Learning How to Bounce

Normal life came to a screeching halt for me on August 22nd, 2015. No pun intended. It was replaced with a blur of doctors offices, therapist's tables and couches, bottles of meds, dealing with insurance claims, vet visits, cold hosing, hand-walking, and lacing feed with pain killers and supplements for my injured horse.  Seven weeks later, it still feels like a full time job. While the freakishness of our accident (being hit from behind by a truck going 50 m.p.h.) may win us the dubious distinction of the 'Oddest Equestrian Accident' award in certain circles, the comeback isn't really so different from any other traumatic equestrian accident.  I hurt. My horse hurts. There's some healing to be done and practical matters to address before we can get back in the saddle.

While I won't pretend to be an expert, it's been a life-altering experience with a massive learning curve. Thankfully I had the good fortune to be surrounded by good friends and family who know a little something about trauma and knew what questions to ask and were checking in with me at regular intervals. Extended navel-gazing isn't really my thing, but it occurs to me that I would have been totally lost and frantically searching the internet for information without the support system I have, so I'm passing a few thoughts along should anyone out there need a friendly been-there-done-that perspective.

Here's what I know about learning how to bounce. YMMV.

Not feeling like yourself? Get checked out.

Both concussion and PTSD can cause an array of symptoms. For me, it's been a disorienting cocktail of lack of concentration, jittery adrenaline rushes, persistent headaches, random crying jags, feeling foggy, tired, irritable, spacing out, having flashbacks of the accident, being constantly tense and worried, nightmares, and sleep disturbances.

Luckily, I sorted out pretty early on that something wasn't right when I went from wrapping-up a perfectly calm rational telephone conversation about the accident, to bursting into tears and going fetal racked with sobs, then popping up to offer my friend who was there to celebrate her birthday, a glass of bubbly, in less than a 3 minute time interval. Uh, yah, that was weird. Worst birthday hostess ever.

After a sheepish call to a number in the telephone book explaining that I had been in an accident and didn't think I was handling it very well, I found myself sitting across from a therapist. She kindly assured me I was handling things great-- for a person with a concussion and PTSD. I hadn't remembered hitting my head or going through the windshield, and seemed pretty lucid right after the accident, so the folks at the emergency room hadn't thought to check for possible brain injury. The counselor recommended a CT just to be safe, and my doctor got me booked at the hospital the next day. No closed head brain injury = huge relief.

If there is any risk of concussion or internal head trauma, get a CT scan or MRI. See the doctor. Check in with a therapist. The sooner you understand what your mind and body are doing to cope with the accident, the sooner you can start working on healing.

Be kind to your body.

If you took a tumble, you're going to start off sore. Provided you don't have injuries or medical conditions that prevent you from taking baths, warm Epsom salt baths are a great idea. The Epsom salt works to relieve muscle tension, pain, and inflammation, and the magnesium ions break apart from Epsom salt molecules and begin to relieve stress by promoting the production of serotonin and reducing the effects of adrenaline. As a lifelong devotee of long luxurious soaking baths, I was surprised to learn that it takes at least 2-3 cups of Epsom salt in the tub to get the full medicinal benefit. Don't be stingy with the Epsom salt!

Don't be afraid to take the medications that your doctor prescribes. I'm not a big user of pharmaceuticals in everyday life, but I know how pain and stress affect the body. If medications were prescribed, they were given to you for a specific reason. Take them as prescribed for as long as you need them, ditch them as soon as you don't (but always finish the full course of antibiotics), and check in with your doctor if they aren't working or are causing troubling side effects.

Consider trying complimentary healthcare modalities like massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic if you're not already familiar. As a massage therapist, I knew I'd be spending some time on the massage table getting my soft tissues healthy again, but had only a vague sense of how acupuncture works, and frankly, wasn't that charmed by the idea of being voluntarily poked by needles. On a glowing referral from a friend, I was willing to give it a shot, and it turns out, acupuncture has been the single most helpful therapy I've had to manage pain and get my mind-body connection back on kilter. In the end, you get to decide what works best for you, but don't knock it 'til you've tried it! These healthcare modalities can be powerful tools to accelerate your return to optimal health and manage pain.

