October 18, 2011
I learned a compelling fact about heart cells this weekend. If you extract a single heart cell and place it in a petri dish by itself, it will madly fibrillate, immediately experience arrhythmia, like some tweaked out methhead alone in woods, twitching and dancing then slumping against the walls of his mobile home down some lonely road that stretches into the dark woods.
I heard this and immediately was brought back to a similar story, an encounter I witnessed a few years ago at the stables where I used to ride. Used to, the key words. Can’t at present due to my fluctuating body weight. I need to have enough weight to stay on top of a horse, enough strength to keep my thighs gripped around a horse’s barrel in order to stay on and upright, in order to convey to the horse that I can stay with him as we trot or canter or jump. And with all the meds I’m on right now, it’s uncertain I can sustain my balance for sixty minutes, that like those two heart cells, I can stay in syncopation with the horse, become and stay as one for the length of a lesson. And then for the sake of consistency for my instructor, she needs to know I can show up for lesson after lesson, month after month instead of the interruptions of “unexpected” hospitalizations that seem possible these days.
But I digress. I was out at Hobbs Hollow, a stable that uses only rescue horses, horses damaged from neglect, abuse, trauma; horses that need to learn to trust their handlers and riders again through patient and consistent care, through a light, yet firm seat and hands; horses that are used to humans treating them like shit; horses that now have to see that sometimes humans offer carrots, a warm blanket, and a soothing whisper.
Sophia and I stopped out at the stables just for a visit and were leaning against the fenced-in-field watching a gorgeous, black thoroughbred trotting, cantering, galloping, and circling wildly inside the field; she’d rush at the fence, then skid to a stop. Then start the whole cycle up again. From our position, it seemed like the horse was having a wonderful, playful romp. The sun was out, the field full of clover, her black body gleaming as she sped around in willy-nilly circles.
Lee, my instructor, came over and stood beside us. Her fingers were hitched in the belt loops of her jeans and she was chewing on a stalk of hay.
Sophia, teetering on a fence beam, her polka-dotted shirt in tune with the scene, sighed, “I wish I could be out there running around like that!”
Lee spit the hay from her mouth. “That’s how a horse gets hurt. Running around like that. That’s Fate and she’s having a nervous breakdown out there alone. We just got her in yesterday. She was in her stall, kicking at the walls, so we took her out here. But she’s just going nuts.”
Sophia’s face lit up, like it always does when she has an IDEA! “Maybe she needs a friend, so she won’t be so lonely.”
Lee chuckled. “Sophia, you are a right on little horsewoman. That’s exactly what we’re about to do.”
I stood there watching Fate, taking in Lee’s words, having to realign my misinterpretation of her “play.” This beautiful, even regal trot—sudden switch to a fierce gallop, stopped suddenly by the end, the fence, then the skid, the quick turn, the canter back—this was a chaotic, disorganized shifting through paces, this was DISTRESS, a terror at wanting to not be alone out there. Fate was trying to find a way to run off, to run out of the isolation, but was only becoming more disorganized, more frenzied. Watching her, what could be--to the unobservant, unschooled eye--play, a beautiful energy, an abundance of spirit, a running loose and free, butwas only a fraying, a disintegration, a coming apart. But according to Lee, and understood by Sophia, Fate could be put back together merely by the comforting presence of another horse out there with her. Just like those heart cells.
Fate not left to Fate’s own Self.
And this was the precise cure. A stablehand led out Peppy, a calm, even-minded Quarter horse. Peppy was set loose in the field, and ambled around. Fate stopped in her tracks, gave Peppy a suspicious, long look, then without much ado, trotted over to him. Soon enough, the two horses were walking serenely around the field together, side-by-side, munching on the purple clover.
This is exactly why I love horses so much, why I love riding them particularly Lee’s rescue horses. Damaged like me, suspicious like me, vulnerable like me, needing soft hands like me. But the miraculous, transformative feeling when I am on a horse like Fate, soft hands on the reins, connected by the slightest pressure, with the slightest movement to her mouth, my legs wrapped around her barrel, again the slightest pressure of thighs and calves and heels—no kicking, no jabbing, just an adjustment of pressure, a tightening of my muscles against her body—more like lovemaking (no, don’t go there, but you know what I mean). I can feel her breath moving against my legs, and in the trot, my body rises with hers, and in the canter, my body glides with hers, and in jumping, we soar together. One and One become One together.
