BY BELLA NYE
The harsh alarm on my phone lights up the room and reminds me that it’s 4:30am. Time to get out of bed. But it’s pitch black and dead silent outside, and I lay in bed for at least 20 more minutes. Staring at the ceiling, I slowly think through my plans for the day. I will the dead weight in my body to move. Finally, way too late, I roll out of bed, pull on a polo and jeans, lace up my paddock boots, and twist my hair into a low bun. That’s all. Some days, I grab an apple as I walk out the door to be in the barn by 5:30. If I’m really lucky, I’ll brush my teeth.
The memories from this time in my life are hazy and jumbled together. I knew, at the time, that I was not doing well. But most days, around 7am, as I took a curry comb to my favorite mare in the humid Florida sun, the cold pressure that sat in my chest began to lift. Only a little, but enough to draw me out of bed every morning to relish every new dapple in her coat. I loved every inch that grew into her tail under my watch, every piaffe or passage she so eloquently danced down the centerline. I loved to pick up her hooves and feel the realness in her weight—the sureness that rolled from one day to the next. She was so solid and real in a world that I was fading from, fast.
I got lucky, I was kept incredibly busy this past winter. If allowed to be still, like in the dark hours of the morning as I contemplated just never leaving my bed, I would spiral faster than I ever considered possible. Harsh thoughts often whipped through my mind, assumptions mixed with reality. It was almost impossible to bear.
But, I was busy. As soon as we closed the doors of the barn, I could pick up my laptop and address my schoolwork. Afterward, I managed the horse’s medical records, ensuring that passports were kept updated, medications were ordered on schedule, and vaccination appointments were recorded at the appropriate time. These tasks ensured an occupied mind; one that could escape the grip of depression—if only momentarily.
Depression was my enemy. She followed me daily, and she was persistent. I could outwit her for a day, feel the exuberance of a win, watching the horses’ victory lap, neck ribbons flowing in the wind. But she always came back, stealing my breath when the music died down and the chores were done. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t escape her grasp.
I got to feeling almost translucent like I was fading from reality. One day somebody might just walk right through me. I had a small support system in place but refused to release control of the inner workings of my mind to anybody.
I grew weaker, barely making it through a day without crying, then barely making it until lunch… through morning stalls… my first conversation of the day. I operated on autopilot for weeks. I was just so devastated. My beautiful horses, who called to me when I came to the barn, who relied on my leadership and care, who trusted me with the delicate balance of their lives, were my life, my career, and my dream came true. It was my first winter in Florida, and I was wasting it. I couldn’t drag myself out.
One day, I felt daring. Something in me switched. It was a normal day on our farm, but at lunch, I was able to sneak away and call my General Practitioner to set up an appointment for the next day. My GP and I discussed my current state, and she agreed that it was time for a change. After my appointment, I drove to the local pharmacy and picked up my first month of antidepressants. That night, I took my first one.
It was a big choice on an ordinary day. And it saved my life.
Of course, it’s not that simple. I enrolled in weekly, hour-long therapy sessions. My mornings were still dark and simple care tasks still felt impossible. I wrote little mantras on my wrist to remind myself of the goal: one more day.
Days rolled into weeks, into months, and habits developed again. I started to enjoy my little routines. I would come home from work and jump in the shower, then immediately brush my teeth. I lay in bed after and wrote down how I felt about the day – although sometimes I only wrote the good stuff. I took my medication and even started washing my face again. I smiled at our new barn kittens and chatted with my horses on hand walks like I used to. I could cry, but I could also stop crying.
Now, when my alarm lights up my room, I lay in bed for only a moment, enjoying the cool darkness. I then hop up and brush my teeth, put on a little makeup, and do my hair. I enjoy picking out an outfit and rushing to the barn in the morning to see my horses. After work or school, I do homework and sit around the living room with my roommates laughing and joking. Sometimes we go on little adventures-nothing serious, just college kids enjoying life. This is a life I could have never imagined for myself nine short months ago. I feel solid, and real now. Every day my quality of life improves.
There’s no denying that my life has become an incredible balancing act. Every day, I wake up and choose to improve my mental health, making choices that work for me, so that I can continue to thrive. I do small things, like washing my face or brushing my teeth twice a day. But the bigger things are coming together as well; I have a five-year plan, and of course, I’m going right back to grooming once I graduate college in the spring.
Depression, my old enemy, creeps into the shadows of my life. Some days it jumps out at me, grabbing my arm and begging me back to her. But most days, I see her and am able to choose a life where she has no place, no voice, and no power.
I don’t think I would be here today if I hadn’t made the choice to ask for help to take control of my life that day many months ago. Of course, I have friends and family that would have done anything to see me feel better, but at the end of the day, I was the only one who could save myself. I woke up every day and took my medication. I forced myself to take care of my body and mind every day until it became a habit. No one could have those things for me.
Now, I am a new person. I can be there for my horses in a way that I was never able to manage before. I hope that anybody reading this, who possibly feels the same way I did, takes this as a reason to go out and save their own life. Make the phone call, force yourself out of bed, find a routine – and show up for your horses as the most whole you possible. They will thank you.
Bella is a 22-year-old full-time college student and FEI dressage groom. After years of learning and improving her horsemanship, her focus has expanded to include her own mental health and sharing her story with others in the industry.