddle of tears and could not stop crying. I spoke with my mom and she suggested that I talk to a doctor about getting on anti-depressants. I wailed, “But I’m ON anti-depressants!” I remembered that the doctor had said that I could increase the dosage if I felt it might help, so I did. And I was so depressed the next day that I could not get out of bed. 

One of the main tenets of herbalism is “Things cause what they cure.” This means that if you are not naturally depressed and are taking an anti-depressant, it could have the opposite effect by messing with your natural brain chemistry. This finally clicked in my head that Monday and I decided that I’d had enough. So, I stopped taking the pills, but without them, the pain was no longer suppressed and I was back to feeling everything again. 

By Wednesday, I was desperate, so as a last ditch effort I turned to the herbs. Coincidentally, the first tincture we had made in class was from the bark of the northern prickly ash, which is used for tight muscles with tingling nerve pain. “Well,” I thought, “it probably won’t work, but I’ve tried everything else, so why not.” That morning, I took three drops under my tongue and went off to work. 

On a normal day, my pain would start at a two or three upon waking and would increase throughout the morning so that I would be reaching for a painkiller by noon. That day, I was surprised when I looked at the clock and it said 3pm. Doing a quick body check, I realized that I felt fine. More than that, actually, I felt great! The nerve pain was gone. Not just covered over; it wasn’t even there. I was a convert. 

I continued the prickly ash tincture for a while and had a few sessions with Lise to add some more herbs and flower essences to my regimen. I’m now out of pain and feel better than I have in years with no side effects or nagging doubts about whether what I’m taking is good for me or not. I’m not even taking most of the herbs anymore! Herbs are meant to help you regain your own natural balance, not as lifelong medication.

Finally, I feel that my past has caught up to my present and I am living in the moment for which I was made.

With the changes in my health, my energy increased along with my desire to do something that really mattered. My experience with herbs translated into a desire to help others regain their own balance without the side effects and suppressant qualities of modern medicines. I threw myself into learning and soaking up all the information I could through Lise, conferences, books and working with family and friends.

I found that I love it - and I’m really good at it. 

Although I am relatively new to the craft, I've already found much success in working with clients and know that everything I have experienced plays into that: my mother’s teachings, my health experiences, my own research, classes, conferences, and my new-found confidence in my own innate talents and intuition. I’m affirmed and gratefully surprised each time I hear back from a client about our success.

Quitting a successful advertising career to become a herbalist - that’s quite the leap! How did you find the courage to quit? 

It was easy! Totally kidding. Although, I’ve changed careers several times over my life—from photography to stage management to marketing to project management—those were mainly back in my 20s and early 30s when it felt a lot easier to take risks and start over. Then, I wasn’t as concerned about money, security and stability. 

For this change, money was the greatest fear. As we mature, I think most people find themselves gathering more responsibility and stuff around them; adding a mortgage, a husband/wife/significant other and perhaps kids to the mix along with more robust living and purchasing habits. For several years, my job provided my husband and me with our main source of income, and I was terrified that everything would fall apart without it.

At the same time, I wasn’t happy as a project manager anymore. Working long hours was no longer satisfying; it was just brutal and miserable. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything at all to make the world a better place, let alone being able to make it better for my clients. The work was all about corporate money, and it turned out that money was the only reason I was working there anymore.

I’d finally found my calling, but couldn’t figure out how to escape the prison I’d created for myself. 

Worst of all, I was angry because I felt trapped in my role as breadwinner while watching my husband follow his dreams, which meant that I frequently lashed out at him when I was home. It sounds somewhat spoiled, but there was definitely a “Why not me?!” element to it—“When does my turn come?” I was trying to tear down the walls of my own imaginary prison, not realizing that the walls weren’t there to begin with. 

It was my husband who finally helped me to stop the madness. We had been talking about moving away from Minnesota. My reasons at that point were warmer weather and a change of life. Likely it was habit, but I felt like the only way to get away from the situation was to run. I was so desperate to change my life that I kept moving up the relocation date!

One night, my husband said, “We need to talk. I can’t stand seeing you miserable anymore. I hate watching you walk out the door every morning already defeated by the prospect of your day. You may not realize this, but it hurts me, too. Regardless of when we plan to move, this needs to change now.”

After a small mental “Impossible! How can we do that?!” moment on my part, we started to talk through it. While discussing the possibility of reducing my hours at work, I jokingly said, “Ok, maybe I could do 10 hours of project management a week. That would be fine and would help our budget a bit. Yeah, 10 hours.” Ha! Who would have a need for a PM at 10 hours a week? 

