Through The Maze III: Move Something

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.

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Crissi and Bree, two weeks after the accident.                                        Photo by: Allyson DeCanio 

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.”
Peter Levine
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. 

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About the Author

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A lifelong horse woman, learning how to listen to horses.

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Horsemanship

64 Comments

Reading with tears in my eyes. Powerful stuff. Almost hard to read it’s too close to home. Time to do something. Thank you for sharing your journey.

I am both deeply touched and somehow humbled that you have chosen to share your journey with those of us lucky enough to know you. When I began to read your story, the tears began to flow. First they flowed out of empathy for what you went through and than more selfishly they began to flow for my inner child. The “why” isn’t that important but the lessons I will take from this are innumerable. Thank you

I am going through something similar. I got hurt a year ago from coming off a young horse and haven’t really wanted to ride since. I’ve come off horses before and been riding since I was a kid. I contemplate selling off my horses and being done with this hobby. I have never experienced this feeling before and feel like I will never get past it.

After this last accident, I went through that too – and getting away from horses is certainly an option. I hope that this blog has maybe given you some ideas around seeking skilled help to look at what happened, and how to move through it.

And if not, the peace of mind to make the decisions that will best serve you.

I was bolted with by a horse and although I wasn’t injured when I bailed, my confidence was much more seriously affected than I thought at the time. I hadn’t considered it till I read this blog, but I now wonder if my overwhelming fear after that runaway horse was a legacy of all the other scary things that had happened in my life? I was brought up not to acknowledge fear, but to ‘just get on with it’. Maybe I had a million little bits of fear all pushed way down that just bubbled up when that horse bolted?

The result was that whenever I got on a horse, I was completely rigid with fright. This blog shows me perhaps I have some more work to do to figure out what all that terror was about. Still, I thought I’d also share what has helped me. I asked myself a fundamental question – if my love of horses was greater than my fear (it was). If I wanted to ride again then I had to find a way to get around if not over the fear.

I respect others decision to stay away from riding after an accident, but as a hypnotherapist, I feel that avoidance of a situation after trauma does not make the fear go away, it actually increases the fear. For me then, the best way was to try to chip away at the fear by getting back on a horse but in tiny, tiny, baby steps. I set myself little goals. First I started walking only in an indoor school. I had a mantra – confident in my skills and joyful – and I chanted that inwardly with every step to begin with. Then, I progressed to trot and it probably took me about 3 months to get back to canter.

I am not completely there yet. I still have a little fear when I first get on – I hate long reining – but I also find it useful to keep in mind Mark Rashid’s advice. I think the best of your horse. I put my faith in her. She is not the one who bolted with me. I bought the quietest, kindest horse I could find and we are getting over my issues together!

Other people have tried to rush me, telling me all sorts of unhelpful things about what I should do and how I shouldn’t be frightened etc. I have even had people joking about it which they think is funny. Don’t listen to others. Go with what feels right and manageable for you. It’s a marathon not a sprint, as they say.

Good luck to everyone else .

Thank you Lowri – you bring up many great points. It really is up to each of us (not our teachers, or trainers, or friends or parents) how far we go in our return to riding horses. That you found a quiet horse, and you are feeling better, says volumes about the potential in each of us to feel better after trauma. Thank you for writing (and my apologies for my late response) 😉

Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I am sure you are helping countless people who would otherwise not have a path out of their fear. I have been doing massage therapy on horses and humans for many years now, and am constantly amazed at the way muscle memory can effect our bodies as a whole, including the fear mechanism. I too have found that Breath and Movement are keys to recovery. Thank you again for your bravery in sharing you journey.

Thank you, Carrie! It’s interesting to hear that in your experience trauma / fear is lodged in the body, and breath and movement are the antidotes. It really speaks to the fact that as varied as our experiences are, the solutions are available to us all.

I have never read anything that more eloquently shared a rider’s journey with fear. You have inspired me to love myself enough to do the hard work.

Thank you for being so open and Frank about your travails. I’m sure you’re giving many of us out here both encouragement and concrete plans of action, or at least the awareness we need to build those. I hate thinking of you, so vital and generous of time and support, having to go through all this – and I admire tremendously that you’re sharing your experiences.

I wish you the best of good fortune, personally, and with horses in whatever way fits.

Virginia, it is incredibly kind and thoughtful of you to say all that you did. It is my dearest hope that this *does* give all of us direction and hope and a plan of action that includes more than feeling like a victim of our fear and circumstance. I wish you the best of fortune too.

Takes both bravery and a mound of humility to share a time of vulnerability. We somehow get the message to not let anything supposedly weak or hurting show thru. By sharing this,others can feel supported and not so alone. It also speaks volumes about your inner kindness and love for others. May that generosity come right back to you Chrissy!

Janie! Thank you so much – that means a lot to me. We can’t heal until we admit we need to, and it is my dearest hope that this helps give people permission to do so.

