We love survival stories. Our hearts can’t help but lift a little when we hear about the person who had a two percent chance of surviving Leukemia, and then did. Or the person who doctors said would be paralyzed permanently on the left side of their body, yet through their own determination regained their mobility and went on to win running races. We think we love these stories because they are so inspiring. But we also love them because they help assuage what for many us is our biggest fear: our mortality. If they can beat death and even live better from facing it, than why can’t we?
But what happens to someone after they go into remission? What happens after they regain their mobility? What happens is that their lives have changed in ways they never could have imagined. The doctors may have pronounced their bodies medically on the mend, but many find themselves lost. Healing is not just about repairing a broken bone. It’s not just about what you do in one month, or even one year after recovering from an injury or illness. It’s not just about grieving the death of a loved one. Healing is about moving towards a state of wholeness. And that, that is the work of a lifetime.
Six years ago, if someone told me that horseback riding could be a powerful means of healing, I would have no doubt given them one of my more blanker looks. Horses used to register back in the dustier part of my mind that somehow related to little kids and sadness. The little kid part had to do with the fact that almost all of my experience with horses occurred at this place called Diamond T Ranch before their were even two digits that designated my age. The sadness part probably came from some combination of the fact that Diamond T Ranch closed because they maltreated their horses, because I read too many horse books like “Black Beauty,” and because I participated in too many silly hay rides where the horses looked utterly miserable. Then I met Sharon Bertrand.
If I had met Sharon 15 years ago, I probably would have found myself with a rather serious woman who held out her hand and said, “my name is Sharon. I have multiple sclerosis.” She most likely would have grown visibly tired throughout our meeting and then would have gone back to bed afterward. Our coffee date would have been the major activity of her day.
Last month, when I first met Sharon on one of the two days of the week that she doesn’t go horseback riding, she smiled. When Sharon smiles, it lights up every inch of her face. She exuded fun and didn’t seem the least bit tired; MS figured nowhere into her introduction. That is because on July 30, 2005, Sharon Bertrand healed herself. She went from living a dependent lifestyle centered largely around her bed, to an independent full life. Those who didn’t know her beforehand don’t always believe it. But if nothing else, she has a thick medical record as proof. Like clockwork, four times a year, Sharon used to experience brutally painful and debilitating MS attacks. With each attack, she’d spend a week going back and forth to the hospital to receive IV steroids. Since July of 2005, she hasn’t been back to the hospital for a MS attack once. She hasn’t received a single drop of steroids.
From the moment Sharon healed herself, she grabbed a hold of her life. She traveled to Norway with her family and then came back and immediately applied for a doctorat program in Leadership. By April of that year she was enrolled at the University ofThomas and, three-and-a-half years later, she had completed and defended her dissertation. After that, she published several articles and then spent a year rewriting the curriculum for “Renewing Life,” a support program she facilitates for people with chronic or life-threatening conditions.
But just over a year ago, Sharon found herself lying on the pavement outside T.J.Maxx with parcels and pottery shards strewn around all about. Doing very little but sitting and writing for five years had caused her most of the muscles in her body to atrophy. This was one of a series of several falls, but the public and painful nature of this fall acted as a wake-up call for her. Something needed to change.
There are few things scarier than the notion that that cancer, that knee injury, that depression isn’t actually gone forever. As Sharon assured the people who had stopped their cars around her that they could drive on, that she was ok, she found herself asking whether she really was. What if the MS was back?
Healing isn’t linear. Life isn’t either. Healing herself from MS had seemed like quite the feat enough, but Sharon found herself called to step up to the plate again. These days Sharon envisions healing in terms of layers. As she sat in the car and shakily dialed the doctor, there was no doubt that she had come up against another one.
It turned out that a certain four-legged animal would play an integral role in nibbling and nudging that next layer back for her. Sharon first got connected to horseback riding through Pathways, the health resource center where she “Renewing Life.” From the moment Sharon got on a horse last March, she was hooked. The woman who describes herself as never doing anything halfway, had found a new passion. She dove headfirst into the deep-end of the horse world, setting out to learn everything there was to know about horses.
