:: This is an essay about grief, and anxiety disorder, and how we react when the whirl of events overwhelms us. I did not say “how well we react,” because this essay is not about judgment.
Covid-19 has us all on edge. And we all do different things to take care of ourselves.
One of the things I do to take care of myself—at all times, not just in this time of strange crisis—is go to the barn and take care of my horse, Leroy. Near to my home, there is a small barn, with few people around, usually, so it’s nice to just go and be close to a large living creature with a big, beating heart.
Most days, after I finish my day’s real work, I go and spend a couple of hours at the barn.
I groom Leroy (and while I do this, I’ll lean on him for a few moments and breathe in, and breathe out, and he’ll snuffle), I feed him, and I check him over for any injuries.
I take my time putting on his tack, and then I ride him. And then I untack him, and I groom him again, check him over for injuries again, and then turn him loose into the field.
There’s no rushing this process of horse care. It’s slow, and methodical, and meditative. And Leroy is one of my best friends, even thought I haven’t had him very long. He just is. That’s the way with horses.
Then, last week, Leroy pulled up lame.
As I wrote in an essay last week, my doctor recently put me on a standing daily dose of my anxiety medication. Even before Covid-19, I’d been struggling.
Now, I’ve always had a prescription of anxiety medication for PRN (as-needed) use. Like, when something completely awful or difficult happens and I need some extra help. Around the holidays, for example, I always need some extra help. Even I’m aware enough to figure that out.
I usually have difficulty, though, figuring out (1) that I need the extra help and (2) that it is OK to take the medicine.
The first difficulty has to do with denial. It’s not that bad, I tell myself. I can handle this.
Worse, I tell myself, If I were strong, I’d be able to handle it.
The second difficulty has to do with my anxiety about my anxiety medicine. My biggest fear, of course, is addiction. It would be a legitimate fear, I guess, except it isn’t in my case. I’ve been off and on this medicine for 20 years, and I’ve never become addicted. I use it when I need it, and then one day, a week or three later, I just don’t need it anymore. I’m lucky, perhaps, that my body reacts that way to it. But there it is.
Logically, I know that it’ll be no big deal to taper off. And yet, I worry, so much, about addiction anyway. Every damn time.
And right now, when I’m on this daily standing dose, I wonder if it is okay to also take an as-needed extra dose like I usually do. Like I do when something difficult or awful happens.
Like, say, if my horse dies.
Horses pull up lame all the time.
It’s a running joke of sorts among horse people that if it’s not one thing it’s another—horses have four legs, and something’s always wrong with one of them.
When Leroy pulled up lame, everyone told me not to worry, that the vet would figure it out like he always does, that everything would be fine.
On last Tuesday, after Leroy started limping, after we did a week of stall rest and he got worse instead of better, my vet, the world’s best vet, truly, was worried. He took an on-site xray. Leroy’s leg was broken.
Readers: I don’t think I need to tell you what happens when a horse breaks his leg.
My horse is not a million-dollar racing thoroughbred breeding stallion. He’s not a half-million-dollar Olympic jumper. He’s my pleasure horse. My love, yes, but in the end, my pet. There’s no fifty-thousand-dollar treatment in his future, even if I could begin to afford it. As soon as the vet pointed out the break on the x-ray, I knew what was coming.
Nevertheless, I listened while the vet outlined the best-case treatment plan, one that he has the facilities to do implement, because he treats those half-mill jumpers.
The treatment for Leroy would be this: Four months, minimum, in a tiny stall that would prevent him from lying down, kicking, or any movement at all. Four months of sedation. Of muscle atrophy. Of, hopefully, his leg healing. Then, after that, rehab to rebuild muscle. To salvage his mind after being locked in a tiny stall for so long and not being allowed to be a horse.
And even with all of that? His chances that his leg would heal? 60%, maybe.
I listened to all of this information calmly. I thanked the vet. And then I asked to speak to my trainer and the vet in private, away from all of the people at the barn who care about me and about Leroy who had heard the news.
I said, “Is it time to talk about putting him down?”
And it was.
I helped as the vet wrapped Leroy’s leg in support bandages so he wouldn’t break it completely on the thirty-minute ride to the hospital. And then we loaded him into the trailer, and they took him away. That was the last time I would see him.
The vet then called me from the road so I could give him information about my insurance. I needed to make the death benefit claim when Leroy was put down. The vet explained that I had to write a special email giving him permission to euthanize, and then I had to choose how I wanted Leroy’s body disposed of.
I did all of these things. I was composed, right up until the part of the phone call when I asked the vet to save me Leroy’s tail.
Before I could speak those words, I said “Excuse me one moment,” then I held the phone away from me, bent over and silently screamed.
Here’s the email I sent. It reads:
Subject: Urgent: Regarding Leroy Humane Destruction
Thank you so much for your help these two weeks with Leroy.
If you confirm the fracture is as bad as we suspect, you have my permission to euthanize Leroy.
Regarding disposal, as we discussed, please dispose of his body, but please also trim his tail and save it for me as a keepsake.
I sent this email, and then I went to Leroy’s stall for privacy, squatting with my back to the doorway. I silently sobbed, and vomited.
But then I had to get it together. Because at that same moment, while all of this was happening, while Leroy rode away in the trailer, my son 10 was having a riding lesson in the ring adjacent to the barn.
