Tag Archives: depression

Good Girl, Damnit, Part 3: Happy Trails to You

Smokey and Alex
Smokey and Alex, c. 1999

I was a wreck for the next year. I hadn’t been in great shape to begin with, and now I had failed my best friend. I figured, if Nancy didn’t care enough about me to get better, then I wasn’t really worth caring about. The fact that I’d abandoned her just reinforced my feelings. I lacked some essential value if I could not help my friend when she most needed help. “I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself” chanted relentlessly through my thoughts. I spent almost every free moment online, trying to escape from my own brain.

I didn’t want to be miserable, and I made the occasional, flailing attempt to befriend other students and to find a focus other than escape-from-emotion. I declared theater to be my One True Passion, although I was mostly too depressed to practice outside of class, and the drama teacher was indifferent to me. Finding friends went better; I cobbled together a little group of people to sit with at lunch. I couldn’t talk to them like I’d talked to Nancy, though. Gradually, I began to resent her (as I saw it) refusal to be a good friend and take care of herself.

After a year, I talked myself back into horses. I thought about all the fun Sharon was having with her Icelandics. “I don’t want to do dressage anymore,” I told my mom. “I’m tired of going in circles in the arena. But I want to ride.” The idea of wild and carefree galloping appealed to me, especially as it meant spitting in the face of Nancy’s efforts to refine my riding abilities.

I dragged Smokey out of his irrigated pasture and away from his best friend, Carrot, with the purpose of making him into a trail horse. Nancy still trained at our barn, and we awkwardly said hello and how-are-you, but it was polite and distant.

Sharon was delighted to have someone who, as she put it, could keep up with her. She’d seen me riding Smokey, and after a year of my training with Nancy, she’d decided I knew what I was doing. I was thrilled by this recognition, and with her offer to go riding with her and Katy.

As it turned out, Smokey passionately hated trail riding. The second we were twenty feet from his beloved barn and horsey friends, he started screaming his head off: loud, tense, unhappy neighs that he’d keep up as long as we were out. I didn’t have anyone to ride with regularly, so we mostly had to go out alone. Smokey kept trying to turn around and run home, so I rode with a stronger bit. That stopped the running off, but not the tragic neighing.

Even when I went out with Sharon, Smokey was a pain in the ass. He neighed even with the presence of her Icelandic horse, Stimpy, and moved at a jigging, fidgety walk as soon as we turned for home. Worse, Sharon liked to zoom on the trails, and I didn’t dare let Smokey run with Stimpy; I knew a 19-year-old horse with a history of ligament injuries shouldn’t gallop on packed clay trails.

“How’s Smokey?” Nancy asked me one day, and I complained all about my barn-sour little horse. We found that we could still talk about horses enthusiastically, without either of us having to mention our former closeness. I felt my wounded feelings ease a little; Nancy still liked me.

Sharon wasn’t too impressed by Smokey, and after about a year of my noodling around with him, she  finally took me aside. “Why don’t you ride Haagen Daaz?” she asked. Haagen Daaz was her spare Icelandic horse, a sensitive but obedient bay gelding. I almost blushed; I hadn’t thought that I was good enough to ride one of her horses.

When we started out on the trails with Stimpy and Haagen, I patted Haagen gently, told him he was a good boy for every tiny thing he did right, tried to be tactful with the reins, and otherwise did my best to be worthy of riding Sharon’s horse. Sharon went along with this until we hit the canyon.

“Let’s go!” she said, and gave Stimpy his head. He took off at a gallop. Haagen Daaz leapt after him, and we tore down the canyon, up and down the gentle hills and the wide curves. I shifted my weight into two-point, putting myself over Haagen’s center of balance as he sped along. It felt a bit like flying in a stiff wind; I had to keep my guard up for the unpredictable long stride and lean of the horse’s body that came with going fast on uneven terrain. Eventually, with the horses breathing hard, we slowed to a walk. I told Haagen Daaz that he was wonderful. I barely stopped myself from hugging him.

Sharon was busy coaxing Stimpy back to a walk; he would have cheerfully kept on running the whole trail ride. We walked until we came to a dry riverbed, a stretch of flat limestone trail alongside it. “This is a good place to tolt. Lift your hands a little and lean back. It’s easy to get Haagen into the tolt,” Sharon said.

I’d never tolted before, and I was sure I’d screw it up, and Sharon would reconsider letting me ride her horse. Flustered, I hesitantly followed her directions. Haagen knew his cue, and he immediately lifted his head slightly and scooted into the tolt, also known as a running walk. It was effortless to sit the smooth, rapid gait, and Haagen’s head bobbed jauntily in front of me. It was easy, and it the most fun I’d ever had on a horse.

When I got home, I breathlessly recounted the whole trail ride to my mom. I think it was the happiest she’d seen me in years. “Mom, I got to ride Haagen Daaz!”

Without Smokey to slow me down, I got to see what Sharon and Stimpy were made of. The scraggly little Icelandic horse was no joke, despite the name. Stimpy’s black hide was marked here and there with scars and scrapes from his days as a breeding stallion in a herd. Faster than any horse his size (about 13.1 hands) had a right to be, he knew what a race was and liked to win. Sharon had trained him into a Trail Trial Champion and invented all sorts of games to entertain herself on the trails.

