This is a previously published piece that was updated for Medium and posted there for Medium members on February 27, 2018. It’s returning here to rest on The Heart Opens for my followers, and the people who have seen this story through it’s various transformations. For that followership and encouragement, I thank you.
Copper over smooth muscle. Sweaty sparkle, casting off the sun’s light. Snorting, indignant, fire-breathing dragon. Tail high, hooves thundering across the pasture. That’s the memory I’ll keep.
She was an affordable little mare named Annie, who’d been fired from equine therapy. I’d ridden her before and found her sweet, willing and responsive, but she’d grown sour with too much uncertain handling. I was confident a quieter environment and consistency would help her settle into herself again.
I met her when I worked at a psychiatric residential facility, caring for children who’d been tucked away in warm, colorful cottages. The children found their way to these cottages after their homes and communities were no longer able to hold them, or their minds, and all that sprouts from mental illness.
This horse couldn’t hold them either, and so I took her to a barn near my home. I don’t remember when the “interesting challenge” story fell down under the pressure of my clenched jaw. She was indomitable, but in the briefest moments of synchronicity, the sirens sang to me and I stayed the course — for just about three years.
Those years were promising, but too full. I was newly married, had completed a graduate program two hours from home to become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, and then life changed forever when my daughter was born. Her soft wrinkles and mews unleashed some kind of mother’s curse from deep inside me; a constant and protective, but misguided sensation of guilt.
I rushed through the barn routines. I rushed through everything. Spider-like whispers crawled up and down my back — Too much time away. The horse needs more. Get back to your baby. Lament-resent, repeat, drown them out, stay the course.
Weeks passed into months. I know now that it was more than guilt. I had postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, sleep-deprivation, and a breast pump that let me go to work, away from my sweet baby. Pushing through the whisper-talk, I kept showing up for work because I had a new career treating psychiatric illness in others.
I did not tell anyone I needed help. I did not let anyone help. I did not know I needed help. No one asked me if I needed help. I’m not even sure which variations are true. I helped others, and that is the nature of the beast. Tick tock, keep moving.
Annie’s routines slipped lower in priority every day, but these are things that cannot slip. More of her daily care was outsourced, to be completed by others. The modicum of a bond we had grew tenuous. The sessions I was able to make time for ended in frustrated tears, after too many small incidents and close calls.
We moved to a house with land, a small pasture, and a shed that easily converted into a good-sized stall. I entertained the idea that we might be able to bring it together.
She’d be at the house, though, where my mind whispered with certainty that my infant was not getting enough of anything, especially all of the vegetables, in all of the colors nature had to offer. She’d be home, where my jaw rarely softened, my brow never released, and the paperwork had started to fill all the breathing room. By now I’d started medication, and managed to scrape together some hope.
I don’t know how long I would have continued like that, or how long my husband would have tolerated my stalwart dismissal of his concerns. I will never know, because of what happened next and how it literally shattered my denial.
My husband, a metal sculptor, had driven several states away to deliver a piece for public installation. I’d taken our daughter, then two and a half, to the coast to see her grandparents. She and my father fashioned hats from her pull-ups.
We returned home near dusk; I’d reassured my horse-sitting friend she did not need to feed Annie that night. I carried my daughter into the house, stood her near the front door, handed her a granola bar, and went out to feed. I left the door ajar, and one of the dogs slipped free.
She had slipped free just days before, too, when she’d chased the horse, initiating that memory of sunlight, copper, and magnitude. This time I wasn’t smiling. I was agitated; metronomic and hurried.
The horse was hungry. I carried her hay in one hand, grain in the other, and the dog fell into her usual place at my side; but so did Annie. We’d kept them apart, the dog being unschooled in the ways of horses and this horse being a little different.
She started reacting to the dog, recalling their only prior meeting, and her shoulder bumped me. I bumped her back with my elbow, and said “back off,” an exchange we’d made countless times before. That time, instead of reluctantly making space, she exploded forward and shot back with both of her hind feet. A calm, disconnected part of me whispered, stop. I kept walking, directly into the one foot that hammered my chin.
I landed in the pushup position, and my mind briefly fragmented. The behaviorist in me said flatly, she does not get the grain. Another part was infuriated, ready to let her know.