In the early weeks, Sharon struggled to climb onto the horse and could only walk the animal short distances with the instructor on the ground. Nowadays, she slides onto her horse easily and will walk, trot, and cantor along trails which can range over 10 miles in length, all with only a bareback pad and a bitless bridle. Sharon horses give her access to natural settings that she never would have been able to experience otherwise. Hikes or cross-country skiing may not be feasible for her, but horses erase such barriers. On top of a horse she has four legs instead of two. On top of a horse she looks like anyone else.
In the days after the fall outside T.J.Maxx, Sharon and her husband put their house on the market. Given their concerns about her mobility and safety, they thought it might be best transition to a single-level condo. But then their lives started to revolve around horses and they never ended up their selling house; Sharon can’t remember the last time she fell and says that her core body strength has never been stronger.
Horseback riding, beyond transforming her mobility and body, offers Sharon a continual source of joy. To say, that she has fallen literally head over heals in love with horses, would not be an exaggeration. When Sharon is on a horse, her smile transcends beyond her face and radiates throughout the whole of her body. I had the chance to go riding with her and she was clearly having the time of her of life, commenting excitedly about the personality of the horse, the feeling of its body under her, and the beauty of the natural surroundings.
Sharon and the woman she rides with, Jan, joke that, if someone tape-recorded them, they would quickly figure out that they unconsciously many of the same exclamations each time they ride. Horseback riding necessitates a fully present and centered frame of mind, otherwise the experience is dangerous for both the rider and the horse. Such a mind-state makes the experience new and refreshing each time. It never gets old for Sharon; if anything it keeps getting better. When Sharon is on a horse, she says her mind, body, and spirit all align. It’s a means, no doubt, of living life to the fullest.
Whether we realize it or not, we all want something akin to what Sharon experiences with horses. No matter how great our lives are, there is always an underlying yearning. For something more? For something different? For something.
Typically such yearning takes the form of an addiction or a distraction. We become addicted—to cigarettes, sex, food, beer—anything that feels good that we can’t seem to stop. We’re addicted because it offers pleasure, because it offers security, but because it also seems to be a means to something greater, to some sort of transcendence. We also become distracted—by facebook, by TV shows, by the news—by the need to fill our brains and schedules until they burst. Ultimately the addiction becomes a distraction and the distraction becomes an addiction. Most, if not all of us, are at least a little bit addicted and distracted. I know I am.
Such addictions and distractions leave us fragmented. Too few of us have been able to find a means of living that helps us achieve wholeness.
Whether or not we have stage-three breast cancer or have tested positive for HIV/AIDs, we all are going to die. And we all could die at any point. We could all die tomorrow. So why not make the most of what we got?
This is not just about carpé diem. We talk about living in the moment so much that it almost seems to have lost its meaning. This is about living with meaning, living with wholeness. For Sharon, living in such a way at this time in her life is integrally related to horseback riding. But horseback riding is not the only thing that has been healing for her, and it’s not the only thing that ever will be.
Someone for whom soccer played a dominant, grounding role throughout their childhood may find similar effects from family hiking trips. Or from long distance swims. But this is not just about being outside, engaging in physical activity, making music or art. This is about intentionally restructuring your life so that instead of always doing what you should be doing, you spend as much of your days as possible doing what you want to be doing. And so ultimately this is about change and about the new.
We are brilliant at birthing shoulds. We go out with a friend because we should, apply for a certain type of job because we should, decide to eat desert because we should, decide not to eat desert because we should. Ultimately our life becomes a web of shoulds so complex that we can’t even see the shoulds any more. Letting go of the shoulds necessarily begets change because it means letting go of our understanding of the way life has to be.
This approach to living is scary because it’s impossible to predict the outcome. But in that sense, it’s also terribly exciting. Living in this way is like taking a sword and slaying a dragon. Except you don’t even need a sword or really anything but yourself to face the dragon. The dragon that is fear. The fear of death. The fear that you haven’t lived enough, or in the right way.
We don’t need an illness such as MS to make this sort of change. For many, injury, illness, or the death of a loved one is that wake-up call that leads them into a different paradigm of living. Yet, no one needs an excuse to grab a hold of their life. We can do it right now if we want to. Ultimately it won’t just be someone else who has the inspiring story. We will be living our own.