I’ve been an athlete all my life. I live in Colorado now, but I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I’ve been riding since I was seven years old. That was my first love—or, I should say, Angelo, my OTTB and first horse was. I got him when I was nine and he wasn’t yet three. I fell off a million times, because that’s just what you did. But I always knew, at the end of the day, Angelo had me.
Many years later, after “Ang” passed away in 2015, I had a painting of him commissioned. It’s a picture of his head, straight-on, and one half is his face, and the other half is in black and white, and it looks like it’s breaking. The painting is very telling of my childhood, especially my high school years, and really, so many things that have happened to me in the two decades since. But through it all, there was Ang. He was the light in the dark.
In addition to horseback riding, in middle school, I began running track and field. I competed in long-distance, and I was fast. In eighth grade, I started to get noticed for my performance, and I began running competitively year-round, and winning meet after meet. By high school, I was going to compete at States, and was a well-known athlete in my town. I could do no wrong in the eyes of my teachers and coaches, and in a sense, being a top athlete, everything was handed to me. At some point, as part of my training, my coaches sent me to see a massage therapist.
If you’ve read any of the stories or watched the documentary about U.S.A. Gymnastics and Larry Nassar, you might have an understanding for what this man subjected me to under the guise of massage therapy. All through those sessions, for years, he would tell me that he was going to help me perform at my best. He said over and over that I was “special.” It was only years later, as a college athlete, when I would go to get massage work done, that I was surprised when elite-level trainers didn’t know the same methods that man did. No one ever gave me a massage like that; they didn’t offer to teach me to massage myself or show me how to alleviate period cramps. Though, at the time that technique began, I didn’t even have my period yet.
In fact, a lot of what I’ve come to realize about the sexual abuse and assaults this man inflicted on me for years is that I didn’t stand a chance. I had never had massage or physical therapy work done before. I was young, and very naïve about sex, as many girls of that age are. I came from a difficult home situation, and no one had ever sat me down to have a sex talk, or even told me something as simple as, “these private parts are mine and they're private.” Maybe if they had, things would have been different.
Through all those years of trauma, Angelo was the only thing that kept me together. It was funny, in a way; he was this hot, red, Thoroughbred, and when I rode him, I didn’t always have a super amount of control. But anytime I had a hard day, I never thought twice about jumping on him bareback, with a halter and a leadrope, and just riding off. People at the barn would actually come looking for me, because they worried that I went out that way. But, of course, I always knew with Angelo, I would be fine. I knew that if I needed to, I could walk into the middle of a herd of horses to get him, and he would fight everybody off to protect me.
Once, when I was around 12 years old, I was riding him at an indoor horse show, and his feet slid out from under him in a corner of the arena. We both hit the ground hard, but I stood up first. I was holding onto his reins, and I was just standing there, looking at him. It was probably just a couple of seconds before he stood up, too, and shook himself off. But all I could think was, Oh my God, don't die. I was just a kid—a baby, really. But in that moment, I knew exactly what love was. And I was so afraid of losing the one thing that loved me back.
I never talked about what happened at the massage therapist’s office. At some point during my senior year, when my parents stopped dropping me at appointments, and I was in charge of driving myself, I decided to stop going, and that was that. Life moved on and I did too—to run long distance for Colorado State University. But as we all know by now, that wasn’t the end of the story.
Sprinkled throughout those years at college, and during my young adult life, are a series of sexual assaults and toxic, sometimes outright dangerous relationships. My second serious boyfriend was the worst of all; four years of extreme physical and sexual abuse, including rape, that culminated in two attempts on my life. The first time he tried to kill me with his hands. The second time was with a gun.
I would look at that relationship I had in my early 20s, and for so long, I would think, Why did that happen to me? How come I did that? I’m not alone in that sentiment. Friends that know me, the few I’ve told my full story to, will say things like, “There's no way that could ever happen to you! You're so strong and independent!” And, in many ways, that’s true. I’m not insecure. I’m a fun, bubbly person, and I’m confident in the face that I portray to the world. But that face isn’t always reality.
