I want to preface this post with the following... Trauma can be one of the biggest tricksters in the human experience. You can hold on to it for so long and find ways to mask its ever-present effects on how you live your life. It took me 7 years to finally get to the place I am now after the events of the day I lost Disco. I do not think I could have confronted it in this way (EMDR) immediately after it happened, but I probably did not need to live with it for 7 years. Reliving trauma is scary and painful. But in making the choice to relive those experiences under the guidance of a trained professional, you can change how you continue to live your day to day life. Do not be afraid to find help. Do not be afraid to confront why you are holding on to something from your past. There are people out there who have been there, and people out there who can help. There is no shame in asking for it.
My therapist asked me to close my eyes, breathe deeply and bring up an image from that day. Once I had that image firmly in my mind, I was to rate my distress when recalling that image on a scale of 0-10. Without hesitation, I described the gruesome image of my horse Disco wedged under four stands of high tensile wire. The flesh from de-gloved from his shoulder to his knee, revealing every striation of his well muscled forearm. I described that despite the lack of pooling blood, his body was convulsing with every shock that pulsed through the lines from which he could not escape. Lathered in sweat, I could see the whites of his eyes, and I knew the fear behind them was worse than the pain he felt.
It has been 7 years. I’ve been through therapy. I can talk about that day without crying. I can tell the story, and say I am past it. I can relate to the trauma of others, and tell them I had learned from it. So as I tried to think of how that image made me feel, I told myself it can’t be a 10… I’ve done the work to be here today. So, I told her an 8. But if I was being honest, it was undeniably a 10. Seeing him there bought back every feeling of guilt and shame that even though I had heard it a million times, “It’s not your fault,” I always held on to the knowing that it was. In that moment, despite being in a safe space, I still felt ashamed to admit I had held on to that trauma for so long. Ashamed that I had been punishing myself on some subconscious level for years, because deep down I still thought I deserved to feel that trauma after what I had caused to happen. My therapist asked me to start there. Right at that image. To tell her about the scene. Not the before. Just that moment. So I began…
I began to narrate the scene with how I wailed for help wondering if anyone could even hear my cries. I told her how I used all the strength I had to hold up the wire from his body with a piece of wood. Enough to keep him from getting shocked, but not enough to get him out. How my neighbors finally came out after hearing me scream for help, cut the fence, and started bucketing cold water onto his sweat lathered body. How I then called the vet and in an inaudible tone I could only say; “He’s dying.” I told her how I had a sliver of hope when the vet arrived and said; “It’s bad, but we can save him.” Followed by the pit in my stomach when after all of our efforts, the vet told me there was nothing more we could do but end his suffering. I described falling to the ground, holding his head in my hands, and how all I could say was “I’m sorry.” I recounted how I got sick seeing his lifeless body; and how my own went numb when the vet guided me in my zombie like state to her car. The next thing I could remember was calling a mentor and friend while sitting on the stairs to my apartment. As he answered the phone I just sobbed out “I killed him, it was my fault.”
The voice of my therapist chimes in now, asking me if she could check in. She told me to take a breath, and then bring up the original image again, and asked once more 0-10. I don’t quite know how, because even with a tear stained face and labored breathing, seeing it now was slightly less jarring. She then told me to start again. This time from the beginning. So I told her. Every detail. That I knowingly wrapped that kite string around the horn of the saddle so I could keep a hold of him when he spooked at what was scaring him, and make him “get over it.” I confessed to her that my decision to rush him that day came from competitiveness, frustration, and arrogance. It may not have seemed like anything bad could happen in that arena, it was a safe place. But if I was being honest, the thought that there could be a consequence to my choice didn’t even cross my mind. I admitted that most of what I had just told her, I had always sugar coated or omitted for fear of being judged. Those were the details that, in my mind, revealed exactly how it was a distinct decision I made that caused that day to be my fault. How, it was shame and guilt that made me hold those cards close and not reveal their faces.
She then asked again, bring up the image, and asked what I felt on the scale of 0-10. In admitting what I had hidden for so long a small weight lifted off my shoulders, but there was more which was preventing me from letting go. She asked me what I thought could still be holding me back. At this point I was so deep into being back in that day, I no longer had the filter on my thoughts that had make me say 8 instead of 10 when we started. What came out of my mouth was something that I don’t think had ever consciously crossed my mind.
“Because I shouldn’t be ok with what happened that day. The trauma of that day is what reminds me of how my decisions caused him to lose his life. The trauma is what makes sure I will never make a mistake like that again.”
I paused after saying it. She then suggested to me to go back again, and identify every part of that day from which I could have done something different, and lock those moments into my brain. And to use the ability to recall those lessons, as my permission to let go of my guilt. So I did. I once again repeated in my mind every moment that happened that day. Pausing at every decision I had made where I could have done something differently. Stopping at every chance I could have given myself to take a step back, and in doing do possibly been able to prevent the events that came after.
When she checked back in this time, she didn’t right away ask me to rate the original image from 0-10. She asked me to talk about him, just as he was before anything bad had happened. So I told her how he was one of the most stunning horses I had ever worked with, and that he didn’t act like that at all. He had this silly personality that made him fit into herd dynamics unlike any horse I had ever seen. No one ever messed with him, but he wasn’t the manager of anyone else’s business. I told her how he always had his tongue out, and how he would lick the mud off the legs of other horses. I described how he had this way of looking into you, and seeing you. How saying that sounded like it was only something from movies, but for him I swore it was real. Then before she asked me to rate the image again, she asked me to bring up another image. One that was not from that day. One that was less gruesome, because there would always be something about seeing him in the state when he died that would be triggering. She told me to ask myself if I could remember him how I just described instead. So when I needed to pick a new image of him, I knew exactly the one I would choose. It is one that still hangs on my wall today. A candid shot of him and I, in black and white. His head in my arms, embraced and loved.
That’s when she asked me one final time, 0-10. Finally, for the first time in 7 years, I could say 0. The feeling of dread, the physical manifestation of the terror I felt from that day, it was gone. I was still sad, I still missed him. I think recalling that day will always have some level of sadness. But it was not until now that I could separate the sadness form the trauma. It was my shame and guilt that for the longest time made me not able to separate the two. The friend I had called on the steps to my apartment that day had once asked me sometime in the years after the accident, that if Disco had crashed through the arena gate that day and turned left instead of right, what would have been there? I told I’m, "Nothing was there. Fields of corn, no fences. Just open space.” So, he replied… “What you did started a chain of events. But you did not intend for him to die. You could not control anything after it started, and thus the outcome was not your fault." For seven years I had held on to that statement. I had told myself I stood behind it, but it wasn’t until now that believed it.
Trauma has a funny way of tricking us. Time passes and we learn to live with it, assuming it’s just now a part of who we are. When in reality, it is possible to let it go. 7 years…. I can finally say I’ve let go. The sadness of the loss, and the lessons learned from that day will always be with me, but now I, not the trauma and the shame, control the narrative.