One Christmas a very long time ago, I received the classic children’s book, Black Beauty written by Anna Sewell. I am sure I was just eight the year that book appeared underneath the Christmas tree. I still have it; age-yellowed pages falling out and with my name carefully printed in red felt-tipped marker on the inside. By my best guess, it is thirty-nine years old now, so for it to have survived this long is sure testament to how much I treasure it. Many times, before unwrapping that precious copy of Black Beauty, I had already read and re-read the story, and I would go on to read it again and again through the years. What I loved most was that it was written from the perspective of Black Beauty, beginning with his first awareness of the lush green meadow in which he was born. Black Beauty became my first manual of horsemanship, many years before I was handed the lead rope attached to my very first pony, King.
The moments right before waking up seem to be when I have the most clarity, and when explanations and answers I have been searching for come to me. On one of these mornings very recently, I somehow woke up thinking about how horses behave in fires. That led me to recall Black Beauty, and the chapter where many horses, including Black Beauty were trapped in a livery stable that had caught fire from a carelessly left pipe. People were running around frantic, and the horses trapped inside were screaming in fear. Someone with good intentions had bravely run in and opened the stall doors so the horses could escape, but none of them would. In his own panic, the man even tried to drag them out, but fear kept the horses frozen in their stalls. Bystanders, when they saw that the horses were not running for freedom on their own, turned away muttering about how they must not want to live badly enough because they were choosing to stay in their stalls as the fire burned around them. The horses were going to die and no amount of shouting or force was giving them what they needed to save themselves. Fresh, clean air was just a few steps away, but the terrified animals were not brave enough to run past the smoke and flames alone.
In the story, Black Beauty’s groom Joe understood that the horses could not do it alone. As barricaded as they were by the wall of flames, their fear kept them immobilised. The horses knew they would die, yet they stayed. Even as a seven-year-old child reading that story for the first of many times, I knew that the terror the horses felt was greater than their ability to run through the flames that would surely kill them.
Young Joe also knew this, but instead of expecting the horses to save themselves alone, he went into the burning barn. He spoke softly to Black Beauty, and placed a blindfold over the frightened horse’s eyes. Then he asked Beauty for his trust, and he encouraged him to take one step, and then another and another. Quietly, and gently, Joe led the horse past the flames and smoke, and together they came out of the barn. Joe then went back into the barn and rescued as many horses as he could with his calm voice, his sure hand, and by staying next to each blindfolded horse. Joe did not abandon them. The horses – as big and strong and powerful as they were, and even though they had already been courageous many times before under other circumstances, needed help to get through the flames.
The clarity I received about the burning barn, is that it does not matter how strong you are; in moments of terror and uncertainty you cannot survive unscathed unless there is someone who loves you enough to speak gently and help you through the fire. Someone who will show you a way past the brutality of your circumstances, leading you through the flames that you have been given no reason to believe won’t reduce you to ashes while a crowd stands by and watches you burn. You also cannot be yanked along, hauled toward the flames and then left to your own devices when the heat drives you back the to the familiar safety of your stall.
I was that horse, and in many ways, because of Complex-PTSD (C-PTSD), I was trapped in a fire – terrified and alone. PTSD is not about what might happen to you. It is about what DID happen, and feeling over and over, the trauma of the events. With C-PTSD, the trauma is an accumulation of many events that happened over an extended period, each one reinforcing the message from each event that preceded it. I learned from actual events not to trust, that my fear of being burned did not matter, and that I had to get myself out of my own fire alone, but I am also UN-learning as well.
One more time for emphasis: I am UN-learning as well. The pivotal moment was just a week ago, in just two hours with one of the most brilliant, compassionate women I have ever been blessed to have come to know. Michelle was to me, what Joe was to Beauty – walking with me, showing me the way through the wall of flames that had been keeping me paralysed for as long as I could remember.
I am safe now, and the fire doesn’t seem as scary anymore, although it is still giving off heat and smoke. It is time to completely extinguish the flames and allow myself to remember the happy times spent in the barn before the fire, and look toward a future with more happy times, however they manifest.
So, here I am, one day before my forty-seventh birthday. I have pulled my tattered copy of Black Beauty from storage and it is back on my nightstand the way it was almost four decades ago. With the wonder and innocence of the seven-year-old version of me, I will once again immerse myself in this incredible story about compassion and perseverance and forgiveness.
– Originally written December 17, 2016