Blue-Violet Iris Interior

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Best Therapist

Research indicates that the most successful scenario for treating and coping with mental illness is a combination of medication and therapy. Either one, when used alone, is not nearly as beneficial as when used together. And yet, as complicated as the medication can be (and it can be plenty complicated), it can be simple in comparison to the task of finding the right therapeutic match.

For starters, not all therapies are created equal, but there is not necessarily good information out there for patients and families to use to understand the strengths of various therapies and the differences between approaches. Furthermore, a sound therapeutic model does not guarantee that all of its practitioners are good therapists. Again, there is very little information out there to assist individuals in choosing the therapist that will be their best match, especially since someone who makes a great therapist for one person does not necessarily make a great therapist for a different individual.

And there are some bad therapists out there.

Therapists run the gamut from outstanding to good to adequate to mediocre to downright bad. A bad therapist is worse than simply ineffective; they can be detrimental to the patient's health and harm the reputation of the practice of large. Many people, once they've had a bad therapy experience, will write off therapy altogether and never go near it again: that's how damaging a bad therapist can be. It's a shame, since there are good therapists out there who could be helping those who now view therapy as worthless.

In my day, I've had two bad therapists (like the guy who told me to be kind to myself and eat some ice cream when I called to tell him--totally freaked out--that I'd woken up suicidal the day before), a few good therapists, and Andrea.

Andrea belongs in the class of exceptional therapists and for seven years she's been my invaluable guide. This week, I saw her one last time, as she is leaving the practice where she's worked all these years to explore different horizons. Although I'm sorry to see her go, she leaves me in good hands: my own. While I will take on another therapist in the practice as backup, over the years, Andrea has helped me become so skillful at managing my emotions and troubleshooting problems that I've only needed to check in with her every six months or so.

When we first met in March of 2005, it was a different story. I was in bad shape. The month before, I'd had my fourth psychiatric hospitalization in slightly more than a year's time. I was seeing a psychiatrist, but after the overdose that put me in the hospital, everyone agreed that I needed more extensive therapeutic treatment. That's how I found myself at the DBT Center of Seattle.

DBT, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy, deserves a blog post all its own to fully explain why it is, in my opinion, the best possible therapy out there. The extremely short summary is that it teaches individuals how to cope and respond to difficult emotional situations through the use of a variety of skills. It is a therapy of doing, of moving forward, of changing how you think and therefore how you feel, and it is extremely effective. I was first introduced to DBT at the psych hospital in Chicago and had seen a good therapist at the DBT Center of Seattle when I had been home for a few months between hospitalizations two and three. I was, therefore, not wholly unfamiliar with the general concept or that office in particular, but it was with Andrea that my true Dialectical Behavior Therapy education began.

As I said, I was not doing well when we first met. I remember her asking each week if I could make a contract for safety with her, meaning that I would promise not to hurt myself until I saw her next, and each week I would refuse to make that promise because I didn't want to make a promise that I wasn't sure I could keep. There are four units in DBT–Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Wise Mind–and it should be no surprise that we jumped right into Distress Tolerance, the unit that focuses on surviving and coping with the most painful and extreme emotions.

The first few months were hard. I wasn't really well enough to even absorb a lot of what I was being taught, but between Andrea's gentle, kind, but firm guidance and my weekly DBT skills group, the principles started to take root. Six months into DBT, I was started on lithium, and suddenly, everything clicked. From then on, my progress accelerated tremendously.