One part knew exactly what I had done wrong, and how I should have reassured her rather than reprimanded. And one wise part knew to hold very still and check to see that she’d moved away. I still wonder why I had not simply stopped walking.
Recollected, the part of me aware blood was seeping wastefully onto the grass gingerly touched my forehead and eye sockets, then spit onto the ground — certain teeth would come out. Nothing I pushed on moved, and my teeth were OK.
I called the dog, and that is when I felt asymmetry and the grinding of bone on bone. She was already at my side. Annie snorted and began to eat the hay. My jaw was broken.
In yoga, we say namasté — the light in me honors the light in you. That night, on the cold ground, the light in me honored the light that was protecting my tiny daughter. I don’t know how long she would have been alone.
As I walked toward the house, my haven illuminated in the darkness, I saw her nibbling the granola bar in her tiny, plump hands. She was wearing a pink and white striped t-shirt, her smooth brown hair clipped back.
Stepping through the doors, I pointed and mumbled, “Look at the floor there.” Sweetly, she did exactly that. I slipped past her and into the bathroom, where I grabbed the first thing I saw to ebb the flow of blood; her hooded yellow bath towel.
I went to my little girl, squared down to her level, and with the lower portion of my face covered, I looked right into her eyes. “Mommy got a hurty and we have to go to the hospital. Grammy will come and get you, you’re going with her for a night sleep, ok?” She stared into my eyes, and said flatly, “Go clean that dirt off your face, Mama.”
Back in the bathroom, I saw the dirt from my horse’s hoof sprayed over my face and glasses. Then, I saw the jar I used to measure and feed her grain. It was sitting there on the brick colored tile, smeared with my blood, and I was morbidly happy I’d not let her have it.
Dirt removed, I thought maybe I could drive myself, then thought better of that. I made phone calls, mumbling my way through the acquisition of a ride to the ER from a beloved neighbor, and two grandmas to meet us there — one for my daughter and one to sit with me. The next call was to my office manager, to cancel clients for the next two weeks. (Two weeks?)
I called my husband last, knowing he was driving through a whiteout storm and in and out of cell service. He was due home later that night. I left him a voice mail, attempting to be lighthearted. “You’ll want to come to the hospital, instead of home. Annie kicked me in the face but I’m ok. Please don’t shoot her.” I was only half-joking, and a bit of the gravity and reality seeped in.
I was calm and happy to be alive with an intact brain. When my friends arrived, their hands shaking, the carseat’s various straps would not cooperate. We still joke about how I asked them to step aside, so I could put it in. My daughter’s first show of emotion was an immediate explosion of fuss when I buckled her into her seat and started to move to the front seat of the car. She wanted me right beside her.
The ER was chivalrous, pleasant, too bright. The memory is adrenaline-sped, shaky at best. I was noisy and comedic, entertaining the part of myself that was very aware of how I’d gotten there. I felt myself running. A fault line had gone, and there was no way I was going with it.
My systemic efforts to stave off reality worked, initially. I was numb; I had no pain response to the injury. The nurse joked about my “odd aversion to pain meds.” When I finally did accept morphine, it was because I assumed my physical body was in pain — only after I’d started using the F word in place of many words, and my chatter passed from rapid into frantic.
Hours later, my mouth slowed. My husband made it to the ER. Things became very real. The doctor stayed late to suture my wounds. The hoof had cut through the skin over my chin and somehow separated part of my bottom lip from the place where it meets my gums.
I’d discovered this after I kept hearing an odd sound when I spoke, and the sensation of air periodically escaping. I remember saying “Wait, what was that?” and “There it is again.” No one else could hear it.
Worrying I had another injury, I pushed my tongue down into the space and found the cut went all the way through. I chose intrigue over horror, and spent a good portion of the night trying to determine how to classify the wound.
Definitely a blunt force injury, but would it count as a partial avulsion or just a laceration? Is a partial avulsion a thing? What else would I call this? Anything to stay in the safe realm of my orderly left brain.
I was sent home in the middle of the night with pain medication, antibiotics, and instructions to call the surgeon in the morning. They could not treat the break, and my jaw hung awkward and crooked. My chin abhorrently swollen, I started to wonder how bad this would all feel tomorrow, and my now-quiet mouth left me no distraction from the profound ache of sadness.
