I see Mark’s face, telling me to wake up. The ground is warm and so is the air, and I wonder how it was that I went to sleep last night and woke up fully dressed in the middle of the afternoon. On the ground.
I ask what happened, and am told that my horse, Bree, flipped over backward and landed on me, crushing my right leg underneath her, and then stepping on my right thigh in her panic to get up.
After that, the memories are snapshots: I’m in our truck, being driven to the hospital. I’m sitting up in the back seat because lying down makes me nauseated. I’m looking at email on my phone, making sure I know the names of the people I see, making sure I can still read.
At the hospital and after the drugs, I’m in and out of consciousness. I know Mark is with me. I know when I am being scanned, because the tables are cold and hard. At one point I start crying and shaking. I’m offered a blanket, but I know this is the shock finally coming home to roost. The shaking and trembling ebb and flow, then disappear.
Snapshot: a young male doctor telling me I have a small bleed in my brain and I’m staying over night in the hospital. Then a sedative through my IV line knocks me out again.
Once out of the hospital, it’s three months before I can walk without a cane. It’s another year before the pain in my right thigh has receded to a manageable level. Two-and-a-half years later, I’m physically stabilized and used to the quirks of my right leg which – thanks to localized nerve damage – occasionally goes rogue.
Although I was able to move almost immediately after getting out of the hospital (often getting up in the middle of the night to pace back and forth), sustained movement – the kind that made me breathe deeply – wasn’t possible for months.
During those months, I knew what I needed to do. But knowing what you need to do, and being able (and even more difficult, willing) to do it are two different beasts. If I wanted to ride again, my commitment to healing had to be at least as great as my commitment to horses.
Since my accident, I’ve discovered that the way I get back to feeling less fearful of horses, is to do most of the work away from horses. In the months after the accident, it became clear to me that the paradox of loving horses since I was in diapers, while simultaneously feeling a fear around them that bordered on overwhelming, was one I couldn’t navigate by myself. My days of rabid independence were over.
Living with paradox is not something we are good at. Horses absolutely don’t tolerate it, and are far more honest in their expression of this intolerance than we are. One of the many lessons I am grateful to have learned from horses is just this: either do one thing or do the other.
If I wanted to feel afraid and avoid the work that would alleviate that, then I needed to choose that.
However, if I wanted to reduce the feelings of fear and find out how far down the road to confidence I could get, I could do that too.
But not both.
So I chose to see if I could get close to confidence again. No healing modality was ruled out. Acupuncture, Craniosacral, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, massage therapy, Reiki, castor oil packs, lasers, hydrotherapy, homeopathy, essential oils, physical therapy, loving and generous support from family and friends, swimming, regular check-in’s with my doctor, diet and supplementation were all on my play list. This exploration was integral to regaining function of my right leg, as well as in helping my brain heal.
“Most people think of trauma as a ‘mental’ problem,
even as a ‘brain disorder.’
However, trauma is also something that happens in the body.
Either way, trauma defeats life.”
In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.
Six months later in physical therapy, jogging slowly on a treadmill for the first time, I realized I had more work to do when intense fear washed over me, and I started shaking. I grabbed the handrails at the side, the sweat of my palms slicking the metal, and kept jogging. I breathed as best I could. After several minutes, I felt calmer than I had in months.
After that, I walked briskly or ran every day. It was never very far, but I could wring out enough speed to make it effective. The movement reset my breathing. It shifted from shallow and fast to deep and regular. For hours afterward, I felt calm and internally balanced.
Before this accident, I had come off of horses. A lot. The first thing I always did was get right back on and ride through it. Except, it turns out, I was never “through it.” Years later, this accident broke the dam I’d built against fear. The resulting flood changed my interior landscape, and I had to figure out how to channel the water, rather than fight to dam it up. My old strategies weren’t going to work, which meant that I had to.
Movement, and deep breathing, turned out to be a life raft that buoyed me during the flood. All the other therapies I pursued were arrayed around moving and breathing.
Let me say at this point that I don’t believe everyone has to follow the same map, since there are many many ways to heal. What I am suggesting, and what I’ve learned is that if you observe a few basic principles, you will, at the very least, feel better.
It’s a simple recipe, but certainly not an easy one. Moving after we heal from being hurt, and digging around in the dark corners of our own mind is not the definition of fun, but it has a payoff that will surprise you with its richness.
I like to think of it this way. Elizabeth Gilbert says, “Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something like having a border collie for a pet: it needs work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble.”
We could replace “a creative mind” with “a fearful mind” and still have an accurate metaphor. I’ve learned the hard way that if we don’t look at fear, and have a plan to address it, it will cause an outrageous amount of trouble. The trouble fear creates is sneaky, a chameleon. It shows up as impatience (with other people, for example, and certainly with ourselves), it shows up as despondence, it shows up as giving up easily. It changes color as it makes its way from inside of you into the world, and is as varied as each of us are.
While we may think we are suffering from too much fear, what we are in fact suffering from, is an inability to channel it. We are afraid of fear itself, preferring to shove it under the cognitive rug, and hope that it goes away. This isn’t a character flaw – it’s an evolutionary design that has kept humans alive for millennia.
If we don’t give our fear a job, if we can’t find ways to engage its message to remain safe and alive, it will run wild in our inner house like a bored border collie. Fear will exercise itself, and anyone who’s experienced this knows that’s not good news.
The inherent vitality of movement and using your body in different ways (hence the transformative power of yoga, qi gong, dancing, etc), is a cornerstone to reducing anxiety and fear. If you doubt this, I invite you to do an experiment. The next time you feel afraid, or anxious, as soon as you can, walk. Go up and down stairs. Jump rope (personally, I haven’t done this since I was a kid, but I’m thinking it’s time to change that). Lift weights. Wave your arms. Do a dance. Something! Move in some way, for as long as you need to, and then see how you feel.
Movement is vital to feeling alive and experiencing ourselves in new ways. Ways that anchor and reconnect us not only to ourselves, but to all of life.
With some movement and deep breathing, along with help from skilled and compassionate people, it’s possible to start feeling better. One of those compassionate people, by the way, is yourself. Because, after all, we aren’t broken vessels to be repaired, but rather treasure maps to be explored.