By Elyse Hart
Welcome to Part 4 in our new series, “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from dressage riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian. We hope these stories and bits of advice show you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges.
Two weekends ago, I got the opportunity to participate in my second dressage show. My first show was in August, and prior it had been 17 years, or probably more, since I had ridden in a competition. Thankfully, because of all the incredible people who support me, it turned out to be even more of an enriching experience than I had hoped for. I think it’s no secret that anything that has to do with a horse has a few $$$ attached. My family has been very financially affected by COVID, so I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford the fiasco, but my sweet parents gifted the show to me as an early present for turning five years sober in a few weeks. I get to live this horse girl dream because I seem to have someone pulling for me in every corner, and I could absolutely not be more grateful.
After my first open heart surgery, I relapsed after only a few short months, which felt like decades. Previous to this pronounced insanity, upon my discharge from the hospital post-surgery, my parents along with my doctors thought it would be best that I move back home with them so they would be able to oversee my care. I believe this was their Hail Mary at a “relapse prevention plan.” Everybody knew things were not looking good. Everyone was tired, tired of talking about it, and nobody wanted to take responsibility for the decaying state of my life, myself included. I had a picc line- which was a catheter that was threaded through a vein in my arm into my heart. I had to carry an IV bag with me for 12 weeks, which would dispense antibiotics around the clock to ensure the infection in my heart I had incurred due to IV drug use was gone. As you can imagine, releasing an intravenous using heroin addict from the hospital with a direct line to her heart caused much panic among the doctors and my parents, but there was no other choice as I needed long-term antibiotics.
That time period is so incredibly fuzzy, I just remember the sickening feeling of absolute misery. I had turned 25 in the hospital, and I was now home, bedridden. Heroin (and of course we cannot forget my other lovers – methamphetamine and Xanax), my magical mistresses, had been stripped of me and I truly did not know how to live. The doctors had told me if I were to use again, I would die, and I just couldn’t have cared less. In fact, I recall actually being relieved at the proposition of nearing my end.
I think there is a common misconception that when someone gets sober, their problems diminish as they are no longer practicing their most destructive behavior. As an addict, my problems truly BEGIN as my solution of getting loaded is unavailable. What had come of my life, of course of my own making, was excruciatingly amplified the second I drew a sober breath. I was no longer able to be blissfully unaware after injecting a magical serum into my body to hide from the world. After so many years of being under the influence in some form or fashion basically, 24/7, merely blinking while sober was overwhelming, and I wish that was an exaggeration. Everything hurt, and I was tired. My parents were tense as their adult child had again narrowly escaped death. Convinced I was on my 9th and final life, dread was setting in as I was now under their roof and their responsibility. I imagine the absolute terror of this for my parents through a different pair of eyes now, as years have passed and I now have a child of my own.
Anyone who knows me knows I am an extremely strong-willed person, when I want to do something, I am doing it. I am fortunate that in sobriety, I have been able to transform this into a positive attribute, but at the time it was my death-wish. The day eventually came that I’m sure my parents had been anxiously awaiting; I had announced my genius plan to visit my ex drug-dealing boyfriend for the day. I’m sure my parents tried to stop me, as they always do when I am about to do a swan dive onto the concrete, but they were once again not able to halt what was already in motion. The day I was to spend with that ex turned into a heroin-filled few, and before I knew it, I was back in the hospital.
Before writing this blog, I asked my parents what exactly put me in the hospital that time. It’s a blur for all of us as the hospitalizations had become many. At that point, after again having used heroin, I was having trouble breathing as my heart just wanted a break that I refused to provide. I developed an infection in my kidneys and had an infection in my back called Sacroiliitis, which was a complication caused by the sepsis I developed before my open heart surgery. I had called my parents telling them I was having trouble breathing, so they picked me up and took me back to the hospital once again. As I write this, it’s really amazingly terrifying to recall these things just as they are facts. This part of my life, with a fragment of disassociation, seems like it was not in this lifetime at all, but a different one that I just happened to observe, belonging to someone else.
During this hospitalization, a friend of mine from my childhood, Jenny, came to be with me at the hospital. If you know Jenny, you are lucky. She is extremely generous, extremely funny, and extremely loyal. We met as kids at the ranch and bonded over our love of bratty ponies and the happiness we got from riding them. During my years of using, Jenny would always be there for me if I would let her. She was always supportive of me and happy to see me when I would come back to the ranch, no questions asked, no judgments made. I’m not sure how long it had been since I had seen her, but I am pretty confident I was giving everyone in my life signals I would soon be signing off, and I know she was very worried. The doctors were making me fast for 24 hours as they were going to do a spinal tap to test for the infection we now know I had in my back. I remember being so incredibly thirsty, feeling as if I had crossed the Sahara. I was trying to convince her to slip me some water, and she was trying to convince me not to kill a nurse.
In dressage shows you get the option of having someone “call” your tests. This means someone will read your test aloud while you ride it. Flash forward to that competition two weekends ago. In the show, I was riding three different tests over four different classes. I think we have established a baseline of the fact that in my life I have done copious amounts of drugs, and also suffer from “mom brain”, so not being so confident in my memory, I opted to have my tests read so I would actually be able to remember what I was doing.
As I trotted up centerline in my first test, my eyes welled up with tears before I was able to figure out what was happening. I heard Jenny’s voice ringside, calling my test, supporting me, just as she had at my bedside. Sometimes in life, I experience moments where I am lucky enough to be present with every fiber of my being, and that was one of them. Often, the monotony and “normalcy” of day to day life makes me forget how lucky I am just to be here. I feel like the universe creates these situations for me, and sometimes if I am truly paying attention, I am knocked out by the beauty that has become of my life. In that moment, it truly felt like we had come full circle, on centerline.
See part one of Elyse’s story: Riding & Recovery.
Elyse Hart is a California native, and is a a lifelong equestrian, a dressage dreamer, a mother, a wife, and a recovering alcoholic/addict. She recently appeared on Episode 592 of The Dressage Radio show to discuss her recovery. To follow Elyse’s story, check out her blog All Hart Equestrian.