The thing that many of us who have suffered from abuse like this don't realize is, when something like that is taken from you when you are so young, it changes everything.
In my case, it directly impacted the men I chose as partners. But even in less obvious ways, it affected how I chose to view and treat myself in relationships, even when the man I was with wasn’t necessarily violent. Many times, I can remember just letting a guy I was with have sex with me, even if I didn’t want to at the time, under the illusion that it would keep him happy, or fix the relationship, or get him to stay. The value and the self-worth that I had were so misconstrued, putting myself last in every equation with a partner was something that I just learned to accept.
Of course, when it came to my second boyfriend, Angelo knew right away the guy was no good. Once, when I was just out of college, I took him to meet Ang in his stall. I left him there for a minute while I went to get something in the tack room, and all of a sudden, I heard this big thump, and I came running out. The guy was this huge, 220-pound bodybuilder, but Angelo had grabbed him by the shirt, and tossed him like a rag doll against the wall. I can still picture him standing there in this red tank top, with blue trim,and this giant mark on his chest from where Angelo grabbed him. Years later, when I was clear of that relationship, I started to joke (but not really) that everyone I dated had to pass the Angelo test.
Everything started to spiral for me after an incident that happened on a business trip the year I turned 40. I was doing work for my company with a doctor we had a relationship with out in California. One day, when it was just him and I, the doctor, out of nowhere, put his hand on my crotch. We were sitting there, talking, and I froze, and I didn't move his hand. I just got really scared, and then, he pushed himself on me.
I didn't tell anyone what had happened for a couple of days. I actually talked to my boss the minute I left that appointment, but I didn't tell him what happened, and I didn’t tell my boyfriend at the time either. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. When I could finally start to process and I told my company—a very small group of guys that I worked with—they, of course, wanted to takeover. They offered to get the lawyers involved, and they wanted to send him a letter to let him know what he did wasn’t okay.
I was like, Hold on. I need to have some power in this situation. This is my decision; all these men didn't get to just take over and decide what I needed to do in order to move past this. I made that clear to them. I was strong and confident in conversations with my colleagues. I said things like, “I still have power here. I'm going to make these decisions.” I told them my plan, and what I was going to do, and how.
And then, I did nothing.
I did nothing because it's what I wanted to go back to when things like this happened, time and time again. I knew in my heart that I didn’t want to want to deal with it; couldn’t deal with it. But then, later,when I saw that doctor at a meeting, I freaked out. My anxiety went through the roof, and I started shaking. After that, about six months after, I started having re-occurring flashbacks and night terrors. Not just about what the doctor did to me, but everything else. Things that had happened to me when I was young.
That summer, I was hardly sleeping, and everything kind of came to a head for me. I felt completely hopeless; it was like there was just this total loss of control over my own life. This next part is extremely hard for me to say, but it was at that point that I made the decision to take my own life. I didn't plan it. I literally just woke up one morning and felt this feeling of total nothingness. I walked into the room, and I just decided what I would do then and there. Strangely, there was no drama or sadness involved. In my head, that moment was almost the same as just waking up, and thinking, I need to get a cup of coffee.
That same day, I took a lot of pills, and I went to sleep next to my boyfriend at night. I closed my eyes, and I felt completely at peace for the first time; like I could finally just make everything stop. But, to my surprise, I woke up 40 hours later, alone.
After that attempt, I went to the hospital, and I ended up doing inpatient for a little bit. That’s when things started to change for me. While I was in there, I talked to an amazing doctor who kind of broke me. He started from the beginning of my history, from an incident I’d witnessed as a young child, and he went from there. He and other doctors diagnosed me with complex PTSD for the first time, and they worked with me on EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Slowly, over time, they helped me to walk through my traumas.
It’s weird, for so long, I couldn’t even access the images of that massage therapist’s office in my mind, but when I finally could, the memories started to come back. Even now, when I think of that place, and what happened there, it my mind’s eye everything appears dark, as if in shadow: dark parking lot, dark building, dark lighting. When I think back on the chiropractor’s office I would visit almost as often, it’s not that way. Everything is normal and bright, like it usually would be in memories. It’s funny how the brain works.