My personal favorite was the rollercoaster. Miles and miles of twisty, single-track trails snake their way up and down, over and around the Mt. Diablo foothills. On a rollercoaster, we rode them at a canter, regardless of how hairpin the turns and how steep the downhill. The feeling, at times, was not unlike the drop of a rollercoaster.

Another good one was the blitzkrieg. To quote Sharon, “It’s a horse race down the canyon, and cheating is mandatory.” Katy, Sharon, and I galloped hellbent for leather, harassing each other by poking each other with our whips, cutting off each other’s horses, and otherwise stirring up trouble. If you were behind the other riders, you swung off onto a fork in the trail and declared it the new track. If you were in front, it was hard not to glance nervously over your shoulder.

One time, the three of us were strolling along. The trail narrowed too much for us to be three abreast, so I moved Haagen Daaz out in front of Katy and Sharon. The next thing I knew, a whip flashed in the corner of my eye, and Haagen Daaz leapt forward. Haagen hated anything so much as brushing his hindquarters, and Katy and Sharon had both whacked him together. As Haagen and I sped off, I heard them laughing hysterically. Haagen, not about to let them get near him again, fought me as I pulled him down from a gallop. When he finally consented to walk, Sharon and Katy picked up a canter and swept by me, leaving me swearing, laughing, and trying to catch up.

We had a glorious summer.

“Don’t tell Nancy,” Sharon said, grinning.


Good Girl, Damnit, Part 2: The Continued Adventures of Smokey

Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s
Alex and Smokey, c. 1990s

I hadn’t ever thought of training a horse as communication; I hadn’t thought of my responsibility in making myself clear to the horse, of rewarding and correcting in ways the horse had understood. When I’d kicked Smokey, I thought he deserved it, the stubborn jerk. I thought if I got mad enough, he’d finally pay attention and listen to me.

When I realized how wrong I’d been, I was sick to my stomach for weeks. I’d been scaring the horse. That was it. All I had done was act like an asshole. I didn’t like it. Nancy forgave my angry outburst, and helped me learn how to actually train a horse.

“Think about what you’re teaching him,” she said. “When you pull on the reins, and he doesn’t do what you want, and you stop, what do you think he’s learned?”

“Not to listen to the rein,” I answered. It was, as she taught it, staggeringly obvious. You figured out what was a reward for the horse–usually a release of pressure: no pulling, no kicking, and no working–and rewarded the responses you wanted.

Learning the correct timing of pressure and release, and learning when to push the horse and when to back off, might have been simple, but it sure wasn’t easy. I still regularly lost my temper, either in boiling rage or hysterical tears.

One challenge was getting Smokey to walk–just walk, nothing faster–with his head down. It was stupefyingly difficult.

“It’s not working. He’s not keeping his head down,” I snarled, careful to contain my temper to my tone. My hands were light on the reins, and my legs loose against Smokey’s sides. Smokey continued moseying around the arena with head up and his nose poked forward. “Why isn’t it working?”

“You’re not insisting,” she said. “You keep letting him put his head up.”

“But you told me not to hold his head down!”

“Ask a little every stride,” she said. “If you feel him start to put his head up, ask more. Then release when he does it. Back on the circle.” When I didn’t move, overwhelmed by the difficulty of following these basic instructions, she waved me off jokingly, “Out, out, damn spot.”

I asked Smokey to walk on, and we set about trying again.

Nancy had showed me the difference between communication and intimidation, but that wasn’t the main reason I trained with her.

I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety. At thirteen, hormones gave the already sickening emotional rollercoaster an added burst of speed. I loathed school. I sneered at my classmates as immature and my teachers as boring. I did not make a lot of friends. Both my parents worked full time, and my mom was taking classes on top of that to get into pharmacy school. When I refused to be reliable about chores, they called me ungrateful, and we fought constantly. While people loved me, few of them actually liked me.

Nancy liked me. She was so good with horses that people paid her to ride and train the $100,000 warmbloods they had imported from Germany. She created oil paintings of horses and horse-spirits that embodied the horses of my imagination: their edges fiery, their movements flowing. She was brilliant. When she found out I was an artist, she asked to see my work. I hesitantly showed her my writing and drawings. She gave me real, appreciative feedback, and we began writing stories and illustrating stories together.

She also accepted my wild moods. With her, my anger at the tedium of school and dread of social situations seemed natural. She told me how she, too, felt isolated and had a terribly hard time dealing with people. At the barn, she slunk around everyone else to avoid small talk, but spent hours talking to me. We trained Smokey together, and he went from being unable to walk around a circle with his head in the right position to winning blue ribbons at dressage shows.

One of the crowning glories of this time was a musical freestyle with Katy. Our barn was hosting a musical freestyle exhibition, riding to music, and I was deemed competent enough to participate. Under Nancy’s direction, Katy and I put together a performance to: me on my little white horse, and she on her strapping black Hanoverian, to the Star Wars soundtrack. We wrapped our dressage whips in green and red bandages, and during the performance, came at each other across the arena, thwacking them together and startling our good-natured horses. The little audience laughed cheered for us.

