Lessons Learned with Help from a Horse

This article landed in the Fremont Times-Indicator on September 9, 2015. It is a story of pain and healing. As the author, I see anger, but I’ve heard, as a reader you may need some tissues.

Recently, I was afforded the opportunity to “Grow with Horses,” using equine (horse) therapy as a way of healing. This is a concept I never would have considered in my growth as a person. My own path through this has been cathartic and empowering. I have chosen to share my journey with you with a light heart and new appreciation for life and God.

Week 1

Standing by Traveler I realized the size of the horse, and the amazing power that he possesses. Carefully I brushed him with a scrub brush, feeling the power beneath my hands. Then, I took a softer brush and I began to smooth his face as he started to chew.

“That’s it,” the doctor said, “he is telling you that he is comfortable. Look into his eyes, get lost in them.”

And, there I was, noticing my reflection in his deep brown eyes. He looked away, forcing me to stoop slightly to catch and hold the eye contact again. I stood there, feeling a burden being pressed upon my soul. I’ve never let anyone get this in touch with me, I had forgotten my barrier, my titanium wall, I was open to this horse, and it was scary.

Traveler and I stood for a while, as I saw in his eyes, all that he could see in mine. The pain, the torture of years of hiding, of secreting away the aches.

He turned to go, “How does that make you feel? Have people walked away from you in your life?”

“Yes, it’s part of my life, it hurts, but it’s nothing new.”

“Why do you think people walk away from you?” she questioned.

“Because I am worthless,” and the tears modernized the pain.

“Wow,” she said, “wow!”

Traveler returned to my side, and I knew that things were different this time, it was my decision to walk away, or to ask him to help me heal. “Traveler, help me with this heavy load?” I asked of this horse that isn’t supposed to understand, and again our eyes met. I began to feel an opening inside my mind and heart … and it was as if Traveler was unburdening me.

Week 2

A big part of me didn’t want to go to equine therapy, but part of me was pressing forward with my agenda to heal.

As we walked into the barn I began to feel the tears in my eyes. Turning to the doctor I said, “I don’t know what it is, but this building makes me cry.”

“Feel that pain, feel it fully, and let it go. Go ahead and cry, you are safe.”

Then she had me write down a list of my emotions. As I was grooming Traveler, I mentally went through the list and added a few more, then I taped them to Traveler’s back and asked him to carry the load for me.

This week, when Traveler walked away from me I felt no pain or worthlessness, I just knew that he was pulling my load and allowing me to accept and deal with the past. With Traveler helping me, I know that I can fully experience the pain and suffering of the past to open a brighter, better future.

Week 3

“Where are you in terms of spirituality?” Dr. Donna asked the group.

I thought for a moment, “I believe that there is something bigger than all of us out there, but I don’t think He is there for me. If He were there for me, He wouldn’t allow such horrible things to have happened in my past.”

It was the early morning hours of February 3, 2001. I had just put my eight and a half month old daughter into her crib and quietly climbed into bed next to my husband. My eyes were barely shut when my daughter began to cry, just like she did whenever she wasn’t in my arms. With a big sigh I returned to her crib, pulled her into my arms, and snuggled her close. Then, I returned to my bed and placed her between my husband and me so that she could nurse as we slept.

My husband rolled over in a huff, “I can’t sleep when you put her in bed with us,” he yelled.

I tumbled from under the sheets, pulled on a robe, gathered my daughter, and stood to exit the room. The bed clothes rustled behind me and suddenly I was being yanked backwards from the collar of my robe, “Don’t you walk away from me when I’m talking,” he shouted.

Desperately, I tried to explain that I was only going to the living room so that he could return to sleep. My words fell on deaf ears as I put our daughter down and took yet another beating. In the melee my night clothes were ripped from my body, and my daughter stolen from my arms. Every fiber of my being ached as I felt him physically slam my body into the bedroom door. I was hanging by his hands as they grasped my throat. I felt the air slipping from my body as I struggled to let more air in. As my body went limp I noticed a separation of my physical body and my soul.

Maybe I am dead, I thought, maybe the journey of devastating pain has finally ended. My soul seemed to leave my body, to sit upon the dresser and watch as he continued to beat on my lifeless physical body.

A shimmering being of white robes joined me at the dresser, “You have to fight back,” this strange, yet beautiful being told me.

Instead of fighting, I glided through our tiny trailer and told each of our children, “Goodbye,” for what I assumed would be the last time. As I kissed each of them in their sleep, I noted that I didn’t feel an ounce of pain from the beating I just took.