Your body needs quality fuel to recover, so remember to eat, and do your best to make it nutrient-rich food. I'm a food-loving girl and was surprised at how many meals slipped by as I was tending to my horse, spacing out, or running to appointments. If you're having trouble remembering to eat, set an alarm for yourself. If you're too busy to sit down for a proper meal, pack nutritious snacks that you can eat on the go.

If your body is tired, rest. While I've been campaigning to bring the siesta concept stateside for years, sleeping after injury is particularly important. Sleep plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions. Scientists have found that many of the major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep. I've logged some serious pillow time since the accident, and it's been a great investment.

Train your brain.

Stress, fear, and grief seriously jack around with your sense of well-being. Recognizing unproductive thought patterns, interrupting them, understanding the source, and replacing them with healthier thoughts is a method of making new neural pathways. I find it handy in every day life, but it was especially useful when I was getting dragged down in worry and negative what-if scenarios after the accident. Danielle La Porte did a great approachable 2-part series about making new mind grooves, if you're curious.

Sometimes the mental spin can launch into an unending cycle of worry, despite your best intentions. I was pretty vigilant in daytime hours about interrupting negativity, but at night I'd awake from nightmares stressing about my horse's prognosis, running through elaborate financial strategies to make it through, or racing down a long list of all of the things I needed to do to put my world back together. Spinning? Get up and write it down. Articulating how you feel helps you identify what exactly you're worried about and getting the to-dos out on paper made me feel like I didn't need to keep track of that list in my head anymore. Trust me, it's so much less scary once it's out on paper.

Meditation is another great way to give your mind a rest. I got my start in yoga classes years ago, and while it hasn't always been a part of my daily life, it's been a great tool in giving my brain a break from worry and stress during recovery. I found that 'monkey mind' (those chattering busy thoughts jumping around in your head) went into overdrive after the accident. Learning mindfulness can take time, and what works for you might be different from others. As someone who is particularly gifted at drifting off to sleep anytime my eyes are closed, I find the unfocused gaze with a candle really useful, and a touch of lavender oil on the nose, or burning Palo Santo soothing. For those unfamiliar with meditation, Body Sense Magazine recently published a nice article (p.14-15) outlining three simple steps to get you started if you're not familiar.

Stay positive, but be honest about how you feel.

Just because you feel incredibly lucky and grateful to be alive doesn't mean recovering from trauma doesn't suck. It really does. If at some point you aren't frustrated with the endless cycle of doctor appointments, the physiological fall-out from the accident, missing your daily routine, lost work and income, being in pain, worrying for and tending to your hurt horse, you aren't being totally honest with yourself. And if you're like me, in that moment when the 97th well-meaning person tells you how lucky you are, and you think, "Am I, really? We got run down by a freaking pick-up truck! I hurt, my horse hurts, and I have no idea how we're going to get through this. I don't really feel so lucky right now", you'll feel instantly ashamed for being an ingrate. You're miraculously alive, right?

Being grateful and feeling sad or frustrated or angry about your situation aren't mutually exclusive. It's okay to recognize that it's hard. Feel what you feel. And then remind yourself of three things you're grateful for, put on some happy music or call a good friend, and keep marching on. Eventually you'll come out on the other side.

Surround yourself with good people.

It almost goes without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway; having a good support system when you're on the mend is very important. Family, friends, stable buddies, your community or church. Whoever it is that keeps you laughing and on kilter are the people you need to spend time with. You're going to feel a little raw at times, maybe short-tempered, and probably not the life of the party. You need to be with people who are okay with that and know how to make you smile.

Maybe equally important, be selective about who you allow in your immediate orbit while you're healing. There will be those for whom you're just a good story, an easy gossip topic. They'll build up the drama factor, dig for every juicy detail and broadcast them freely, probably distorted, without any intention of helping you cope. And there are others who are just too socially insensitive to understand what you're going through who will accidentally tread on your sore spots. Neither are worth getting upset about, but you don't need that distraction when you're focusing on healing. Edit who you allow into your healing space.

Cut yourself some slack.