Once home, I slid out of the truck and started walking to the pasture. My husband asked, “What are you doing?” I told him I had to do something; I was not going to be afraid of horses.
The night sky was clear, the moon was bright. I approached the fence line and she came toward me, head low, gently greeting me with her sweet sounds. I stood there in the dark, and tears pressed at my eyes. I stayed until my body was calm, my breath was even, and I could scratch her ear, and then I went to bed.
My jaw was wired the next day, and I did, incidentally, only allow myself two weeks off before returning to work. I sat with clients and provided mental health services, with a jaw that was wired closed. I told each client that I was not supposed to talk much and that I would do my best to listen and support however I could. Each client watched me speak, through a wired jaw, more than I should.
But they also watched me learn to listen even more. I’ve always been a good listener, celebrating the quiet art; but I’m also eager to normalize, alleviate suffering, and help clients feel healthy connections. With these tools inaccessible, I was the uncomfortable one. I could not provide the little extras that have always felt important to me, and this marked the start of my slow, arduous breakup with overachievement.
Annie hadn’t only broken my jaw, she’d knocked me into a grave place. I learned that I am mortal, and bad things, really bad things can happen when I ignore evidence screaming from all around me. She helped me understand I cannot do it all and could, in fact, use some help.
She made me stop, which is something I’d never learned to value. To cope, we roll through adversity and right up against, then around/over/or through obstacles. The bad story is seared deeply into us — do not stop. If you do, you won’t get up and the monsters will overtake you.
But they are our own monsters, and we must learn to turn toward them so we can begin to understand them. Stopping is the exactly right thing.
It is far easier to grapple with the chaos and suffering in the world outside, or to numb ourselves down, than to befriend our own amplitudes. Sometimes we have to clutch that story, and let it drag us a bit. I did.
Moving into the turbid waters of our innate complexity, we eventually, reluctantly learn to float them. Then we can properly go about the work of letting go, and we can free ourselves.
We don’t have to wait for the kick to get started.
After the accident I had a few more sweet days with my horse, full of sun-softened memories. I sent her to a new trainer to work it out and re-home her. When he came to pick her up, I stood in the pasture unable to release the lump in my throat. I petted her, holding her lead line longer than an hour before I was able to hand her over. Even then, I felt the deep ache of losing big love not meant for me.
Eight years have passed, and while I know this experience changed me, it’s not always easy to articulate how. Life continues to knock on a regular basis, and I strive to answer humbly. I inhabit a gentler stance, though I still battle my own ravenous nature and the acquisition of too much to manage. There is always too much pain in the world, and I’m a driven advocate in service to those bearing it.
I reach for water and rest more, and I honor reflection over resistance. I try to respond to my intuition’s whispers, as the muscle memory of ignoring them is far too great.
I own a taller awareness of my limitations, and I cannot retell this story without addressing the insidiousness of pride. There are times I can’t have things my way, and it’s up to me to figure out what’s got to give.
I more readily say no to things not meant for me, before I’m in too deep — and particularly when I feel myself wanting to indulge the chaos of a grand challenge that’s come my way. I try to slow down, taking extra time to assess what does, or does not fit.
I believe excessive pride interferes directly with the goodness and ease of life. Now that I understand my own indomitability, my greatest responsibility lies inside that knowledge.
Physically, I am left with a decent scar on my chin, and every once in a while a photo catches my gregarious laugh and crooked jaw. When I clench too much, there is pain, and I think this is a little brilliant. I pay the fat hospital bill monthly, because I did not have insurance back then. These are but small earmarks I am grateful to carry, in place of other stories that could have been made that day.
The night I stood at the fence, scratching her ear, I took my steadfast love for horses, carefully wrapped it up and placed it on a specific shelf in my brain where I store precious things that have become too complex and fragile.
With new and crystal clear appreciation for equine force, and respect for their general willingness to bend to our whims, I approach horses differently. I watch them longer, and I listen to my residual fear. I proceed only after my best and most present self is on the scene, and with as much grace, clarity, patience, and gratitude as I can muster. I did return to riding a little earlier than was recommended, much to the chagrin of my friends and family.
I do miss Annie, but now with the awareness that it is the twenty-something me, who didn’t yet have children, whose heart was well-nourished by good horses. And while I might yet own another horse in this life, the next one will certainly not be of the fire-breathing type. Those I like to admire from afar.