I dreamed of this before I ever was on a horse. As a child, I checked out How to Ride a Horse books from the library, read them, memorized the instructions, the horse’s anatomy, the tack, and then would lie in bed for hours, eyes closed, and just imagine from start to finish an entire ride—fetching “my” horse from the stall, grooming her, tacking her up, then taking her out into an arena or out on the trail, and riding—walking, trotting, cantering, jumping. These star-filled rides sustained me during many difficult nights of very real self-doubt and insecurity, very real loneliness and alienation—already at 7 and 8, I could feel myself rushing around in wild, desperate circles. So those imagined rides on the back of “my” horse, on a mapped out over-fences course, fences that were risky, thrilling, four-five feet high, enough to get both our heartbeats pumping fast, but still in syncopation, that was enough. No longer alone in the field of my bed, no longer rushing fences.
1 + 1= 1.
So you can imagine both my surprise and my matter of factness, when at my first real riding lesson at 9, my instructor told me that she had never met a more natural rider, that it was as if I’d been riding for years, that I made it look effortless. What I wanted to tell her was that I’d been riding for years in my dreams, that I’d been one with horses forever.
Where is all this going?
A few things have come together for me in the past few days. I realized the value of my group at the partial hospitalization program I attend. Outside of that room, many of us feel lonely and alienated by the sheer nature of the mental illnesses we contend with on a daily basis. Many of us feel ashamed, afraid to talk about what we struggle with; feel “crazy” out there in the “normal” world. But the minute we enter our group room and sit down with each other, we are inside that field together. Alienation and loneliness disspate. We find that are heart cells in many ways beat in the exact same ways—our struggles are similar and our desire for connection and recovery is exactly the same.
I also just received an email from a friend who I lost touch with, but with whom I’ve reconnected to via Facebook and my blog. Because of what she’s read of my struggles on the blog, she felt like she could help me by sharing many of her own similar struggles that she’s had to contend with over the years and her own path to recovery. My first thought on reading her email was: If I only knew! We both could have been saved from our loneliness over all these years! We both could have been there for each other over all these years! But of course, for many of these years, it is quite possible we were both not ready to be honest and vulnerable, to risk an open heart. I know in my case, I would have probably chosen to have remained alone in the field, charging the fence and any other horse who tried to get close. But my second thought was: Here we are, both ready to open our hearts to each other, to share our stories, to walk the field together, maybe even munch on the clover of happiness, share in the sunshine of our recovering selves.
Then of course, there’s the connection to my family. I think all I need to provide you with is two images. One: I am in any of the various hospitals I’ve been in, alone in my hospital bed, sometimes tied to it, sometimes my arms wrapped in bandages, sometimes an anesthesia mask strapped to my face and electrodes taped to my skull, shivering with cold. Two: I am in my King-sized bed at home, mashed up against Sophia and Alexander and Christopher and the forty stuffed animals that regularly join us; we are generating enough heat between us all to melt the polar ice cap; I lean over, before hitting the pillow and kiss the kids’ sweaty foreheads a dozen times over, and then Christopher and I mumble our sleepy “I love you’s” before it’s lights out.
Finally, there’s you, dear Readers. And I do mean Dear. I write this blog for me. I write this because I am a writer. I write this to make meaning out of the pain. I write this with language that tries to give the pain and yes, the beauty, shape and truth. I write this to be a caretaker of memory and the gardener of recovery. But I also write this for You. I have made this public for You. I could have simply kept all this in my little black journal hidden away under my bed. I could have kept it in pen, gone all melodramatic and histrionic. But I have tried to be honest, tried to be vulnerable, tried to find a voice that is balanced, tried to stay hopeful even when IT presents as hopeless. But what I have hoped is that You might find yourself, or part of your story here. That you might not feel so alone and alienated. Back to the isolated heart cell. Back to Fate running crazy circles and rushing that fence.
It is why I treasure your feedback. Okay, so maybe when I hear from you a tiny part of my ego is shouting a lá Sally Field, “They like me! They really like me!” But really, what I feel is less alone, less like the crazy person in the isolation room at the hospital with the mattress on the floor, given her food on the Styrofoam tray, given only a plastic spoon, watched by surveillance camera 24 hours a day. I feel like you’re in there with me in the petri dish, our hearts beating, if only momentarily, together. I feel like you’re in that field with me, that we’re walking around under the sun, or sometimes, under the dark cloud together. No longer in solitary confinement.
1 + 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + = 1