I returned to my lifeless body, in time to see him draw back his foot and kick me again. I felt all of the pain of the beating I was suffering.

Dr. Donna’s eyes softened, “You had a near death experience.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “when I do talk about that experience I am always told it is disassociation.”

“But, you heard His voice, He was telling you to fight back. He told you it wasn’t your time just yet.”

Her words validated my thoughts, and for the first time in my life, I felt close to God. He really does exist, and He is the reason I am still here, He knows I am destined for some sort of greatness, which He is orchestrating from somewhere within my soul.

Week 4

Michelle asked, “What do you need to let go of to reach your goals?” The most important is to rid myself of people that are disrespectful toward me.

I etched the names of those that I needed to let go of onto pieces of construction paper. The memories ran down my cheeks in the form of tears. The past is my foe, and it has been hurting me for years.

“Now,” Michelle said, “I want you to tear them up into tiny pieces.”

The muscles in my body were tense as I tore the paper, obliterating the past pains.

Michelle led me to the blender partially filled with water, “Put the pieces in, and pick some other items to place in there with them.”

I was careful in my selection of pretties to add. First, being pieces of “angel wings,” a perfect addition to helping me through this trying moment. I added some sparkle. I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I knew that I needed pretty in my life.

Michelle touched a button to start the blender, and my tears turned to a smile as I watched the whirring blades eat at my aching heart. Then, she asked me to pour the thick, pulpy mixture into a screen. I could feel myself relaxing as I spread the mixture with a sponge, squeezed the water out, and watched the pretty, homemade, recycled paper emerge.

It’s true, from pain and ugly, beauty can shine creating something new and amazing.

Week 5

Why is it when we see someone suffering the effects of trauma we say, “Why don’t you just get over it?” Or, “It is what it is.”

It isn’t that easy. Our hearts, our minds, and our spirits are not washed by the wind; our soul does not want or have to accept that we can do nothing about past traumas. We aren’t time travelers, we can’t go back to reverse these traumatic curses, but we do have the ability to remember these things that have happened. The things that have taught us the true meaning of suffering. We have the ability to replay these things in our mind, to see them through, to wish for a better ending.

Our brains are weird though. Sometimes they replay traumatic memories with no identifiable reason for the replay. Our brains can react to minor stress in a big way, causing us to hyperventilate, lose sleep, sleep all of the time, and even have a way of tricking us into thinking the trauma will happen again, causing us unnecessary stress.

How do we “fix” this?

We don’t fix this; we feel it. We feel every painful thought, we process it, we “feel it fully” as Dr. Donna LaMar would say. It is in that process of feeling that we enlighten ourselves with the wisdom we have learned through trauma.

I have been told that we can’t control others, only our reaction to them. My brain reacts subconsciously to perceived threats. I have little control over that because I have yet to feel my traumas fully.

In 2006, I was diagnosed with bipolar by a physician’s assistant armed with a paper questionnaire about my moods. We did not discuss traumas or the past. We didn’t discuss anything more than my symptoms. I was labeled with bipolar and for nine years this diagnosis has followed me. The mental health community has always approached me with skills that I need to change to effectively live life to its fullest, no one has ever done trauma work with me.

After I get to know someone, I will share my diagnosis with them the response is often the same, “Really? You? Bipolar? I never would have guessed.”

And my response is, “I’m well medicated.”

Maybe I need to reconsider my response? Maybe I’m not bipolar, maybe I’m a healing survivor whose brain fears the very breath that I breathe? Maybe trauma has destroyed me, repeatedly, but my brain is working to keep me safe with little or no logical input?

Week 6

A celebration of me? My hopes, my dreams, my wishes?

Six weeks ago I wouldn’t have been able to answer any of these questions. I have suffered years of trauma, trapping me inside of a mold made by others. My worth became a reflection of the opinion of others. A simple negative comment can cripple me emotionally, which has affected my physical health. After six weeks of equine therapy I have grown. I’m empowered to be me, and to obtain my self-esteem from within.

For twenty-two years, I have been raising children amidst the chaos of trauma. Some of those traumas are older than my children, and some we have gone through together. Now I see all what this has done to my children. I watch them struggle with what I thought was a normal life. It wasn’t until group therapy at The Farm Where Living Things Grow that I realized how my own traumas stunted my ability to be a better parent.

With trauma comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes growth, but it all begins with the mind and body being willing to heal. The growth that is needed to enjoy life to its fullest begins with each of us. Like controlling an animal as large as a horse with a simple tug of the reins, we have that same ability to take control of our lives.

