When Danny first got sick, it was one in a series of disasters for me. I had a string of personal and professional challenges, all in a row, and unrelenting. I normally err on the side of optimism, to a sometimes annoying degree, but it got harder and harder to do so. I’m not an amazing sleeper, but I found myself having more and more restless nights, more than ever, more than other tough periods of my life. I’m a pretty high-energy person, but there started to be days where getting out of bed was a chore.
It got cyclical. I wanted to stay in bed and feel sad, so I exercised less. Fewer endorphins, less energy burned off. More sleepless nights, so more fatigue, so I wanted to get out and move even less. In that particular period of time, I was riding very little, because all of my horses decided to hurt themselves simultaneously, and I just didn’t have a ton to ride outside of my own string. I’d watch my peers ride at shows when I couldn’t, and in my dark state of mind, I saw their successes as my failure. Then I’d listen to the news, to stories of actual war and hardship, and I’d feel so pathetic and weak for not being able to endure the fact that, in my life of privilege as a healthy and educated person living in a stable democracy, I was having a hard time facing each day because my ponies were hurt.
It was so embarrassing. I couldn’t talk to too many others about it, and because that list was so few, I didn’t want to burden them with my problems. They were incredibly gracious, my support network, but in my head, because my sadness was all I could think about and all I could talk about, I didn’t want to unleash my darkness upon them. So I spent more and more time alone.
And because this is the Internet Era, I spent a lot of that time alone online. I read about the successes of other horsemen. This was 2016 and 2017, which were great years for Adrienne Lyle, Kasey Perry-Glass and Laura Graves, all of whom are my age or younger, and so, so much more accomplished. I went to a show where, having been out of the show ring for a season, I was asked by a stranger, “Do you still ride? I wondered if you’d retired.” I was in my early 30s, and a random stranger made me feel like my best days were behind me.
It got bad. So I went to a psychologist, a lovely woman who’d helped me through a relationship challenge a few years before.
And I hated every second of it.
“You need to feel your feelings,” she’d say. “You need to give them time.”
Yeah. I didn’t have time for that nonsense, I decided. I needed coping skills to just get through it. My frontal lobe understood that these things are temporary, and that they’d pass. But my reptilian brain didn’t believe it. So I wanted a strategy to shut it down, and swiftly. And I sure didn’t want an antidepressant, because in my mind that would be an admission of how weak I was for not being able to get through this alone.
I decided my therapist was a fool; I had no interest in “feeling my feelings.” “I’m tough!” I thought. “I don’t need that nonsense! I wrangle angry baby horses for a living. I can just muscle my ‘silly little feelings’ into submission, right?”
So I went in search of someone who was more of a business and performance coach to try to get the answer I was looking for.
At the recommendation of a friend, I called Jen Verharen, a professional coach specializing in equestrians. Jen is fantastic. Jen is phenomenally experienced, funny as hell, and tremendously compassionate. And fairly early on, Jen very sweetly told me I was being an idiot.
“If your horse had an illness or injury that could be helped with a medical treatment, wouldn’t you do it? Wouldn’t you give your horse every advantage on his path to success? Then why wouldn’t you do the same for yourself?”
So I slunk to my doctor and was put on an antidepressant. I’ve told this story to very, very few people. To this day, two years later, it’s terribly hard for me to admit, because I still am haunted by feelings of shame about it all, shame to confess that I needed help.
But both Jen and my therapist were completely right. It was just enough to keep me from dwelling in the bottom of my darkness and start moving past the grief. It helped me get out of bed and start exercising. The exercise added endorphins to my system, and that negative spiral turned around. I felt better when I moved, so I moved more, and I slept better, so I had the energy to get out and about.
I got off the internet. I deleted Facebook from my phone. I read about Michael Phelps and Charlotte Dujardin’s struggles with depression, two phenomenally accomplished people, and how they got help. I started to feel less weak for needing support. I begrudgingly took time to feel my stupid feelings. Time healed a lot of wounds, and good help from incredible people finished the job. And when, two weeks after I came off my antidepressant, Danny died, I didn’t sink back down into the depths. It was sad and hard, but my head stayed above water. By feeling my “silly little feelings,” I grew the callus I’d been trying for all along.
There’s still a wee part of me that buys the false narrative that toughness, that grit—a word that means a great deal to me, and is tattooed on my wrist—means being able to plow through whatever obstacles come my way. I think we have to keep talking about it. We all have to keep talking about it. Because as many as 50% of us will experience a mental health challenge in our lifetimes, one that has nothing to do with smart, or talented, or capable, or gritty. And one of the many things that helped me through my low points was knowing that others had gone through the same thing. So here’s my story. If you’re going through some dark times, it’s OK to call it what it is, and to get help.
For more information on mental health in the horse world, check out “The Taboo Topic Of Mental Health,” in the Chronicle’s Jan. 13 & 20 Rider Health & Fitness Issue, which is available for free online.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, Beverley Thomas and her Ellington, and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.