I've had my share of goofy spaced-out misses since the accident. The words I couldn't quite cobble together to respond to a simple question within any normal time-frame. Glancing over at the passenger seat to find the 4-pound bag of sweating and probably salmonella-riddled chicken I forgot to take into the house after grocery shopping. The mildewed laundry that didn't quite make it to the dryer. Preparing my dog's meal but forgetting to set it on the floor. Thankfully, Remington (my terrier) isn't the type of dog to let meal-related blunders pass unnoticed for long. If I had a dollar for every eye-roll, frustrated sigh, and "Dammit, Suze. Just pull yourself together already", I've leveled at myself since the accident, I could buy myself a new pair of Dubarrys.

The funny part is, of course, that I'd throttle anyone who dared to tear down a friend like that, especially someone who's recovering from an accident. Isn't it odd how hard we are on ourselves? Shut that mean girl down. Have some compassion for yourself and learn how to laugh at the weird dark comedy your life has become. If you can't quite manage that, call in a friend who will remind you that you should give yourself a break.

Ask for help.

The horsewomen I've known, as a general rule, are the independent sort. We like freedom and take pride in being able to carry our own feed sacks, buck a bale, and park our own rig, thank you very much. DIY seems built into our DNA, but from pharmacy runs to chores to nutritious meals to dog-walking to financial support, accepting help when you're gimpy or tired or scared is really important.

When trying to sort out ways to bypass the unbearably slow-churning wheels of insurance compensation to get Duke the expensive medical attention he needs, I very quickly rejected a friend's suggestion of a Go-Fund-Me campaign.

"Why?" She asked. "You need help. Your friends would love to help. What's the problem?"

"I feel like a failure for not being prepared for this. It hurts my pride to ask for help."

"You and your horse got mowed down by truck going 50mph. Nobody's prepared for that. This isn't about your pride, this is about Duke." And she was right.

Oddly enough, what I thought was going to be a humiliating experience ended up being one of the most positive affirming parts of this whole mess. While the funds have been incredibly helpful, it's been the deluge of well-wishes that have done the most good. Friends, old office buddies, riding pals, acquaintances, classmates I haven't seen in years, and even total strangers have contributed. Just knowing that they were out there rooting for us did me a world of good.

So for the other stubborn DIYers out there, I'll pass along a perspective that was so patiently spelled out for me by a very dear friend. Everyone goes through hard times sometime during their life. IT'S YOUR TURN. Don't cheat your friends and loved ones out of a chance to support you and demonstrate that they care. This world is filled with amazing compassionate people who really care about what you're going through. Take the help and pay it forward when you can.

When it's time, start building your confidence.

Whether in the saddle or on the ground, knowing what triggers fear for you and your horse after a traumatic accident is important to recognize and deal with. Normally I'm a get-right-back-on-the-horse kind of girl, but when that isn't an option after a traumatic accident, the rules change. Any intelligent person will associate the stimulus from a traumatic accident with fear and try to protect oneself from harm. That's not cowardice, it's survival instinct. Understand it, own it, then push the boundaries. Gently.

No good comes of false bravado with horses, and scaring the bejeezes out of yourself or your horse is counter-productive, so make a calculated low-risk plan that you can be confident about. Visualize each way it could go down, have a planned positive response for each scenario, and be ready to support your horse through its fear. The trick is to telegraph confidence in the best scenario to your horse, even if you're prepared for a bobble. Used to taking 4' fences? Maybe try some cavalettis first. Came off at a gallop? Maybe start with a trot and work your way up.

Duke and I are still a long ways from physically being able to saddle up, but we've already started working on our comeback. As ridiculous as it sounds, neither of us really enjoy being approached by speedy road traffic from behind right now. I worked on my own response by using sidewalks next to heavily trafficked roads so I could get used to breathing my way through my body's overly-vigilant adrenaline dump. Once I had a handle on that the next step was obvious, though neither of us were very keen to step back out onto the road where we got hit. But we did. Duke whirled around and went into a full primal fight or flight response with the arched neck and flagging tail at the first loud engine that passed. But we stood our ground together, and he eventually snorted and went back to investigating the lush grass on the road side. It's a first step.

We're learning how to bounce.