When I think back to those early months (not that they are very clear), what I remember most is how helpful Andrea was in helping me confront my severely debilitating social anxiety. Together we made up a list of all the things I was scared to do and ranked them according to Subjective Units of Distress, or SUDs, which is basically, on a scale of 0 to 100, how terrified I was to do them. This list included things like asking for directions, talking on the phone, going into a store even if I didn't intend to buy something, asking a bus driver a question about stops or the route, looking at a map in public, taking the time to find the exact change when purchasing an item, making any kind of request of anyone, and dozens of other seemingly innocuous things that filled me with paralyzing anxiety. Then she had me choose one or two items off the list that I had ranked in the 20 to 30 SUDs range to do each week. It wasn't easy at first. But if I didn't do an item one week, it remained my assignment to do it the next. As items were crossed off the list, they were replaced by ones with higher rankings. Slowly this exposure therapy started to take hold, where years of cajoling and reasoning had failed. As my anxiety lessened, it became easier for me to move about the world without feeling like I was constantly being negatively judged by every single person around me. After I'd gotten the hang of challenging myself, we put the list away, but I remember when we looked at it again perhaps a year or so later. It was astonishing. Things that I had ranked as high as 70 or 80 SUDs now seemed so easy, meriting big fat zeros in terms of subjective distress in my revised view on life. The only thing that remained on the list that I agreed with was singing karaoke: sorry people, not gonna happen! It was amazing to see how far I'd come, and to this day, I still marvel at how wonderful it is to be able to do the kind of everyday things that used to fill me with terror and to be free of that sense of being constantly watched and judged. Without Andrea's advice, encouragement, and underlying firmness, I might still be obsessing over what terrible things other drivers were thinking about me because I had set my windshield wipers to "intermittent" when other drivers (and I was checking the wiper activity of every other car on the road) didn't seem to have theirs on at all. (Seriously, the thought that I might have my windshield wipers on the "wrong" setting used to preoccupy me terribly and any drive in the drizzle/rain/mist--and I live in Seattle, so there was no shortage of drizzly, rainy, misty days--was an exhausting, nerve-wracking, humiliating experience. It was a terrible way to have to live and am so thankful to be free of it.)

It could be argued that I might have done well with any DBT therapist, but I'm sure that without Andrea's attributes, I would not have come nearly as far nearly as fast. She was exactly what I needed in a therapist: friendly and positive without being superficial or exuberant; so clearly patient and kind and nonjudgmental that even I, who was so terrified of being "wrong" somehow, was able to learn to relax and trust her; clear in both her explanations and expectations; and, at the core, where it was needed, absolutely firm. I remember in one early session, during a time when I was still sorting through and dealing with suicidal thoughts, saying something somewhat glib or certainly self-centered about the benefits of suicide and her reply, that suicide really fucks up people's loved ones, shocked me tremendously. That Andrea would say "fuck" in a session was as shocking as, well, my mother saying it, or the queen. And when she said it, I believed her. That was the last time I ever indulged in fantasizing about suicide. From then on, I was wholeheartedly on board in trying to turn my thinking away from self-destruction.

And so I learned how to arrest a spiraling state of emotional intensity in its tracks; to notice when I was engaging in catastrophic thinking and how to make myself stop; how to quiet my mind when my thoughts started racing; how look for the positives in every situation instead of focusing on the negative; how to ask for what I needed and then, once I had accomplished that, how to ask for things I wanted (this was huge because my sense of self-worth was so low at the outset that I didn't believe I deserved to have needs, much less wants, and the worst possible thing would be to inconvenience anyone with something so selfish as asking for what I needed); how to separate the facts of a situation (or emotion) from the judgments and assumptions; and how to effectively respond once the facts of a situation or emotion had been established. With Andrea's helpful tutelage, I was able to leave that cringing, shrinking, petrified, miserable, out-of-control, profoundly unhappy torture chamber that was my life and enter into a positive way of being, where I believe in my worth, in my opinion, my voice, and my happiness.

It's a good thing I had DBT and Andrea at my disposal, since six months after I started taking lithium, I found myself desperately needing the skills I'd been learning. I'd started lithium because I was going off of a drug called Geodon that was causing tardive dyskinesia, or involuntary movements of the mouth and face, a condition that can become permanent if the medication causing it is not stopped. My experience with Geodon will get its own blog post one of these days, but what happened is that after six months of problem-free reductions, with me getting better and better by remarkable leaps and bounds, I slammed head-on into excruciating withdrawal. It was awful. There was agonizing pain, horrible nausea, immense fatigue, bizarre sensory hallucinations, cognitive problems, vision problems, you name it. It went on for years. And not only did the withdrawal symptoms get worse the closer I was to finishing the taper, but they continued for a full year AFTER I was off the medication. I started tapering off Geodon in 2005 and was not wholly free of its effects until 2009. And that's not counting its permanent legacy: hypoglycemia, worsened migraines, and periodic fibromyalgia. I might not have been able to cope with finishing the taper if I hadn't had DBT and Andrea to help me through one health crisis and setback after another. It really might have been unbearable. It's a good thing I was able to endure the withdrawal, though, because emotionally I am so much better completely off of Geodon!

