Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Things We Don't Say

I trotted my horse for the first time this year today.

I know; it’s September 6. Mo isn’t lame. He’s not recovering from an injury. He’s as sound and healthy and happy as he ever was. I know a lot of you have had to take extended breaks from riding because of a horse’s injury—I have, too, just not with him. And it’s a horrible feeling, that tearing-the-hair-out helplessness, watching time pass. Worrying the horse isn’t going to come back the same. I’m lucky that that isn’t why I needed time off.

Mo didn’t get burned out or over-faced. In fact, we ended our season in October with a third place in his first beginner novice at the Maryland Horse Trials. I didn’t write about it, but he was perfect. The dressage judge loved him. His show jumping was on point. He became a better and happier horse with each jump on cross-country. I couldn’t have asked for a better day. 


Mary said that he was going so well that if we got one more BN under his belt in the fall and maybe one or two in the spring, he could move up to novice in the spring with an eye to his first training by the end of the fall. But when the first time you’ve trotted your horse all year is September, that isn’t going to happen.

I didn’t get injured. My coach did, though, breaking the hell out of her collarbone at the beginning of the summer. Right when I was about ready to get back on, I ended up at the barn every morning anyway, mucking stalls. This did good things and bad things for me, but one of the good things it did was show me that I can get out there before work. But I didn’t have a fall, I’m not afraid of him, I didn’t get intimidated, I didn’t lose interest.

I mean, who could ever lose interest in that face.

I did have some big life changes, some of which are up for discussion and some of which aren’t. The most significant is that I opened what has become a very successful coffee shop in my town with my best friend. Owning a business like this is a full-time engagement, and it’s taken quite a bit of my time and energy. It makes sense that I’d have to put competitive riding down for awhile to get this up and moving.


That isn’t really why I haven’t trotted my horse since last fall.

Here’s the truth of the matter: 2016 has been for me, as it has been for many people, incredibly difficult and painful. I have had, for my whole life, a lot of mental health problems, mostly as a result of various traumas that have happened over the course of my life, since early childhood. For one reason or another, all of that has come to a head this year.

I have post-traumatic stress disorder, for starters. Sometimes it’s worse than others. I go through stages where no one would ever know. This is not one of those times. My PTSD has a couple of co-morbid issues, including panic disorder and anxious-avoidant attachment disorder. All of this piles up to a lot of pain and issues with functioning and making choices that aren’t always in my best interest (no drugs or alcohol, so there’s that). And the other thing that seems to be very common for me, almost like breathing, for as long as I can remember, is suicidal thought.

It’s not that I want to be dead. I don’t, at all. I just want the pain to stop. And it rarely does, honestly. I’m not going to hurt myself, but living with that feeling all the time is exhausting.

“So ride, Jess. Get on the horse. Riding fixes everything. Riding is like therapy. Riding is self-care.”

I mean, yeah. It is. Riding is great for me, and I definitely feel better now that I’m getting back to it. But I’m getting back to it because I’m shakily in a place where I can. 


As this article explains very well, self-care isn’t necessarily a thing for people like me. We can look at self-care lists and be like “…” because it isn’t enough. It’s not even a start. It doesn’t compute. Take a bubble bath? That’s going to fix the fact that my insides are wrapped in barbed wire? No. It isn’t. Because, as you’ll understand if you read the article (READ. IT. Someone in your life needs you to. Maybe it’s you), I’m used to living with a car that’s crashed through the walls of my above-ground pool and is now parked in there. A patch kit, a self-care list, isn’t going to fix it.

Riding can’t fix it. It can’t. Not even riding my perfect perfect beautiful Mo.


In fact, the more pressure I put on myself to go ride him, the worse things got for me. I’ve been having panic attacks at all hours of the day and night, and my adrenaline is regularly out of control. Thinking about the things that are slipping away from me—relationships, opportunities, passions, my riding career—just makes the panic worse. It’s why I haven’t been reading your blogs, as much as I enjoy them.

And the other piece of it is, he’s a young sensitive delightful thoroughbred. If I get on Mo when I have cortisol flooding through me, he’s gonna have a meltdown. And Mary can’t fix it for me because she’s injured. It’s just me and him right now, which is fine with me, but what if I have a panic attack start up while I’m riding? They may or may not be triggered. Nothing bad needs to happen for me to unravel. And you’ve never seen me have one of these, but they are very. very. very. bad. When I panic, those suicidal thoughts come rushing in. I’m difficult to be around. I’m sobbing. I’m shaking. I’m certain that I’ve ruined everyone’s lives.

Some people can handle it and some people can’t. Some people are safe and some aren’t. Some of the people who love me the most are not the ones who are safe. That…is confusing, especially in the moment, when I feel like I’m trapped on the side of Mount Everest and I’m too disoriented to know which way is up, or whether I’m going up or down. It’s hard to look at a familiar face of someone I love and recognize that in that moment, they’re not safe for me. They’re going to make it worse. Imagine being at your worst, shooting out chaotic energy, and looking at someone you love and knowing if they get near you they’re going to hurt you. Now try that when you’re on your horse.

I’m lucky. A couple of key friends started to pick up what was happening and encouraged me to seek out safer people, to get therapy, to find medical help. Doing all of those things has helped me quite a bit. I’d encourage anyone else suffering from any of these issues to do the same thing (and I can be the person you reach out to, if you need it). So now I have my feet under me the tiniest bit, and I’m less likely to panic at a moment’s notice, and I can get on my horse.

All last week we walked. The week before that we walked, too. About 20 minutes at a time, no big deal, just in the ring. Today we walked over a pole that was on the ground from someone else’s ride, which he thought was really fun. Then we trotted, and he stepped forward into the bridle even though all I was asking for was for him to trot at all. I remembered that I know how to post.

So we’re not going training level. Part of me is so angry at myself that I’m not writing about his conditioning schedule or our most recent dressage scores or how naturally brilliant he is on cross-country. We trotted for maybe four minutes. It felt great. I don’t know if I can do it again tomorrow, we’ll have to see. 

I’m in a lot of pain these days, pretty much all the time, and I’m working on accepting that instead of also being pissed at myself for not feeling good. I’m also, very slowly, letting feelings come back, letting things I love come back, trying to accept the good things I have in my life. There are people who love me, including a stripey-faced four-legged person with cute ears.

This is where I’m supposed to say that everything is better with riding. It isn’t. He can’t fix my problems, he can’t make me okay, he can’t guarantee me anything. The things I’m afraid of, he can’t do anything about. I don’t get that magical feeling of freedom when I ride that people talk about. And that isn’t because that thing isn’t real, because it is. It’s because I’m not well enough to feel it. That euphoric feeling after a good lesson? I literally cannot handle that right now. I can’t do it. I can’t deal with the wildly unstable feelings that could bring, and with the potential for chaos. I’m not okay.

So walking it is, and sometimes trotting, more to ensure myself that I’m not losing everything than to do the self-care thing. And because he really does like me, and he deserves a human who is attentive to him and gives him a job to do. He didn’t ask to be purchased by someone with mental illness. I have never and will never hurt him (I don’t do rage—I implode, I cry, I curl up, but I never get angry). I always put him first. So I’m trying for him, as much as for me, because through all the feeling like I’m wrapped up in barbed wire inside, I do love him. That comes through, warm like sunshine.