For almost two years, Nancy had a glorious time teaching my pony fancy dressage movements. I spent most of my nights on the phone with her, complaining about school and soaking up her sympathy, and then moving on to tell the next chapter of our shared story. I adored her. I felt like I’d met the first person in the world who understood me. I was 13, and she was in her 40s.

We both had depression, but Nancy had been living with it undiagnosed for far longer. Even in her blackest moods, I could coax her into talking and smiling, and I craved that satisfaction, the feeling of being necessary and wanted, and the power to make someone’s life better.

As time passed, I began to notice how dangerous Nancy’s moods actually were and how little effect I had on them. With growing desperation, I kept trying to fix her, at least to the point where I wasn’t scared for her. I needed her to be okay. I couldn’t stand the thought of failing my one close friend.

The realization that I had no choice about failing her came slowly and inexorably. I told her I was there for her no matter what. I told her to go to therapy. I told her that I needed her to try to get better, for my sake if she couldn’t do it for her own. Nothing helped enough, and night after night on agonizing phone calls, I listened to my friend drowning.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt myself drowning. I wrote her a letter, apologizing for my inability to help and returning all the artwork and writing we’d exchanged. I sent Smokey up to retirement in an irrigated pasture. I stopped riding.

I missed horses. I missed being good at something. I missed my friend.

Flight or Flight as Applied to Writing

…Unless there’s blood on the floor, of course. War, pestilence, murder, any kind of ordeal or violence, that’s what they respect. Blood means we were serious. ~Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Learning to write, for me, is inextricably entangled with learning to manage my mental state well enough to get words on a page. I think this is a not-uncommon problem.

I used to dream of being chased. No accident, there. I spent years running away inside my own head. I reviled myself for it, because while I was resigned to many of my less-than-positive qualities, I did not want to be a coward. If you have an affinity with predators, you must learn not to be prey, a friend once explained to me. You must, when you dream you are being chased, stop running, turn around, and fight. I knew that no matter how fast and how far you run, you can never run away from yourself. The obvious alternative was fighting. I applied this conclusion to being a writer.

You can just imagine. This is the fight or flight approach to writing. Either you’re running away from it and avoiding writing, or savagely driving yourself to the computer for the daily bloodletting of words. It’s a framework, all right. It is a very easy to framework to fall into, too, because writing is hard for all kinds of reasons: drafts look bad, time is scarce, blank pages are hauntingly empty, other people do it better… Writing, viewed from a certain angle, kicks you directly into a trigger-state, which is to say, a state where you feel you should respond in some survival-based way (run, freeze, or fight).

The fight-based approach felt like being a real writer. I was not cowering under my mountain of excuses: I sat in front of the computer shaking in frustration and terror, but I wrote. I felt peculiarly satisfied; I like to be good at things, and I was getting good at fighting. Every time I wrote, I felt like I was triumphing over myself.

Then, at Viable Paradise, I discovered that people liked my writing.

My whole edifice of ruthless battle cracked at its foundations in under five minutes and never recovered. The fighting dissolved into relieved crying. As it happens, trigger states are not actually that fun for me. They may seem fun, but it is the kind of fun that comes with feeling vulnerable and successfully defending myself rather than the kind of fun that comes from feeling confident and happy. “Yay! I’m not dead!” is not the same as “Yay! I’m having a good time!”

There is not actually much virtue in making a Greek tragedy out of sitting down to write. I am not saying that the drama was a conscious choice. It wasn’t. It was a trigger-state choice: I wanted to run. Therefore, I chose to fight, and I felt better fighting than running.

But here is a thing: No matter how viciously you fight, it doesn’t stop you from hurting. It doesn’t make you feel safe.

For me, the better choice is what I’ve been referring to as “sideways.” You see sideways things a lot with writer tricks. At Viable Paradise, Steven Brust explained how he’d worked a play on lines of Hamlet into every chapter of one book in order to move forward, which emphasizes cleverness (especially useful if you are Steven Brust) and reframes writing into a game. M. J. Locke talked about the feeding and care of your Beast, a kind of metaphor for your creative force / muse, which reframes writing into the process of taking care of yourself, and also creates a supportive sort of imaginary friendship with your writing.

Prior to Viable Paradise, I mostly ignored these sideways tricks because my framing wouldn’t permit them. It’s pretty simple: if you think you’re in a survival situation, and someone is suggesting tea and candlelight and maybe a hug to help you wind down, you will probably look at them, if not with hostility, then certainly with contempt. They don’t understand that you are serious.

My latest sideways trick has been, rather than encountering a blank screen and whimpering in terror, focusing on something related: a map for ten minutes here, a nonfiction book there, and then approaching writing again. Also coffee shops. Also talking to people. Whatever diffuses the “this is a confrontation that I am going to win” mindset.

Susan Palwick has explained that storytelling is the opposite of trauma. If this is so, then pushing myself to the point where I am triggered — where I am experiencing a sort of trauma — in order to write is counterproductive. Narrative is what happens when I am healing, not hurting.