There have been two times in my life I have been close to suffering so real, it peeled back every layer of defense I possess leaving me emotionally naked and exposed. The first was on the job while working for an ambulance company, and the second when I arrived at my cousin Kimberly’s house a few hours after she had found her daughter Erica hanging by her neck in her closet. Although it has been years since this night, I can still feel Kimberly’s pain; it is the kind of pain that stays with you much like a red scar that refuses to be unseen and will always be sensitive to the touch.
I arrived late that night after leaving my home and family behind with a feeling of desperation to reach her. I could not stand the thought of her being alone for one second. In many ways Kimberly understood me like no one else could as we were, for reasons that still baffle us to this day, the target of abuse in our family.
Several of my cousins, if not all, as adults, have spoken with me about this phenomenon; recognizing that of the nine of us, some were allowed to behave as they wished and others (mostly Kimberly and me) were harshly criticized, blamed or punished for everything. When I arrived Kimberly asked me to sleep with her and I did. What I remember most of that night was frequently waking in response to her pain, first unheard, and within a few moments being consumed by grief that left her gulping for air.
My pain, of course, is minuscule in comparison to the pain Kimberly and her son Reuben experience on a daily basis. I honestly can not imagine, and, unless you, dear reader, have found your child this way, neither can you. It is a grim reality none of us wish to discuss nor face; culturally we live in a state where mental illness is weakness, we do not feel responsible for the suffering of others, and we allow systems to destroy any chance for real change. Perhaps the most difficult thing for me to hear as a mental health provider was Kimberly’s explanation of Erica’s attempts to obtain mental health services. She was not ill enough to receive publicly funded mental health services and was too poor to afford a private therapist. Working in public health, I know this tragic reality intimately and have seen first hand the unmet need, the mass shootings, the fallout of successful suicides, and individuals so debilitated, they can no longer care for their own basic needs.
I assisted Kimberly through the maze of arranging the services and tried to make it as “nice” as I could, I wanted Erica’s life to be recognized for what it was, valuable, honored, and precious.
The night after her service, several of my cousins and I gathered around a large antique table and reminisced, laughed, and caught up with each other after so many years of tragic separation.
Reuben, Erica’s brother, mostly stayed to himself lost in his own grief and confusion. The day after her service and as Reuben and Kimberly departed, I reached in the car to hug Reuben good-bye. With vivid attention, Reuben looked me in the eye and thanked me for what I had done for his sister. It was an expression of gratitude that I believe Reuben only saved for those who truly earned his respect and trust. I returned his gaze and in that moment, it came to me, “I promise you Reuben, I don’t know how or what, but I promise you, I will never let what happened to you or your sister happen to anyone else again.”
And I meant it.
I hold no delusions, I do not believe I will save the world or that equine assisted psychotherapy is the solution for every person suffering from some kind of mental illness. But…yes…but…someone wise once told me, if you don’t like something see what you can do to change it, and at the very least, if you can’t change it, don’t participate. The greatest barrier people endure when attempting to get help is access and availability to get the services they need. I am frequently asked why I am offering our services as a non-profit. My response is simple, why not?
If I believe what I write here and I believe that Erica died from a treatable illness because she did not have access to life-saving treatment, the solution for me is elementary; create a program where these barriers do not exist.
I did not set out to create The Equine Healing Collaborative after Erica’s suicide. I can honestly say The Equine Healing Collaborative created itself. The series of events, the three am wake-ups where my best ideas just magically appear, and the willingness of so many to get this program going have created the energy behind it. I just happen to be here.
However, I would like it to be known that this is for Erica, for Reuben and her mother and in some ways women like me who rush to the sides of other mothers who lose children in such a horrid way. Suicide impacts millions of Americans and in fact twenty-two veterans successfully commit suicide everyday. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death and yet, Facebook does not prompt its users to change their photos a certain color in recognition of this tragedy, there are few, if any, sports events dedicated to “finding a cure”, and only a spattering of those with a public spotlight will address this issue in any meaningful way.
However small, in my own part of the world, I would like to make a modest shift and am driven by the pain I still feel when I think of Kimberly and Reuben; but more than anything I am motivated by the knowledge that Erica, the twenty-two veterans that will successfully commit suicide today, and the thousands of others like them succumbed to a state of anguish so severe, so desperate, that their basic primal drive for survival was extinguished. And that knowledge is what created The Equine Healing Collaborative, it is a place to heal without judgement or demands. As Tim Hayes graciously points out, “Horses connect us to the power of nature and of living in the moment. Something unimaginable and profound occurs when a human begins a meaningful, emotional, interactive relationship with a horse” , and it will be here at The Equine Healing collaborative where that healing will occur. Our goal is large and at some point, we would like to provide residential treatment for anyone who wants it and considering how easily everything has fallen into place, I suspect that goal will be achieved. I can feel the power of Kimberly’s pain, but more than anything
I can see and feel Erica.
I envision her atop a grand, blazing steed, galloping ahead, with arms outstretched free from all that bound her here, enveloped in grace and I am inspired to move my little pieces of earth in her honor.