We have the right to feel what we feel; love, anger, hatred, joy. We feel what we feel and no one has the right to tell us we shouldn’t feel any of those and more. It is only with these feelings that we can gain strength, hope, and peace within.

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Trauma and its Ugly Reactions

Trauma means different things to different people, so to start I’d like to define the word “trauma.” According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary it is:

a : “ an injury (as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent”

b :  “a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury”

There are other definitions, but these two are what I would like to focus on for today.

According to definition “a” trauma is caused by something external, something not of one’s self. And definition “b” says that things in or psyche can be messed up due to external stress or even a physical injury.

Why is it when we see someone suffering the long lasting effects of trauma do we say, “Why don’t you just get over it?” Or, “It is what it is.”

It isn’t that easy, our hearts, our minds, and our spirits are not washed by the wind; our soul does not want to, or have to accept that we can do nothing about past traumas. Sure, we aren’t time travelers, we can’t go back to reverse these traumatic curses, but we do have the ability to remember these things that have happened. The things that have taught us the true meaning of suffering. We have the ability to replay these things in our mind’s eye, to see them through, to wish for a better ending … a happily ever after.

Our brains are kind of weird though, sometimes they replay traumatic memories with no identifiable reason for the replay. Worse, our brains can react to minor stress in a big way, causing us to hyperventilate, lose sleep, sleep all of the time, and our brains even have a way of tricking us into thinking the trauma will happen again, thus being hyper vigilant and causing us unnecessary stress.

How do we “fix” this?

I have some sad news for you: we don’t fix this, we feel it. We feel every painful thought, we process it, we “feel it fully” as Dr. Donna LaMar would say. It is in that process of feeling that we enlighten ourselves with the wisdom we have learned through such trauma.

I have often been told that we can’t control others, only our reaction to them, but wait, there’s more to that. My brain reacts subconsciously to perceived threats … I have little control over that because I have yet to feel my traumas fully.

In the summer of 2006, I was diagnosed with bipolar by a physician’s assistant armed with a paper questionnaire about my moods. We did not discuss traumas, the past, we didn’t discuss anything more than my symptoms. I was medicated for and labeled with bipolar. For nine years this diagnosis has followed me and the mental health community has always approached me with skills that I need to change to effectively live life to its fullest without dragging others down with me. Until five weeks ago, no one has ever done trauma work with me.

Often times, after I get to know someone I will share my diagnosis with them the response is often the same, “Really? You? Bipolar? I never would have guessed.”

And my response is, “I’m well medicated.”

Maybe I need to reconsider my response? Maybe I’m not bipolar, maybe I’m a healing survivor whose brain fears the very breath that I breathe? Maybe trauma has destroyed me, over and over again, but my brain is working to keep me safe with little or no logical input?

I think it is time for me to put on some Kevlar, fight for myself, and pray that I can beat trauma.

Turning Ugly Around

This week we discussed goals. This isn’t really a novel concept, but it helped to open my mind to something more than past pains.

The conversation, led by Michelle, took a turn though, “What do you need to let go of to reach your goals?”

“Let go of?” I wondered, what I need to let go of to get away from past pain. Realizing the most important is to rid myself of people that are disrespectful toward me.

Slowly, I etched the pains that I needed to let go of onto small pieces of construction paper. The memories ran down my cheeks in the form of tears, I could feel the pain, and I felt it fully. The past is my foe, and it has been hurting me for years, but not nearly as much as it hurt writing them out and seeing them in living color.

“Now,” Michelle said, “I want you to tear them up. Tear them up into tiny pieces.”

I did so, with a cathartic vigor. The muscles in my body were extremely tense as I tore them up, obliterating the past pains.

Michelle led me to the blender partially filled with water, “Put the pieces in, and pick some other items to place in there with them.”

I was careful in my selection of pretties to add, first and foremost being small pieces of “angel wings.” A perfect addition to helping me through this trying moment. I also added some sparkle, I wasn’t sure where this was going, but I knew that I needed pretty in my life.

Michelle touched a button to start the motor of the blender, and my tears turned to a smile as I watched the whirring blades eat at my aching heart. And then, she asked me to pour the thick, pulpy mixture into a screen. With relaxed muscles I spread the mixture with a sponge, squeezing the water out, and watching the pretty, homemade, recycled paper emerge.

It’s true, from pain and ugly, beauty can shine past and create something new and amazing.