By Rachelle Hamill, LCSW
Have you ever fought against something, only later to find that there wasn’t any present danger? Still, your pulse races, heart pounds, and palms sweat. Your body giving you the message that you need to fight back, freeze, or run away because there is something dangerous that’s threatening you. In these moments your body is sending you a message that defies logic. . . but can your body, emotions, and mind be wrong?
I’m posting a picture of nothing. There is no pony in this pen. Nothing is happening. There’s no action. It’s calm. The pen is empty, however; to some people, this empty pony pen represents the feeling of present danger. Memories or flashbacks of previously experienced trauma are not of events happening currently, and though there’s no danger around, some still fight. Some fight the past from a present perspective, the past burning them as though it is still there, still causing harm and damage to their lives.
Some people are often so familiar with the pain that they don’t realize that what they’re physically or emotionally experiencing doesn’t need to be continuously played out or relived—to them it’s a normal, a frequent experience with each moment feeling as powerful as though they are experiencing it for the first time.
Last Fall my client’s equine therapy trauma work assignment was to go inside the pen (pictured) and catch a pony. Tony, our Equine Director, handed him a halter and lead rope and instructed him. The client looked at me and Tony, looked inside the pen, back at us as though we were delusional, yet still, walked into the pen, inspected it thoroughly and reported that there was no pony to catch. We asked him to check again, which he did. He returned with the same report- there was nothing in the pen.
He exclaimed that he could not catch the pony because there was no pony to catch. It was empty, of that he was sure. He was correct. There was no pony to catch in the pen. Nothing to see, nothing to feel, nothing to chase, no task to accomplish.
We then looked at the evidence that there had been pony present. The client found evidence that a pony had been there in the past, as there was manure on the ground, hay is strewn about, a water-filled trough, and hoof marks. There was evidence of recent presence, but nothing current.
After observing the current status of the pen and its emptiness, we addressed the choice that this client has to live in chaotic moments by reliving experiences that no longer exist, imagining that they do. We then turned him around 180 degrees where he could see the sun setting over the mountains. The light pink clouds were moving slowly and there was a slight breeze in the air. Comfortable and cool. We took deep breaths to soak in the experience and discussed being present here and now.
Accepting the truth of the moment is often similar to noticing a gentle breeze as the sun sets. It’s comfortable as it sweeps past your cheeks and through your hair. It’s non-invasive, comfortable and soothing. It reminds you to close your eyes and breathe and allows you to savor the feeling given to you at the moment. With each breath, you realize that everything is peaceful at this moment. Everything is calm, quiet and enjoyable.
As we look at the pen and are reminded that it’s empty, only seeing traces of the past, we realize that nothing is currently causing us pain, even when the memory of it may be fresh for us.
The realization that our past is not our present, that our past does not dictate the present or the future, allows memories to serve as gentle reminders to us. How do we want to use these reminders? Maybe we can choose to be reminded of how far we have come or what we have learned. Maybe we can use such reminders to drive us to change or to shape healthy relationships in the future, to prevent us from being back in the place that we used to be, the place that we despise the place that was painful a place that was unsettling or strained. In this moment of reminder, how will you choose to live? How will you choose for that reminder to presently affect your life? Will you allow the painful memories to hunt and cause you to continue in your pain? Will you allow the past to dictate your feeling right now, even though the storm is over and the pain is in the past?
It’s your choice. My client has a choice. I can’t wait to see what he chooses.
You can’t catch a pony that isn’t there.
Today we took our client to this empty pen. Then we turned him around and took him to the present- the sun setting slowly over the mountains. Today we were reminded that we have many moments in each day to choose peace or pain.
Do you see it? It’s nothing. . . nothing other than a peaceful present.