I texted my husband, Leroy’s leg is broken. I didn’t have to explain the rest to him; he knew. He replied, asking if he should come to the barn. I said no.
(I always say no. I said no when I went into premature labor. Fortunately, the man knows when not to listen.)
A few minutes later he showed up, and I cried again when he hugged me.
“I don’t want 10 to know about Leroy,” I said. “And I don’t want him to see me sad.”
There was already so much going on, with school cancelled, and the virus still in its strange early stage and so much unknown.
And now, this?
That night, as I tried to fall asleep, one of the things I thought was that I really needed to take more anxiety medicine. I lay there, legs shaking, mind racing, sleep a faraway dream.
My thoughts about my medicine: I can’t take more. I’m already on extra. I’ll take too much. What if there’s a fire? What if I take too much and I never wake up? It’s too much.
It was all just too much.
I must have fallen asleep eventually.
The next morning around 10 a.m. the vet called me. The first thing he did was tell me about Leroy. “He’s doing well,” he said. “He ate well, and he’s fine this morning.”
It felt eerie listening to him tell me about my horse who was about to die. But of course I wanted to hear those words. Of course I did.
But then he said something I didn’t expect. “I took more films,” he said. “I sent them to a colleague for a second opinion. I want to be really sure before we do anything so serious.”
He asked me, “It’s only a small chance, but would you mind waiting a little longer to be sure?”
Of course I wouldn’t mind waiting.
But waiting meant days and nights of unrelenting worry. Tuesday night, Leroy rode off in a trailer. Wednesday morning, the vet called me.
Wednesday night, I barely slept, waking over and over all night from an awful dream that Leroy was being put down, and then feeling relief that it was just a dream.
But it wasn’t just a dream.
And then Thursday, all day, there was no news. So I figured the news would only be bad news.
All I could think was that my beautiful, magnificent boy was going to be gone from the world, and I just wanted his tail.
All I could think was, What does one do with a horse’s tail? Put it in a bag? Braid it or something? Hang it on the wall? I don’t even know why I asked for the tail. It just seemed like the one thing I could ask for to keep.
I kept his old halter and lead rope in the front seat of my car for days—the one in the photograph in the header of this post. The nylon of the halter is faded and the leather on the head strap is old and worn. The blue lead rope is faded and frayed.
They were the most beautiful things in the world to me.
Around 530 p.m. on Thursday, the vet texted me the following video with no explanation:
That is my horse in the video, trotting away from the camera.
The vet called me immediately after.
Leroy’s leg was not broken.
After the call (more in a moment), I dashed back to his stall for more sobbing. More vomiting. I literally could not cope with the emotions.
I’m only now coming out of the daze.
The information from the phone call: He needs 2-3 weeks of stall rest in a normal stall. A taper of NSAIDs. Some minor rehab just to get is brain straight after all that stall rest, mostly.
Leroy is my miracle horse, living the 5% chance he was given.
My husband is calling him Jesus, the profane man.
Right now, and frequently, I keep re-reading that email I sent to the vet, and I don’t understand how a person is supposed to go from the “it’s okay to euthanize my horse” email to the “oh look at his trot, he’s barely lame” text message in 48 hours. How. How.
I’ll tell you how.
I need to sleep 12 hours a night for at least a week.
I need time to reflect on the life that almost went away, and now has come back. Time that I don’t have, that none of us have, perhaps, because of Covid-19.
I need more god damn anxiety medicine without feeling anxious for taking it.
Because that’s the thing, the hardest thing for me. Literally taking my anxiety medicine causes me anxiety. I realize this is paradoxical and unhelpful. It doesn’t mean it isn’t real. That’s what it means to have anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorder means that when I got the news that Leroy was going to be okay, I didn’t feel relief. The nightmares about his death didn’t stop. They got worse.
What if the vet was wrong twice?
I need someone to tell me it’s okay to take more medicine if I need it when disaster strikes. How can I beat back this onslaught of impossible—impossible—fear and anguish? I don’t think I can. There isn’t enough yoga and meditation in the world for this, and even if there were, there isn’t a room in my house that’s quiet enough or alone enough with my children home all of the time, and in our current situation, there isn’t a public place to go that is quiet.
I will keep taking walks. And now that he’s home from the hospital, I take Leroy for slow walks too, like he’s my 1400 pound puppy. And I can go into his stall and brush him, even though he’s clean.
It’s not for him; it’s for me.
One reason I’m telling you this story of my horse’s metaphorical resurrection to help you understand that, even in this time of world-wide crisis, other crises continue to happen. Babies are being born right now. Kids are getting concussions falling off their skateboards. People are getting in car wrecks, are dying in car wrecks.
It is, perhaps, easy to forget the daily sadness in the midst of the grand scale of sadness that we are forced to watch right now.
My horse story doesn’t have much of an ending, except that Leroy came home from the hospital last night, and today we took a walk together around the farm. And we’ll do it again this afternoon.
And again, and again, we will walk, until we’re both sound again.
 Now that the kids are out of school, they come with me to the barn, and they help. They’re learning to be good little riders themselves, and they know their way around some barn chores. Mostly, they fill hay bags, a never-ending chore.
 This essay started as a thread on Twitter, but I have my tweets set to auto-delete, and also I had more to say.
If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my book, LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: ESSAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION, available at lifeofthemindinterrupted.com. Buying my books is a great way to support the online writing that I do for free.