In fact, I was able to do so well, thanks to lithium and Andrea and my year in the DBT skills group, that I was still in the Geodon withdrawal process that I started coming to my weekly therapy appointments without any problems to discuss. I'd become so skillful that I was able to tackle things by myself as they arose. It seemed silly to meet every week simply for me to report on how well I was doing, so we started meeting every other week. But even then I was managing just fine. So Andrea and I started meeting once a month. Before long, even that was excessive! In the last few years, I've been down to two or three check-in appointments a year. A lot of times, they'll just be half hour appointments to touch base. Sometimes, if I have a particular problem that I want assistance with, I'll specifically schedule an appointment to see her, but I no longer need weekly or even monthly guidance. It's hard for me to get downtown to the DBT Center's office now that I've had the chronic migraines to contend with, so we've had most of our appointments over the last two and a half years over the phone, and that's worked just fine.

Lithium, in combination with several other medications, is essential to managing my bipolar II disorder. But if I hadn't had Andrea's gentle but insistent instruction to help me cope during the seven months between the fourth hospitalization and when I started taking lithium, it's probable I would have continued ping-ponging in and out of the psych hospital, almost certain that I would have embarked too far down a road of self-destruction to easily turn back, and possible that I might have ended my life altogether. At the time we met, after years of just barely clinging to a facade of normalcy, I had become unmoored. I knew the frightening thoughts and urges that were flooding my mind were the result of brain chemistry out of balance, but I also didn't know how to stop them, and their warped seductiveness was becoming harder to resist. I was so terrified and also so appalled that I could think such things that it was hard for me to talk about them, but I trusted Andrea, and even before I was able to effectively implement the DBT skills I was learning from her and my group therapy, it gave me hope that I might someday regain control of my mind. It's not a coincidence that I have never needed another psychiatric hospitalization since I started DBT!

And so with Andrea's invaluable help, I was able to grow from a fragile, damaged, terrified husk of a human being into a confident, balanced, happy woman. I went from being so emotionally raw that the slightest thing could send me into a tailspin and so fearful that the mere thought of ordering a pizza over the phone could send me into a panic to the point where I was able, on my days off, to get all dressed up, experiment with a little dramatic makeup, go downtown, take myself out to lunch at a nice restaurant, go to a matinee of a play all by myself, stroll around downtown while enjoying the admiring looks of passersby, check out the latest fashions even if I wasn't planning on buying anything, make a purchase at a drugstore and chat with the cashier while taking the time to find the exact change despite someone waiting behind me in line, and generally have a wonderful time. Even more remarkably, when the onset of the chronic migraines brought an end to those fabulous afternoons and left me unable to work, socialize, or even leave the house because of pain and tremendous light- and noise-sensitivity, I've still been okay. When I am happy, and I frequently am, it is a happiness as legitimate and whole as what I felt on those delightful, confident days spent enjoying the dining, shopping, and entertainment offerings of the city. I owe it all to DBT. Had I not learned how to stop myself from fixating on the negatives and instead see and capitalize on the positives during my climb out of the depths of depression, I would not have handled this disability with nearly so much aplomb!

While I have no doubts about my ability to continue to not only manage my emotions but to thrive, it has been a bit of an emotional process to say goodbye to Andrea. Walking past the Louis Vuitton store on the way to my final appointment yesterday, I recalled how it was one of my earliest assignments in my quest to conquer my social phobia to go in the store and look around for several minutes despite my belief that I was not "good enough" to be in there. It took several weeks for me to work up the courage to open the door and endure the judgmental (I was sure) stares of the security guard and sales associates as I nervously made myself look at every bag and every shoe. It's simply phenomenal how far I've come and while I remain grateful and proud of myself every time I make a phone call or go into a new situation without panicking or ask for help or any other scenario that would have been nearly impossible for me in my anxious days, it's been very moving to really remember down to the visceral level how I used to feel in those wretched days and compare it to how I feel now. I have not seen the last of Andrea; while our professional relationship has ended, DBT guidelines allow for ongoing contact between former therapists and clients if such a thing is agreeable to both parties, and we agree that it would be really nice to get to touch base now and then! I was very glad, though, when we parted, that I was able to tell her that she has made a tremendous difference in this world: she changed--and perhaps even saved--at least one life for the better. She always credits my hard work for my success, but without her approach and personality and patient coaching, I would never have been able to form the bond with her that has, over time, enabled me to succeed.