Not two hours later, I received a text from a dear friend: Hi there! Do you know any project managers who may be looking for a part-time project management consulting opportunity? Like 10 hours per week?

I was floored. “How had she known? What timing! This is unbelievable.” I allowed the opportunity to unfold. I got excited. I listened to my heart and found that I was suddenly open to seeing what was possible. I began to think outside of my self-imposed prison. What if we didn’t move? What were the pros and cons of moving? I found there were so many more pros to staying, especially considering that I was starting a new career. I finally realized that I didn’t need to change my location in order to change my life. And that I wanted to change my life here and now!

So, I found the courage to take the leap by finally listening—to my husband, to the Universe, to my love of the natural world, to my own sense of what feels right. Once I allowed the possible to open up, I realized it wasn’t so scary after all. There were definitely risks and things like budgeting to figure out, but we could work on those together—I no longer felt all alone at the helm.

However, I found that the biggest reason to take the leap was for happiness—not just my own, but for the people I love. I learned a big life lesson to which I had been so blind: Your misery doesn’t just affect you. It affects everyone around you—especially those who love you most.

What work has been involved in launching your business?

Well, there’s the typical “staying motivated” and “managing myself”. Those are always challenges, I think, when you’re working on your own. It’s tough to keep yourself accountable for deadlines. 

Along the same lines, letting go of expectations has been a big one for me. I had all sorts of ideas about being completely up and running by the end of February and realistically, there’s just so much to do when setting up a business that that just wasn’t going to happen. Yet I was driving myself HARD to make it happen and I started realizing that it was not enjoyable and, once again, I was exhausting myself.

Remembering my photography business and how I drove myself to the point of hating it, I took a big step back and decided that this year would be about setting myself up right, augmenting my education and gradual build-up rather than about filling my client roster. I want to do this right and I want to enjoy the process. 

Now, the most important thing for me is to cut myself some slack. If I’m not up and going by 8am, it’s OK. I’ve started to pace myself and to focus on enjoying my life again. I have breakfast with my husband almost every day! I focus on one thing at a time and do it well, making sure I’m aware of how it serves my end goals so that I am happy doing it. I take small breaks throughout the day and allow myself time to give my cats a cuddle. I take time for myself so that I can be healthy and centered for my clients. Plus, I’m still getting a lot done!   

Connected to that is the daily realization that this is my job and I love it! I’ve had a weird little guilt struggle about this, though, and the “shoulds” keep sneaking in. “Shouldn’t I be getting more done? Shouldn’t I be farther ahead? Should I really be this happy?” I’ve really had to focus on the idea that just because I’m enjoying what I’m doing doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. 

Basically, I’ve had to redefine what “work” and “job” mean to me and it’s a really different definition than what I had been living. I love spending the day working with herbs, making tinctures and salves, researching new options for my clients, and, of course, working with my clients and seeing their results. It’s incredibly enjoyable and rewarding. And it’s my job.

What advice would you give to women who are considering changing something substantial in their career?

Listen to yourself. Listen to your inner monologue and figure out what it is you’re afraid of. What is stopping you? Then, consider whether that is a) a valid fear or b) something that you can handle through change. If b) ask again: What is stopping you?

I was unsatisfied, but not unhappy at my job for several years. If you are unsatisfied, but don’t know what your calling is, keep exploring. Try new things that are outside of your comfort zone; even things in which you don’t think you believe. Consider old passions or childhood loves that have fallen by the wayside. Don’t box yourself in. You can’t get unstuck by staying still. Be prepared, though - remember, it was only once I found my calling that the unhappiness started. Start considering now what you can do to set yourself up for success and prepare yourself for change. You don’t have to have a full plan, but it’s good to have support and a direction.

Having lived in New York City for nine years, whenever I heard of anyone planning on moving there, I would give them this advice: Check in with yourself every six months to make sure that you still know what you’re doing there and that you’re still happy. Because even the best dreams can become myopic when you live in them for too long without contemplation, and when you’re rushing around trying to make a living in New York, perspective is a tough thing to have.

Having already burned myself out on a few careers, I’m actually charging myself with this task regarding my new one. I’ve put a recurring event on my calendar every six months called “Check in with you: Are you still happy?” If the answer is no, I’ll have to figure out why and adjust direction.

If you want to learn more about herbalism, connect with Clare here.

Clare is also offering 10% off the cost of your initial consultation including remedies when you mention Passion Collective!

(Gentle reminder: if you're dealing with depression, herbalism is just one possible solution. Make sure you talk with your doctor before beginning any new treatment.)