This is so wise and full of compassion (for yourself, which sets an important example for all of us, and for others). I will come back and reread it periodically. Thank you for sharing it.

So well written! Very much appreciate your observations and strategies. I love your introspection about this experience and how you created a way back by trying different things. Fear is tricky stuff. It’s good to hear the very tangible things that helped.

I have no words except thank you! This so resonated with me (and brought tears). There is so much sweeping under the rug instead of dealing with fear. I think I will go outside and move now….

Thank you – for letting me know that this touched you. So much of writing is done in a void (not a bad thing). When I get kind and heartfelt feedback like yours, it really reassures me that this is information that is important for so many of us to know.

Your ability to analyze and work through your experience is unusually insightful. Having suffered a bad cycling accident 3 years ago I relate to so much of this, especially the value of movement to calm anxiety. (Now I ride horses, but then every moment on a bicycle was a replacement activity anyway. 😉)

Thank you so much for sharing this! Thank you for your courage and openness, thank you for pointing out the importance of the link between body and mind for healing trauma, thank you for mentioning that there is no “one fits all recipe” for healing but that it is important to honestly try and thank you for bringing self compassion into the equation. I love your last sentence! You are so right! We are sparkles of the divine manifest in very individual forms to experience (every one of us – all beings included here) a very individual “treasure map to be explored”. Such a beautiful way to express it! Thank you, thank you, thank you. I hope your post will reach many souls.

Another heart felt, wonderful article Chrissy. Is it OK to share this with people in my confidence group? You are right, fear can be insidious, lurking within us ready to surface again. There is a slight parallel between our “problem” and those of addicts. Once hooked it may be a lifetime of having it in the back of your mind. All it takes is one spook or buck and we may be back to the panic state, albeit temporary. I agree that movement is a great help as is controlled breathing. Fear is energy and if we can channel it into running or other movement we can begin to let go. Measured diaphragmatic breathing sends a wonderful signal not only to us, but the horse. As I remind myself and my course members he cannot read your mind but he can very easily read your body.

I agree with everything you said and am happy to hear that the message of movement is spreading.

Thank you for asking permission, and please, yes, go ahead and share away. Thank you!

The fear we keep hidden away from everyone is so paralyzing at times and we don’t even realize till a life story is read.. Written by an amazing woman! I so appreciate your leap and putting into words your story. Slowly I chisel away at myself and know that one day all my fear will be gone. Knowing I am not alone is so refreshing. Thank you Crissi for sharing ! I am blessed to know you!

Crissi, I have loved all your posts, but this one made me think about channeling fear as a life long pursuit. It seems that there is always something to fear and life is simply too short to allow fear to be dominant rather than comfortably integrated. Thanks for sharing.

Movement helps in so many ways- fear and grief. When I lost my horse in horrible incident I found that I couldn’t sit still but my movement was erratic and frenetic. Finally I found a way to channel it into hiking and jogging and then it could work for me. I realized later that it was a combination of grief and fear and it was going to eat me from the inside if I didn’t figure out how to deal with it.

Teresa – that’s incredibly brave of you. And what a sad circumstance to move through. It’s of utmost interest to me that we intuitively return to the basics – movement and breath – when we are in difficult spots. Thank you for sharing this.

Lots for me to absorb here, and it will require multiple re-reads! Thanks so much for not just working through this, but also thoughtfully writing and sharing.

This part, however, strikes me right away: “The next time you feel afraid, or anxious, as soon as you can, walk. […]

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.”

THIS is exactly how I’ve recently come to realize my horse experiences fear — he NEEDS to move to process it and come to terms with it. Wow!!!

God bless you for this story of your accident and recovery. I now understand some things about my fear more. BEEN there done that with the fear thing but it took over my life. Now after reading this I understand what has changed. I took a trip with a friend and decided I had to change my fear from something that was ruling my life to something I could go beyond. So, with my trusty new cane and my friends encouragement—Me who was scared to death of heights climbed a mountain up to the snow line!!! Yup. I sucked it up and did it. YES it was a real mountain in the Tetons!!!. you story now helps me understand why my fear no longer has rule over me. MOVEMENT!!!….I started riding again, driving my ponies, and so much more that I loved but had given up. I still have my moments but–have lost 21 lbs because I am driven to move!!!! you can tell Mr Mark that Judy from Mn is riding again!!!!!! thank you from the bottom of my heart for opening up your heart to tell your story!!! Tell Mark thanks for taking the time to talk to me the last time we met in Duluth. You two are wonderful people and I am proud to know you. hope to see you in Mn this fall, I will be the one grinning from ear to ear on the big paint mare!!!

Mark and I both give you a great big hooray, Judy! That is quite an inspiring story and I am so very glad to hear that movement was such a powerful force in your own healing journey.