So thank you, Andrea, from the very bottom of my heart. I love the person who I am now, am no longer afraid of the world and its opinions, and I no longer need to be afraid of myself, three things that, when we met, seven years ago, I never could have even dreamed would be possible. I have been so fortunate to have known you and worked with you and thrived because you. The vastness of my gratitude matches the scope of my former unhappiness, which is, to say, immense. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Monday, March 26, 2012

My Weekend with Animals

Mr. Gorgeous was one of many beasts on my agenda!

I just wrapped up a busy four-day weekend that resulted in lots of animal photos! It started with my final horsemanship class and a photo-tour of the other animals that live at the park and ended with several sunny days at the home of my collie friend, Mr. Gorgeous. I took more than four hundred "artistic" photos during those four days that I have yet to go through, but here are the ones from my weekend involving animals!

There's something very nice about horse eyes.

Lacey preferred her friend to me.
So Thursday found me once again trying to convince Lacey to do things that she did not want to do. This started right from the moment I went to get her from the paddock where she had just finished lunch and was standing in the sunshine with another horse. They were affectionately nibbling on each other's necks and Lacey found this activity much more to her liking than the one I suggested when I showed up and put her halter on. She voted with her feet, as they say: in this case, she planted them and wouldn't move. It took me a while to figure out how to get her going! I was rather surprised, then, when she showed an inclination to trot when we experimented with an increased tempo toward the end of class! Walk? Not so much. Turn? Only if the horse in front of me is turning. Trot? Yes! I must confess to be rather eager to ride a different horse. Lacey really tested my skills in the realm of equine persuasion (and my ability to not become frustrated when she resisted my efforts) and I would like a chance to get on a horse that walks and turns willingly! However, before any more trotting goes on, I will need to build up a great deal more knee-clenching ability. After Thursday's class, I have an good idea where each and every one of those muscles are!

Despite Lacey being a bit of a disappointment in the forward motion department, I still had a wonderful time in Horsemanship 101. She may not have wanted to walk, but she wasn't mean and she clearly enjoyed her grooming sessions nearly as much as I did! I am definitely going to keep hanging out with and learning more about horses. I'm currently in the process of lining up my next set of lessons and hopefully it won't be long before I have more horse news and horse photos! (Click here to read more about my experiment with equine therapy.)

Happy on horseback!

Pig snout!
The city park where Lacey lives also has a number of other farm animals, so after my lesson, I did a tour of the enclosures to photograph the inhabitants. I was quite taken by the snouts of both the mini pig and the big pig. They are truly strange and amazing things, far different in person than one's mental notion of a pig snout, so much more moist and flexible and hairy! I took quite a few pictures trying to perfectly capture the mini pig's schnoz. I also enjoyed photographing the chickens. I'm not into chickens. They're a big thing now, of course, but they don't do anything for me as pets/livestock. If I were to have any urban farm animals, I'd go with pygmy goats. I find goats tremendously charming. Chickens? Not so much. But taking pictures of the chickens was fun, especially since they had some of the showier breeds in the flock, and the rooster was downright handsome.

Golden Polish chicken.

A silkie, I think, though lacking the typical bushy topknot.

Silver-Laced Wyandotte rooster

Speaking of handsome...

So good-looking!

Spring sunshine at last!
Once I was done photographing the farm animals, it was back to Mr. Gorgeous' house, where I was engaged through Sunday. After weeks and weeks of abysmal weather, the wind died down and the sun finally came out. In between photographing practically every square inch of my canine host's yard (okay, that's an exaggeration, but I took full advantage of the sunlight illuminating the interesting landscaping!), I also took His Handsomeness on after-dinner walks at various nearby parks and collected a number of pretty evening sky photos. Oh, and I took 38 pictures of Mr. Gorgeous himself. It was quite the camera-happy weekend!