Two things happened to me in the time since I started to get help. My faith has become so important to me, because I realize now that God has saved my life so many times. Twice when my boyfriend attempted to kill me, and once when I attempted myself. I realized that God wanted me to be here, and that he’d done so much to make sure I was still here. That realization changed my whole mentality. I was one of those odd patients in the hospital that was so grateful to be where I was, and finally receiving the treatment I needed. And, once again, horses saved me too.
That year, my new horse, Al, was 20, and was out with an injury. While I was in the hospital, Al was on stall rest, but by the time I came out, he was ready to start rehabbing. Looking back, it was funny, because we were both just really broken beings: him with a tendon tear, me suffering from the physical effects of my time in the hospital. I had lost a lot of weight—I was pretty small as it is—and I barely had the strength to sit on a horse. It was just hours and hours, day after day, of tack walking; me and Al, alone with my thoughts. I couldn’t get away from it. I couldn’t put on my mask and hide away with friends at horse shows. I just had to sit in it, and walk, for weeks on end.
Al did come back from that injury, and this summer, we jumped our last show together at the Colorado Horse Park. I’d made the decision to retire him already due to soundness issues, and the show was just for fun. But it was a moment of joy for me and yet another reminder of the ways that horses have held me together all this time. In fact, for so many years, really, long distance running and horses were all that I had. I thank God that I didn't end up in drugs or alcohol, or something worse, because I so easily could have. There are so many ways that you can try to medicate yourself, but for me, horses always seemed to be the safest one.
Medication, masks: we all have our ways of obscuring the truth. Sometimes it’s to everyone else, and sometimes it’s to ourselves. Just because something is pretty on the outside doesn't mean it's not ugly on the inside. Part of that is why, when I hear people say ignorant things about survivors, like, ‘Why did she decide to talk about this so many years later?’ It makes me a little bit angry, because I'm the perfect example of that. I knew something was wrong at the time, when I was young, but I didn’t understand it until so many years later, when the pieces all fell into place. I can describe so many of those sessions now in a way I never could before, but they came back to me in pieces and flashbacks. It’s not as simple as just having a memory or not.
I recognize there’s still so much stigma and judgement that accompanies this stuff. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t really care. I know now that you can’t start to love yourself until you figure out how to remove your mask: when you can finally take it off, and tell the truth, and start to heal. I needed to do that, not just for myself, but for other survivors too. If my story is able to help save one other person, then it will all be worth it.
It’s my one-year anniversary this summer, and I’m not going to be a statistic. I’m not going to take my own life. I want to be able to do that for somebody else as well. Because, on the other side, it’s such a good place to be.
So many people during the last eight months will say things to me, like, “You radiate joy!” And, in so many ways, it’s true. Going through this last year of treatment has been the first time in my life I’ve ever felt like I could actually have love and be loved by something that wasn’t a horse. I know I’m loved by God, but now, I also know there’s a lot of people in my life that love me too.
I couldn’t recognize that before. I didn't have the same voice in my head at age 18 that I do now. I wish I had. I wish that I had been strong enough to recognize the destructive thoughts and to take my mask off years ago. But if I can be that voice for somebody else—if I can share my truth and tell her what I’ve learned; tell her she can fight through that darkness, that she’s not alone, that she’s enough—then maybe that person can start to have a healthier life. Maybe she doesn’t have to wait until she’s 42, maybe she can start at 14 or 24.
My two horses never got to meet each other, but I like to imagine, just for fun, the conversations they’d have if they did. First, I think about Angelo, my protector, and how he’s always looking out for me, the frightened little girl that I was. I can hear Angelo, the worrier, telling Al to take care of me, to always keep me safe. And then I think about Al, who’s a little more worldly, a little less cautious. I can hear Al just shrugging it off, replying, “She’s fine! We can push her a little bit now. She’s all grown up. She can handle it.”
And Ithink, at least in that, Al would be right.