This spring, I did something that was totally out of character. I went on social media, and I posted about one of the most difficult topics there is to talk about. I wrote about the time I contemplated suicide three years ago. Then, I hit publish.
I’m a very shy person and very self-conscious. I knew there would be people reading the post that I didn’t know well. I knew that opening myself up that way was a risk.
“On this day, 2 years ago, I thought about ending my life. I was in such a dark place, and I was in so much emotional pain. I questioned why I was even around, what my purpose was, why I felt so alone...”
There was no one factor that brought me to that place. I’ve been running my own pet and equine care business since 2015, and it’s my life’s work. From a young age, I knew I wanted to be around animals. I started riding at 10, showing at 18, and early on in my business, I used to work with a lot of green horses, and helped to rehab horses that were returning from injury.
Now, I have a medical condition that makes riding a health risk for me, especially on horses I don’t know well. As the only employee in my business, I need to be careful. Three years ago, I learned the hard way that I need to think about the big picture; if I were to be injured, or something unexpected were to happen. But I still ride my own horses for pleasure, and I provide a variety of animal-care services to my equine and dog/cat clients: barn work, feeding and turnout, grooming, pet sitting, etc.
I love my work because I get to have my dog, Autumn, with me, and I get to be around my horses. I have an RPSI (North American Warmblood) mare, Nora, who’s eight, and my mostly retired Andalusian-cross, Leo, who’s 18. When I have my low times, and I go and see my animals, they always seem to know. They’ll do something to perk me up or put a smile on my face. It’s worth the hard times to have those special moments with them.
My job is everything to me, but the nature of it is also a double-edged sword for my depression, a condition I’ve been dealing with since my sophomore year of high school. Working on farms, often way out in the countryside, I’m by myself... a lot. I don’t have many opportunities to socialize with other people, and that was one of the issues that brought me so low three years ago.
I’d just bought Nora, and to afford her, I was doing barn work full-time for one of my clients, while still trying to maintain the majority of my part-time clients as well. The farm where I was living and working in Virginia felt very secluded—I was only seeing my mom, if that, maybe once every other weekend. My friends weren’t coming to visit, and with my heavy work schedule and the time, driving distance, and gas costs for my truck involved, it was difficult to justify going to see them. I was constantly working, and I wasn’t really able to enjoy anything outside of my job. That’s really how it started. But then, things got worse.
I didn’t know at the time that Nora was dealing with some pretty bad ulcers. One day, when I went to jump her, she went one way, I went the other, and I ended up breaking my arm. That added even more stress to a bad situation. I was hurt, and alone, and I wasn’t even seeing the people I was working for regularly. The seclusion was constant, and that was the worst part.
One day, it all came to a head. I basically broke down in the middle of work. I ran out to the farm’s field, and I sat down and cried. I started having these racing thoughts that nobody cared about me. I started thinking that maybe, it would just be better if I was gone.
The thoughts kept coming, and I couldn’t control them, or where they were leading me. I don’t know how long I’d been sitting there, feeling that way, when suddenly, my dog Autumn ran up out of nowhere and sat down next to me. I looked up, and I realized that my horses, who were turned out together, were standing there next to me, looking at me. All four of us stayed like that for what felt like a very long time.
The thing is, none of them needed to be there. They could have wandered off at any point, like they usually do; to graze elsewhere or go exploring. But they didn’t. My mare, Nora, in particular, really loves people and attention. She just has a way about her that makes her very sensitive to feelings. In that moment, as she stood there, grazing by my feet with her eyes on me, it was like she was telling me, Everything is okay. We’re here for you. We’re not leaving you.
It was then that the pattern of my thoughts began to change. I started to think about these animals that I loved. I started to think that I needed to stick to it, and push through, because my animals were depending on me. They were expecting me to be there. Not long after, my barn friend Erin found me, and she helped to talk things through with me. She said that ending my life would cause my loved ones pain, and that also resonated with me. I’m so thankful that she was there that day.
When you go through an “episode” of depression like this, you’re very clouded. You don’t want to show weakness. You don’t want to be a burden to others. I feel like that’s why, a lot of times, people don’t want to open up about the fact that they’re suffering, because they feel like they’re burdening other people. That voice inside tells you that nobody is going to care, or that people may act sympathetic, but they’re really not.
I think part of where those feelings come from is a lack of understanding about depression, and what it’s really like. It’s hard to put these ideas into words, especially in conversation with another person. But for me, animals almost have a six-sense about it. They can understand your feelings and know instinctively what to do in that moment, in a way that most people, even those close to you, really can’t.
A couple of years after that day in the field, I got a reminder on Facebook Memories that brought everything back. I’ve been doing better this year at managing my depression, and I just felt it was the time to open up, and share my experience, and also how grateful I am. I try not to put everything out there on social media, but in some ways, you have to in order to find people that are going through the same things. Especially in the horse community.
I ended up receiving a lot of responses from that post, from a lot of friends and even acquaintances that I didn’t expect to hear from. It made me realize that there are people that I don’t necessarily see or talk to often, who are still out there, and they’re listening. Most of my good friends in the horse industry who saw the post, and know what I went through, have started to go out of their way to reach out. They’ll give suggestions or talk about their own stories. It’s made a big difference and has really helped to reinforce my decision to open up. So many people have experienced these same feelings as well.
I will admit, even today, I still struggle. There are still some days when I’m just like, I don’t want to get up, I don’t want to get up. I’ll go through a really long period without having an episode, and then I’ll start feeling myself getting low, and then there will just be something out of the blue that day that triggers me, and I’ll find myself becoming depressed again. It’s hard, because I try to avoid the triggers that I recognize, but I’ve had a lot of things in my life that contribute to my depression, so it’s hard to stay away from all of them. They happen so unexpectedly, and they’re hard to predict.
But after my last incident three years ago, which was actually my second time being in that scary situation, the fact that my animals were involved started to paint a different picture for me. There are always those little reminders out there that things are going to work out.
I’m also learning to cope. Now, when I pull myself through an episode, I’ll take time to reevaluate how I felt in the moment. I think about what my depression was “telling me”, and what the actual reality of the situation is now that I’m on the other side and seeing things more clearly. I also focus on what helped me to break out of it. The next time I feel myself starting to have low feelings, I’ll remind myself to go to that person I didn’t realize was there for me, or to go do something—baking, playing music, etc.—that I didn’t expect would make me feel better at the time, but did.
It’s hard, but I’m working to remind myself of the good things. I love the simple daily routine that comes with life around horses, whether its grooming or cleaning stalls, or riding Nora and Leo. They never take advantage of me, even if I’m not in a good place, or feeling 100 percent, or I just need to walk around on them and cry. They let me have my time, and get it all out, and then I usually feel better.
When you suffer from this illness, I don’t think you can underestimate the value of reaching out. So many of us have had these feelings—those thoughts in our brains—and the things your mind is telling you are so untrue. There’s always somebody, human or otherwise, that’s out there for you. You’re not alone.
Related: Mackenzie Drazan's Journey with PTSD
Illustration by Shayla Bond
Written by Courtney Hyjek
Courtney Hyjek is an amateur rider in Warrenton, VA who competes in USHJA Zone 3 and owns a pet and equine care business. She has two horses: an Iberian Warmblood gelding named Leo, and her RPSI mare, Nora.