A few years ago, I found myself sitting in my truck in the dark, on a farm in central Florida. After the long drive there, we put the horses away for the night and had almost everything unloaded. It was a monumental feat.
I poured wine into a dirty plastic cup I found on the floor of the truck. This was nothing unusual for a girl who lived primarily as a gypsy on the road. “Making do” and “making it work” was my modus operandi and having a corkscrew, a fork, and a couple cans of soup (with a pop top) in the door of the truck was standard procedure.
I had set up a call with a sports psychologist. We were a month out from the competition season starting and I thought I should clean up a few cobwebs in my head.
I had spent a little more than the past year putting myself back together after a bad wreck competing. My equine partner did not survive the accident and the whole experience was gutting emotionally, physically, financially and mentally.
One of my mentors used to say about situations like this: “Don’t let this be the moment that defines you.” In other words, move on. While that is excellent advice, some events are so catastrophic that it takes time to overcome them. Grief is a continuum, not a bug splatted on a windshield that you can wipe easily away.
So here I was sitting in my truck, pen in one hand, a cup of wine in the other, with my speaker phone sitting on the console, pouring my guts out. Sometimes reliving the past uncovers all the feelings and emotions that went with it (see above: grief is a continuum). I turned into a blubbering, howling mess. I surprised even myself.
Trying to lay the landscape for the therapist, I walked through all of my challenges with my business, my owners, and my accident. Through my hard work in the industry I had built a formidable “house of cards,” but it was a “house of cards” nonetheless. My whole business was duct taped together, tied with baling twine and glued into one piece with chewed bubble gum. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s actually fact. Those were my biggest tricks of the trade.
My entire experience as a professional equestrian, while very rewarding, was also incredibly stressful. One of the biggest contributors to my stress was my unique situation. I had managed to secure very good owners, but our arrangement was special in the sense that they were incredibly generous and supported me across the board. I could not have done it without them and it made me very indebted to them. In a way, I sold my soul for the opportunity to ride and compete at the highest level. The pressure to maintain this situation (this house of cards) was tremendous. Trying to discuss any issues with friend or colleagues was impossible. A whiff of tension or discord could be ascertained as opportunity for someone else. I kept my mouth shut.
After the psychologist heard all of this, she was quiet for a minute and then she said one of the most profound statements that I had ever heard. She said, “So you’re like an island? You don’t really have people you can talk to because you come from a very different background than them, so they can’t really understand where you’re coming from or the challenges you are facing. And you feel that if given the opportunity, they would take what is yours.” In that moment I thought to myself, “Oh my God, she’s right. I am an island and I always have been.” It made perfect sense.
It was in that moment that I relived all of my awkward experiences growing up, where I felt like an outcast, or I didn’t fit in, or I didn’t understand why I didn’t even want to fit in. (As in, what’s wrong with me?).
In Middle school, where the “island” came into existence, I started riding lessons and fell into the horses hard. Pretty soon I had a horse of my own and I spent all of my time at the barn. They were my lifesaver. As much of an outsider as I felt, or an island, the horses grounded me and gave me purpose. They were all about nurturing, learning and loving which felt the complete opposite of my adolescence. The barn, and my horses, became my oasis, my perfect island of all good things.
The feeling of being an island didn’t change in high school. I employed the same strategy as in Middle school—fly under the radar. My goal was to get through it as unscathed as possible, which boiled down to not being bullied or made fun of. That’s it. Mission accomplished, but every day felt like a toss-up. Spending all day trying not to be “discovered” for what I was, which was a loner, was incredibly stressful to my fledgling self-esteem.
When I went to college, things were a bit better, but I still had trouble “fitting in.” I went to class in the mornings and rode my horse at a local barn in the afternoon. I met a lot of great people at the barn and I also met a great group of people several years older than me who had all grown up in the town. They were out of college, starting to work, and basically spent most of their time fucking off together. I loved it. Even though I was just an interloper in their group, I definitely fit in to the party scene. I may have been an “island” with my peers in college, but I was starting to develop the skill-set to find “my tribe.”
I moved to horse country after college to pursue horses full-time. Instead of my modus operandi of laying low and flying under the radar, it was now to work harder than anyone and to make it happen. I threw my heart over the fence and went after it. I was hitting my stride, but I still felt very alone in my pursuit. I did not have the “pedigree” of other professional riders and the effects of that trickled down across all aspects—finances, resources, built-in clout, emotional support and opportunities. I carried on nonetheless never deviating from my plan. I loved what I did and I believed in myself, but again, I very much felt like an interloper in my experiences.
After twenty years of hustling, I felt my house of cards was one card away from imploding. Instead of waiting for that to happen, I decided to roll up the carpet and move in a new direction before I had no choice. It was incredibly scary to not know what was next, but I knew enough to know that the present was now a part of my past.
I started a job as a sales rep for equestrian merchandise and equipment. It was mostly crap stuff, but I liked the owners and the other people working in corporate. When I went to our first Sales Team meeting and met the reps from all over the country, my optimism waned. This wasn’t my tribe and the dynamics were easy to read. If you were a married woman, and this job was second income to your husband’s primary job, this was a great gig for you. But if you were single, either male or female, and this was your primary income, your slight desperation at living on the fringe manifested as sycophantic, superficial behavior. I saw that and I was ready to cut bait. Still not my tribe….
I was offered a writing job at a magazine. It sounded much more up my alley and more “professional” in my eyes (not saying that’s true). It was a fabulous job but for my two bosses, both women. It turned out that being a “team member” automatically signed me up for their clique, like a free bonus round. The two women together made one perfect specimen of a clinically bipolar person. Right off the bat, they both sent me a Facebook friend request, and quite frankly, it was all downhill from there. I thought “doing everything together” went out of style after high school, but here I was, the third wheel expected to follow them around like a puppy and laugh at all of their jokes and agree with all of their proclamations, which I didn’t. It was actually hell and quite frankly, I was tired of wearing my imposter suit, pretending to fit in where I didn’t. I quit with no plan in sight. I had crossed the threshold where I now preferred the scary unknown to the suck of the known.
I began a grad school program for a Masters in Counseling. I absolutely loved it and felt that I had finally landed in the right place. Soon thereafter, I got a call out of the blue from someone I met at a Conference that offered me a job as his Executive Assistant. My initial reaction was not a fucking chance, but I went for an interview anyway. Why not? You never know. I really liked the person I would be working for and I loved all of the people I met there. So I took the job. Great benefits, good pay versus huge debt. I still don’t think I made the wrong decision (avoiding monumental debt), but I am still an interloper. This job brings as much joy and meaning to my life as selling cheap shirts. So, not much.
I have many names for it: island, interloper, or even outlier. Over my lifetime, I have come into contact with many people, or groups of people, but I never felt like I belonged; like I was “one of them.” I don’t get it, or get them, most of the time. In no way am I alluding to any sort of “specialness,” like I possess some unique gift. I don’t. I am, point blank, awkward. However, being an island has taught me that it is far better to go it alone, and be true to myself, than to blindly follow everyone else and what they are doing. It’s not the easiest path to take, but it is the one where you will find your greatest reward–peace with yourself.