After conventional therapies had failed, it took the help of two very special four-legged companions to finally end Joanna’s 30-year battle with eating disorders
For as long as I could remember, I lived in a world that was shadowed by fear. It clouded everything – my thoughts, perceptions, feelings about myself, and my judgements of others.
After living with anorexia and bulimia from the age of 15, they had become so much a part of my life that I couldn’t imagine living without them – and that thought was just as terrifying. I believed that I didn’t deserve to be free and happy. I felt intense self-hatred and feelings of failure and worthlessness. My mind was a battleground of negative and destructive thoughts.
Then, 18 years ago, a small, flame-coloured pony called Gus entered my life and began to change everything. He came to us because no one else wanted him. It wasn’t long before I understood why. Our relationship was shaky from the moment we laid eyes on each other. I was petrified of him, and he thought I was a complete waste of space. He showed his contempt by biting my ankles or kicking out his back legs. He was scary, especially if – like me – you believed his opinion that you were worthless.
Everyone told me Gus needed a companion. Unsurprisingly, the new horse, Bronwen, evoked the same set of terrifyingly disagreeable emotions triggered earlier by our little ginger friend.
However, this time it was for very different reasons. Bronwen seemed to eye me nervously – and with fears that looked remarkably similar to my own. I found Bronwen’s response uncomfortably disconcerting, and it left me flummoxed. I couldn’t see why she was so afraid of me. No one was scared of me – except me.
Every time I went near her, she turned tail and headed off to the furthest corner of her paddock. When I finally caught up with her, her eyes would harden with fear.
It was obvious that something was wrong. In her previous home, Bronwen had been delightful and well behaved. All that changed when she came to live with us, and I could only conclude that I was the catalyst for her dramatic change. I was so miserable, and felt such a failure.
Still unaware of the mirror being held in front of me, I realised some outside help was needed. About three months after Bronwen’s arrival, a possible solution presented itself. A man with a reputation for being a true ‘horse whisperer’ was prepared to help us.
I watched in amazement as the man held Bronwen mesmerised. Within minutes, she loved him. He barely moved, yet with the tiniest signals he had her moving in circles around him, backing, stepping sideways, and listening, with both ears and eyes fixed on him the entire time.
His assistant explained that he had been emulating the way horses communicate with each other. By speaking to Bronwen in her own language, they could understand and respect each other as equals.
At last, I saw how I appeared through Bronwen’s eyes. I saw with clarity the image she was mirroring back at me. To change that reflection I had to alter my whole way of being – my body language, thoughts, beliefs, and my defeatist attitude. It finally dawned on me, too, why Gus treated me so badly – he was simply mirroring another part of me, the part that had no self-respect or positive expectations.
I had to let go of my fears and become someone very different
If Gus was ever going to behave respectfully, and Bronwen feel safe in my company, I had to let go of my fears and become someone very different – someone with self-belief, inner strength, and self-respect.
I was even more interested in what was going on within me to cause her to react as she did. My body was a foreign land; I hated it and felt no connection with it whatsoever. Becoming aware of it was like learning a whole new language. When I tuned in, there were parts of me that felt like they didn’t exist. Other parts felt dark, heavy, and rock solid. My feet were rarely in touch with the ground, and my head and neck belonged to someone else – not part of me at all.
Slowly, over many months, I was able to notice what was happening in my own body with the same precision I had learned by watching Bronwen.
This, I have now learned, is exactly what we need, to deal with the emotional impact of trauma or negative memories. The effect of past traumatic events, or developmental trauma, becomes locked in the body and can only be released when we become aware of its existence and cause.
I went to great lengths to become familiar with every sensation, muscle contraction, pain, discomfort, and movement felt in my body.
We’d made a huge step forward, but change was only going to happen when I worked out how to bring this recognition of our mutual fear into balance.
Horses in a herd do this naturally, by fully grounding themselves and lowering their energy. They take a deep breath, breathe out, and with a series of movements release all physical tension from their bodies. The herd remains harmonious by rebalancing each other in the same way. They become still and quiet in mind, body, and soul to counteract the heightened energy of a member of the herd struggling to do this for itself.
I needed to learn how to quieten my mind, calm my nervous system, and lower my energy. But my teacher, Bronwen, with her loving forgiveness, patience and gentle encouragement, gave me all the incentive I needed. My fear-driven obsession, and addiction to my body and food, was being replaced with something so good, so healthy, and so healing.
As the months stretched into years, I noticed things no longer affected me the way they used to, and food stopped being such an obsession.
Two years became three, Bronwen had foals and we collected more and more horses and ponies. Every animal contributed its own unique wisdom.
Through them I realised the concept of recovery is an unknown quantity. When are we recovered, or are we are all recovering all the time? It’s a process that, if we want the highest quality of life, we can keep working on until we choose to stop.
Feeling good is a wonderful addiction. Addiction can be positive, and my addiction to the beauty and sentience of horses has certainly turned my life around completely. Now, 18 years down the line, I am so lucky to be able to appreciate the stark contrast between a life of fear and one of inner peace and fulfilment.
My life’s purpose now is to teach others that they can experience what that means, too.
Beat are there for anyone who needs support with eating disorders. They offer a general helpline, as well as a youthline, studentline, and free information at www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred) UKRCP (reg) Reg Ind counsellor, says:
Disordered eating had taken the joy from Joanna’s life, as she struggled with feelings of self-loathing. Then when the two ponies entered her life, there was a dawning realisation that the animal reflected her lack of value for herself. Although it was a slow process, she came to understand herself better, and began to discover love and respect herself. Often taking time to listen to ourselves seems indulgent, but it is critical to finding balance in our lives.