Beautiful sunny days at Mr. Gorgeous' house...

...were followed by beautiful sunsets.

A coot convention that assembled near the dock.

Mr. Gorgeous, his silken tresses spread out on the grass around him,
keeps me company while I take pictures on his property.

A sliver of moon hanging over the sunset, as seen from the back deck.

Mr. Gorgeous, who turns ten next month, has started to slow down a bit.
He spent much more time sleeping this weekend than he has on visits past,
though you might argue that a dog this large and this handsome would
need a great deal of beauty sleep to keep up the good looks!

My exertions have left me quite exhausted, so it will be several more days before the many macro photos I took are fully sorted. Hopefully, they'll be finding their way into albums on my c.creativity Facebook page and into listings soon! Also, there's more to come on the mental health front in this blog this week (I hope). I always intend to do work when I'm at Mr. Gorgeous' house, but I end up just relaxing, taking pictures, admiring the view, watching animal shows on TV, and, of course, looking after my favorite collie. It's good to have a break from one's routine and usual responsibilities ever now and then!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Etsy Dog Art

Etsy, as you may or may not know, is an online marketplace for individual purveyors of handmade arts and crafts and vintage goods and the place to buy photographs taken by yours truly. That's the official story, at any rate. I was making a flat-faced dogs treasury the other day when it dawned on me that people might not realize that Etsy functions as a grand repository for all kinds of creative dog art.

Flat-Faced and Fabulous: Pugs, Frenchies, and Bulldogs

That's right, dog art. Whatever your preference may be when it comes to canine breed or artistic style, Etsy has something for you. (Seriously, if you type in the keywords "dog art," you get 50,828 results!) And if you like your dog art to be colorful and fun and maybe just a little bit cheeky, you absolutely cannot go wrong exploring the work of the many talented artists who advertise their animal wares on Etsy.

I've made a few Etsy treasuries over the last couple of years that involved dogs, which is why I happened to be checking out the dog art market in the first place. Both of these treasuries are more than a year old and so only skeletons of their former selves, but if you want, you can still see what remains of Chickens and Chihuahuas on Chairs and The Long and Short of It, my homage to dachshunds, basset hounds, and corgis. You'll see multiple images by dogpopart, whose dog paintings are full of electric, unconventional color...

Woman's Best Friend
 dogpopart - Angela Bond

...lulunjay, whose work features animals doing everyday human activities...

Welsh Springer Spaniel at the Coffee Shop
lulunjay - Jay Schmetz

...HeatherGallerArt, whose portraits are brightly colored and highly patterned...

pop art dog - Pit Bull
HeatherGallerArt - Heather Galler

...and the wonderfully whimsical paintings of rubenacker.

rubenacker - Brian Rubenacker

Other dog artists that have caught my eye include the charming digital illustrations by popdoggie...

Cardigan Corgi
popdoggie- Kari

...the clean, modern silhouettes by ModDogShop...

Min Pin Mod Dog

...and the amazing paper collages by CanineCutUps.

Australian Shepherd
CanineCutUps - Patricia Peters

And, for the record, if you love French bulldogs, there is simply oodles of fun Frenchie art to be had!

But the main artist I want to highlight today is Christopher Rozzi, whose shop tinyconfessions is full of little paintings of some of man's best friends...and what they're REALLY thinking! (Your corgi, it turns out, is fiercely loyal; your bichon, on the other hand, kinda maybe doesn't totally respect you.) Here are some of my favorites:

tinyconfessions - Christopher Rozzi

Brussels Griffon
tinyconfessions - Christopher Rozzi

tinyconfessions - Christopher Rozzi

Labrador Retriever
tinyconfessions - Christopher Rozzi

Shih Tzu
tinyconfessions - Christopher Rozzi

The artists mentioned in this post represent just a tiny fraction of the masses of great painters and illustrators and graphic designers whose work can be found on Etsy. Furthermore, if you don't see anything that looks like your mutt among the saucy pugs, soulful retrievers, and sleek dobermans, many artists will gladly make a custom portrait of your dog in the style they use in the rest of their work. So if you're thinking it's time for your walls to reflect how much you love dogs in general or your dog in particular, make sure you take some time to see what Etsy has to offer!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Recent Creativity in Review

Between the weather, messing around with horses, and walking and taking care of Mr. Gorgeous, I haven't had much energy as of late to devote to my Etsy stores. I've been tweaking my tags as items come up for renewal, but since the start of February, I've only listed six new items! As usual, I have a tremendous backlog of items that I want to list, but my mind has to be really sharp in order for me to write the listings themselves.

