When I could no longer ride

The ground blurs beneath us. My horse’s hooves roar into a thunder. The wind moving past causes tears to stream freely from my eyes and I blink quickly to see the rolling grassland around us.

The quotation above is from the first paragraph of The Wilding. That’s how the novel started in my head and that’s how it begins for readers.

Mocha and me at Gibbes in St. Matthews, SC
Mocha and me at Gibbes in St. Matthews, SC

Over and over and over again, I was galloping my horse in my mind. It was just about the only break I got from the crippling, chronic pain that racked my body daily. And from that one scene, I wrote an entire book to escape from the pain.

The pills never helped, only taking the edge off the knife but then made me frustrated at the impairment on my cognitive ability that I rely on for my day job at the paper.

Like so many other people out there, I was suffering chronic pain from an undiagnosed condition. The doctors seemed clueless at best, inept at worst (one even accused me of drug-seeking despite my refusal to take anything harder than ibuprofen for six months). Some told me it was all in my head, no cause. The pain led to depression and some of the darkest places I’ve ever been in my life.

And while the pain scared me, it was the thoughts that scared me the most. What if I never rode another horse as long as I lived? What if I’ve galloped my last gallop? What if I just let the car fall off the edge of the road and drive into that tree?

That’s what the doctors don’t tell you when you’re suffering chronic pain: Suicidal thoughts come out of nowhere. I wish they had told me because those frightened me more than anything else. It’s a strange thing to not be in control of your own body, even stranger when you’re not in control of your own thoughts.

As the months wore on and the doctors had poked, prodded, and imaged nearly every part of my body, it became clear to me that I was never going to recover. I would never get in the saddle again. I tried to find things at first to cheer myself up: it’s not over because you are breathing, and you can finally break Buttercup to cart! But nothing worked.

In fact, I felt more like an ass because I couldn’t appreciate anything. How selfish can you be? You have a steady job, a nice house, a wonderful husband, two great horses. You deserve to be in pain for not appreciating all of this.

I felt absolutely dead inside. Looking back, that still seems so incredibly selfish. That’s not who I am. But I won’t judge a person for their own dark thoughts, so I’m asking the same leniency. Until you’ve been there, you have no idea what thoughts and actions you are capable of.

About the only time I got a break from my own body and my own thoughts bent on self-destruction was when I thought about galloping. I became obsessed with the last time I galloped my horse Mocha. Like a 10-year-old girl listening to her favorite song, I hit repeat.

And then as I wrote down the galloping, and I wrote some more. I re-imagined almost every time I was on the back of a horse over 25 years of riding. Pretty soon, there was a story there. It was no longer me doing it. It was Aideen. Aideen wasn’t living through me, I was living through her. She became the person I fantasized about becoming. Nothing wrong with her hip or her back. Nothing keeping her in bed all day, crying because all she wants to do is be normal again.

I wrote scene after scene, sometimes shaking like I do before I go cross country because I felt like I was there jumping my horse from rooftop to rooftop, or being chased by a bear.

That’s probably why I finished the first draft in 60 days. It was my only escape from the pain at first.

I joked last posting about my therapist being my horse. My horses ground me, spiritually and mentally. But at the time, horses caused me pain. Going to the barn wasn’t a relief, it was torture. I couldn’t even stand seeing Facebook friends post horse-y things. It was like they were taunting me. And then I was warring with myself for being so retched and selfish, and not seeing my horses.

That seems so strange now: looking back at how hurtful it was to see anything to do with horses, and yet how liberating the thought of galloping was or designing an entire nation dedicated to horses. I can’t reconcile the dissonance; I can only say that it happened.

Even in the darkest moments, I knew it wasn’t me. I did the only thing I could: I sought real, professional help. I was diagnosed with chronic pain depression and given tools to help deal with it. The counselor encouraged my book editing process (which had stalled as the depression grew), and also suggested the book Managing Chronic Pain: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach. And the book told me what everyone is afraid to tell someone suffering from chronic pain: you can control it.

So I learned to shut out the pain. I made my pain zombies and I made my brain my safehouse. When the pain would start to increase, I would run from the zombies and get into the safehouse, and slam the door behind me. I could hear the zombies scratching on the door, begging to get in, but I would throw my weight against the door and hold them back. It worked so long as I wasn’t too tired to keep up the mental effort. I started coming out of the depression as I controlled the pain.

Then, because I was feeling better and could manage talking to doctors without breaking down into tears, I got a new doctor, who got me to the right specialist. He took one look and diagnosed me with a labrum tear in my right hip. An MRI confirmed and I was scheduled for surgery.

Mocha and me practicing dressage at Middleton in Charleston, SC.

It took more than eight months of going to doctors but we finally had it. Then I had to wait more than two months for surgery. But those last two months were cake compared to the previous eight months. There was light at the end of the tunnel! I was going to get to ride again.

There is that song that everyone references when something is taken from you and you appreciate it more once it’s gone. I don’t think that applies to me. I knew what was at stake. I think most riders know this. We are on borrowed time. If we’re lucky, we will ride in our 80s. If we aren’t, it ends today with a bad fall, or a car-wreck, or a financial situation where we have to sell our partners. Every ride is beautiful and unique because of this. It’s a butterfly.

But it wasn’t supposed to end like it did for me. I felt robbed and cheated and angry. I guess I’m not graceful in defeat. I can only wonder what I’ll do in my 80s when they try to hang my bridle up.

I don’t have a moral or an ending to this story. I don’t want to offer any sage advice, because I don’t have any. I have what worked for me through trial and error. The only thing I want to say with this post is this: You aren’t alone. Fight and rage on, even if you are so tired of people saying that to you. You know who you are.

I have been back in the saddle for a month now. I’m taking it easy, which is hard to do, although necessary. And I am so grateful that I’m almost on the verge of bursting into tears every time I’m at the barn.

3 thoughts on “When I could no longer ride”

  1. Having read this post, I am now in floods of tears. I suffer from chronic pain and fatigue and I have a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and I too have had my hip(s) operated on to repair a labrum tear. When I read about the depression and the idea that the suicidal thoughts just creep up on you, it really hit home. I didn’t ride for 8yrs because it all got so bad. I now ride my loan horse Maggie twice a week and I really do count each day with her a blessing. I hope that you continue to win the battle against your zombies. You’ve inspired me to keep on going. Thank you.


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