I walked the two geldings off the trailer after their long journey from the backside shed row of Belmont’s racetrack in New York to the permanent over-sized pen in our loafing shed on the Colorado prairie. They were wide eyed, trembling, heads as high as they could hold them staring at the expanse before them. They would spend a few days together in the large pen before I would transition them to the round corral and then the pasture. I’d learned the hard way that the “freedom” that stretched out before them would be overwhelming . . . at first. By carefully introducing them to their new freedom, slowly moving them from one large space to a larger space and then opening the gate to the pasture, I would be giving them the opportunity to slowly let down, adjust to their new surroundings and experiment with the discovery of their new found freedom to just be. No expectations, no demands, just the opportunity to be all God intended them to be in their off-the-track life.
At one point or another, we’ve all felt a bit like a fish out of water. Looking around all wide eyed, gasping for air and trying to figure out how one minute we were swimming along, going about our business and the next minute we’ve been hooked, reeled in and tossed onto the deck of a boat heading who knows where! The horses that come to me off the track aren’t much different. One minute they are standing with their head hanging over the dutch door of a stall in a shed row on the backstretch of a racetrack and the next minute they are standing in the middle of 300 acres of wide open prairie as far as their eye can see! People have this romantic notion that these horses see the wide open pasture spread before them and take off at a gleeful gallop kicking up their heels as the sun sets. The reality is, the freedom and opportunity to be as close to a horse as they can be in our domesticated world, is terrifying at first! It’s no different for people.
She looked at me blankly, borderline confused when I asked her, “What does freedom look like to you? What does it feel like? If you were to describe freedom to me, how would you describe it? I want you to feel into your body and finish this for me, “Freedom for me is _________” Tears began to well up in her eyes. I watched as she struggled to finish the sentence, “Freedom to me is . . . “, her voice trailed off as the lump in her throat threatened to give way to the sobs trapped behind it. “It’s okay. Stay with this. When you think about freedom and your throat tightens, where else in your body do you feel it?”, I encouraged her as she put her hand over her heart and around her throat. “Okay. Tell me more. If you could give your heart a voice, what would it say?”
Freedom can be absolutely, overwhelmingly, terrifying to a person who has been manipulated, controlled and abused. The longer they have suffered at the hands of, in this particular case, a covert narcissist, the more overwhelming the prospect of freedom is. No different than the horses coming off the track who’ve known little to no freedom of their own, a person whose spent years walking on egg shells, saying the “right” things, doing the “right” things, and otherwise living their lives not for themselves rather for the abuser they are in a codependent relationship with, the idea of having the freedom to do what they want for themselves without having to ever answer for it later, is scary!
I pointed out across the pasture from the comfy outdoor chairs we were sitting on under the back porch roof, “Out there is freedom. It’s wide open space. You can see for miles. If I were to take you out to the very middle of the pasture and drop you off and tell you that you were free to choose which direction you wanted to go in. What is your initial reaction? What is the first thing that comes up for you?” She looked into my eyes, wide eyed, “I’m scared! I’m looking over my shoulder for him. I’m waiting for him to pop up out of nowhere and grab me.” People, in frustrated disbelief, struggle to wrap their minds around why, when a person breaks free from their abuser, does it not last, why do they go back? I would argue that it’s familiar. Given the choice, at first, the horses coming off the track would pick a stall on the backside of the racetrack over 300 acres of rolling prairie. It’s familiar. They know the routine, they know the people they interact with and they know the work.
“How did you stay away?”, she asked nervously, as if even asking was committing to action. “Well, I sought out counseling immediately after I left. I didn’t know much however I knew the pull to go back “home” was strong and it scared me. He knew the right things to say, the way to say them and even when to pull the, ‘You are a failure’, shaming card and it took a lot of inner strength, prayer and the grace of God for me to hold my position. His abuse is what I knew.” As she contemplated what I said, I shared more, “I don’t believe complete freedom came all at once. As a matter of fact, I would say that I’m not there yet. I would say that freedom came slowly, like a flower budding and opening its petals. My job was to step out in faith. Faith that everything truly would be okay. And then my job was to take another step, and another, and another as I moved from being a victim to being a victor. I would say, at least once a day, especially through the unrelenting court battles, “Working hard at staying divorced!” “ She laughed through her tears.
Much like the horses that need to be slowly transitioned from track life to new careers, those who’ve experienced years of abuse need eased into freedom. Much like sticking our big toe into the pool and then our foot (ankle deep) and then wading in up to our knees, allowing our bodies to adjust and acclimate, making any sort of major change in our lives requires baby steps. It also requires faith. Faith in the unknown. Faith and belief that in taking that first step, we are taking back pieces of ourselves that we once thought were long gone.
“You are powerful, beautiful, brilliant & brave” ❤