I have been up to a few other creative endeavors, though.

I've been doing a little bit of drawing lately, like this portrait of my dog...

...I developed this custom trio for a customer looking for game room decor...

...and this secret project (it's going to be a gift for someone) has been taking up a lot of my time.

I've also made a couple of Etsy treasuries.

But listing-wise, this is it:

I hope to get more listings up soon, but until my horsemanship class ends in a couple of weeks, I probably won't have the energy to devote to writing those listings. In the meantime, you can always check out my albums on my c.creativity Facebook page, particularly the Macro: Natural album where many of those yet-to-be-listed photos can be found!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Equine Therapy 101

Right around the end of January, my mom and I sat down and had a brain-storming session. My concussion recovery had stalled. I was incredibly fatigued all the time. The least bit of activity was exhausting. Most quiet pursuits involve the use of the eyes and I was totally maxed out on looking at things. What, we wondered, could help me be just a little bit more active, wouldn't be too taxing on the eyes, and wouldn't be too loud and chaotic? I don't know what made me think of it, but I suggested, "What about learning to ride horses?"

Me on a pony, age 3
I'm a semi-horsey girl. When I was younger I had several Brayer horse models that I played with ("Touch of Class" was my favorite), was an avid reader of Marguerite Henry books and "My Friend Flicka," had a pony-riding party for my sixth birthday, thought there was no more romantic story than "The Black Stallion," and did once have a riding lesson that I convinced my parents to win for me at a silent auction, but other than going on a few tourist trail rides when I had the opportunity, I turned to other more readily available pursuits as I grew up.

My aunt and uncle's horses in Arizona.
A few years ago, my family had a chance to visit some property out in northern Arizona where my aunt and uncle have horses. We were only there for a weekend, but the it was an amazing trip. I love all kinds of western scenery, for one, so I was incredibly happy to feast my eyes on all that erosion, but I also was really excited to see their horses. I found them somewhat intimidating but fascinating. We took a little ride out into the scrub and I was conscious of one) the fact that I didn't know how to ride at all and two) thinking it would be really cool to know how to do it correctly.

We'd gone to the track to watch wiener dog races,
but I was awestruck by the beauty of the horses
But that was just a thought that I stored in the back of my mind and then I got too sick to travel so going back to the ranch for some more time with the horses was out of the question. I'd sort of had horses on the brain since the summer before last, when we went to the racetrack and I was awed by the beauty of the horses. This most recent summer I found horse movies to be about my speed when I'd sufficiently recovered from my concussion to move on from ocean documentaries but was not up yet for regular shows. I was thinking about them a lot after watching the movie "Buck," about Buck Brannaman, the inspiration for the book and movie, "The Horse Whisperer." (I highly recommend it, by the way.) I suppose it was all these things simmering away in the back of my mind that made me think about horses when my mom and I decided I needed something more to do.

To me, aside from the fact that I think horses are fascinating, horses seemed to have several potential benefits: they are quiet and tend to be found in quiet environments, they are spooked by the same things (bright, loud, sudden, shiny) that give me migraines and are therefore are generally not around those things, it would not require intense visual concentration, it would require larger motor movements than I generally make around the house while not being an activity that would raise my heart rate by much, it would be a chance for me to get out of the house and into nature, and if nothing else, it would be a chance for me to pet a BIG animal and I love petting animals! Horses are shown to be highly therapeutic for all kinds of individuals and when I first had the idea, I checked out the local therapeutic riding school, but they have a two year waiting list. I decided that as long as I found a place to take lessons that would be willing to accommodate my need to go slowly (because of fatigue), I did have the cognitive ability to learn outside of a therapeutic program.