Beautiful and resonante writing. And you are so right. I’ve always had a vague idea that moving, particularly moving forward both literally and metaphorically, was absolutely essential for healthy body and mind. It was only when my horse deposited me in a drainage ditch, landing on top of me and breaking four vertebrae that I realised how just how essential it is. I have loved horses for nearly fifty years, and love them still, but for obvious reasons my relationship with them has become, for want of a better word, more complicated. I’m still not able to pass a ditch without having flashbacks, even though right from the start I was still able to look at the young horse that had thrown me with affection. For the moment, I’m still loving my horses from the ground though…

Thank you! I think you’re being very wise by being with horses in a way that keeps you feeling safe, and yet lets you also interact with them. I hope the moving forward is helping you in all kinds of ways.

This is a beautiful post. I’m a rider and a writer and a psychotherapist and it rings true across all these arenas!

I live very close to Carla B. in NC and hope that if you and Mark make it here this year I can get some lesson time with you. 🙂

This is a wonderful post. It is very helpful info for any kind of trauma or challenge. Being a woman in her late 60s, these challenges rise up more and more often it seems. And I intuitively knew some of this. Breathe and movement have pulled me through. You mention more opportunities for movement that I had not considered, and since I am recovering from yet another injury, I will add them to my bag of tricks. I am a firm believer that I should use my body up while on this planet. And by that I do not mean engage in risky behavior. Well maybe I do, I am a horsewoman of sorts. I will not stop and believe it keeps me going. I have not experienced such a terrible accident as described and wish you well in this journey back to wholeness.

Thank you SO much, Judy! It is adventurous spirits like yours that I hope to emulate as I continue my journey with horses.

I don’t think I mentioned it in any of the other blogs, but I learned several years ago that our brains are chemically programmed to err on the side of fear as we age. I found this out from a neurobiologist doctor who was the husband of one of our clinic hosts. I think it lets us off the hook for feeling ashamed that we have more fear.

Thank you so much for sharing your journey on this particular issue. After years of working with livestock, cattle mainly, I’ve collected injuries like barnacles. It was after I retired from farming and retrained with horses that the fear began to surface. The fear was of getting hurt, I was not fearful of my horses. So, I started walking with my horse in hand before riding. It helped settle me and ground me, and your beautifully written article adds more dimension to my understanding. Thank you so much. Sue

I think it’s affirming to hear that you intuitively knew what to do. If we listen (as you did), the human body is incredibly communicative. Thank you for sharing this with me Sue!

I attended a clinic by one of Mark Rashid’s students (in Germany) and she said you might need to lunge a horse at a canter until it breathes properly, to overcome anxiety. I was hesitant because how much cantering might that be? I don’t know if he still condones that, but it does seem to align with your post.

A few hours before an office meeting I’d be sweating and trembling, heart racing, knowing that in the meeting, it would likely involve panic and momentary blacking out. The meetings were always on the 5th floor, and I always chose the stairs (cuz I didn’t like to be trapped in an elevator with those people). As I ascended, I would almost laugh at myself. “Look, stupid adrenaline, now I’m actually IN flight, panting for breath, and you seem less convincing about your fight/flight response!” It was like I could see the honest vs. dishonest racing heart.

It’s proven, what you’re saying – exercise metabolizes the fight/flight hormones.

What if you can’t exercise, because you’re trapped in the meeting our you’re on the horse? I found something that helps, and follows your post’s theme. Eye movement reprocessing. When you’re stuck in fear, your vision narrows, in order to give your brain freedom to contemplate the worst scenarios (stupid brain!). It helps to think about your peripheral vision (“soft eyes”), but moving your eyes side to side seems to really help.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_movement_desensitization_and_reprocessing

I cannot publicly admit the dark thoughts I’ve had since losing so much of my confidence, but others here have said them for me. You said fear manifests in 3 ways, and I identify with “giving up easily.” But I’m not going to.

Thanks Lytha! I appreciate your sharing and the additional ideas. It sounds like you’re well versed in taking care of yourself during anxiety, which is great! I have those dark unmentionable thoughts too, and movement plus breathing always helps me work out of them. Thanks again!

Great information and helpful on many levels. I broke my back 19 months ago in a car but have not gotten back on my horse yet due to that what if I fall off fear. I am ready to though and the breathing idea is a great one. I am also a massage therapist who loves giving and receiving Cranial Sacral therapy and have seen first hand examples of trauma released in that work. Thank you for sharing your experience.

This is an incredible series of blogs. Thank you so much for writing about this. The subject of fear and horses is almost a taboo subject. For most of my horse career I have dealt with fear by pretending it didn’t exist, because I didn’t think it was allowed to. When I finally did allow myself to feel fear again, it’s like it opened the floodgates to all the fear I had tried to will out of existence. I’ve been on a similar journey with fear and have found Peter Levine’s work incredibly helpful. I’ve also found Kara McLaren’s The Language of Emotions very helpful as well. Thank you again for writing about this and sharing it!

Thank you Gabrielle! I, too, really enjoyed “The Language of Emotions.” Lots of very helpful ideas in there. I am glad you enjoyed these blogs – thank you for writing and sharing your appreciation!

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