Lucky for me, I happen to live in horsey country. There's a big equestrian neighborhood just a few miles to the south of my house and then more to the east. If you have a horse in the Seattle area, chances are it's boarding somewhere within ten miles of my house. With so many stables around, there are lots of places that offer lessons. I did as much research as I could online and decided to make inquiries at a stable virtually across the street from one of my favorite parks. I used to love walking my dog on the trails through the woods back when I was able and the thought that I might get to ride there was appealing. I also was interested in the stable because they offered lessons in Buck Brannaman-style horsemanship and that's the way I want to ride. It took them a while to get back to me, though, and since I was really eager to start, I signed up to take Adult Horsemanship 101 through the Parks Department. The lessons are held at that very same park where I loved to walk my dog; we used to stop to check out the horses and pet the miniature donkey during our walks. I knew they did pony rides for kids, but I had no idea they offered lessons for adults! So with a great deal of excitement (and a measure of trepidation), I went to the western wear store, purchased an expensive pair of non-decorative, bona fide cowboy boots, used a pedometer to help me increase my daily activity around the house to boost my stamina, re-watched "Buck," and prepared to start my horsemanship adventure.

I'm all smiles while grooming Lacey!

I've had two sessions now and I would like to report that I am loving it! There's just two of us in the class, so it's easy to keep up. It turns out that much of my experience with dogs, at least in terms of how you carry yourself, translates well to dealing with horses. For the duration of the class, I'm paired with a ten-year-old mare named Lacey, a placid white-and-buff lady. In the first class, we learned how to approach, halter, and groom our horses. Lacey had been rolling the mud prior to the first class and I had a simply wonderful time brushing and combing her white again. She had a good time, too, relaxing and drowsing in the sun as she enjoyed her grooming. If nothing else comes of it, I know for a fact that I love to groom a horse as much as I love to pet a dog and that a horse has the advantage of being much, much larger!

There's so much to brush!

During our second class, we got into the saddle for the first time. I discovered that the downside of having a very mellow horse is that the horse is not very interested in moving. We were working on learning how to turn the horses (which is not quite as simple as "pull hard on one side"), but in order to practice turns, the horse has to first be moving forward. I ended up practicing my clucks and heel kicks and "walk on" commands far more than my "whoa!" Apparently, I have the makings of a natural horsewoman--my posture in the saddle and around the horse has been praised--though I didn't necessarily feel that way when Lacey was making a concerted effort to not go anywhere!

I'm clucking at Lacey to encourage her to continue moving forward, hence the funny face.
You can see how beautiful the setting is in this picture.

As I spoke of in my last post, I am keenly aware of the opposites of things, the costs as well as the benefits, and when it comes to activity, I usually must endure an equal-but-opposite reaction. Yesterday, I was outside in the spring air, learning the art of convincing a 1,000+ pound grazing animal to do my bidding. Today, I spent most the day in bed snuggling with my dog, exhausted, foggy-headed, and constantly being pecked at by migraines. (I wrote most of this yesterday while still feeling frisky from my riding session.) Therefore, I must, as always, weigh whether what I do is worth the subsequent suffering I endure. So far, when it comes to horses, the answer is yes! Yesterday, I didn't feel sick or disabled or powerless (except when Lacey didn't want to "walk on," but that's different than feeling like a martyr to every gust of wind). I was outside, the sun was shining, and little kids gathered at the fence of the corral from time to time to watch in awe. I love the smell of the horses, of their coats and even the manure, the sight of the green woods and broad lawns of the park, the unexpected joy of seeing the park's enormous resident pig frisking with the caretaker cleaning out its nearby pen, even the pleasure of wearing jeans and boots, an outfit with far different intentions than my daily uniform of soft yoga pants and fleece slipper-socks. And then there's Lacey herself, shifting her weight off of one of her back hooves as she relaxed into the the ministrations of the curry comb I ran over her warm bulk.

The sun is shining, the trees are starting to bloom, and I am sitting on a horse: all is right in the world.

So far it comes down to this: running the comb over Lacey's contours makes me happy. The scent of her makes me happy. Having something to look forward to each week makes me happy. I'd say that my little version of equine therapy is an enormous success.