This was written for us by an anonymous Veteran, who's still working to find stability under their feet again.
My faded and dirty uniform comes off, tossed over a chair like it has been defeated. I angrily kick the tight, uncomfortable boots into a corner. I’m tired of wearing them. The boots carry the stench of memories I would rather forget, and I can’t seem to empty them of sand. Every time I put them on my mind rushes back to the smells, the screams, the pain.
A pair of well-worn jeans and a button-down shirt are waiting on the bed for me. My wife knew just what I would need when I got back. I haven’t worn them in a year and I am surprised how a change of clothes can improve my mood. I smile as I slip into boots that fit like an old friend.
When we moved here, the trail leading to the barn was overgrown with blackberry bushes and some sort of weeds I don’t know the name of. My boots used to get tangled in the weeds if I didn’t pay close attention, and I would trip. The path has worn down from years of me walking this same route, and now it is just a dusty trail that turns to mud during a storm. An occasional weed pokes through the hardened ground as a reminder that I haven’t been here in awhile.
The barn doesn’t look like much. It’s kind of old and drafty. The grey paint is peeling and something small has been chewing on the outer posts. The smells of fresh hay, sweaty horses, and a tinge of manure greet me as I round the corner.
This is a place I can come when the world doesn’t seem fair. When work has been hard, or when I’ve lost a friend. That happens too frequently these days. I can’t count the number anymore, and it hurts when I try. This is a place of solitude. When I was overseas my thoughts would drift to the barn, and the escape that it offered.
The hay that was harvested while I was gone sits in the loft, green and lush, waiting for winter. It is stacked well, if a bit haphazardly, and I feel a tinge of guilt for not being here to bring it in. I realize life had continued on without me, and that thought catches in my throat. It brings an ache in my chest for all of the “what ifs”.
I unlatch the door and realize there is a new bolt on it. I’m saddened again realizing how much the kids have grown while I was gone, while I also swell with pride about how independent they have become. My confusing feelings bubble inside me and I start to feel the acid burn in my stomach. I have missed so much. Do they even need me anymore? I begin to feel numb.
She hears my footsteps and whinnies excitedly. Her ears prick as I round the corner and she sees me for the first time. I grab a curry comb and start running its bristles against her soft coat. She knickers at me and I laugh and talk to her about my day. She listens and seems to understand. She nudges me and searches my pockets for treats. I lean into her warm chest and can feel her steady breathing. It reminds me to breathe too.
There will be no saddle today. It will just be us. I grab a lead-line and make a quick bridle. I hop up on her and she shudders for a second and then settles in as I find my seat. I lean forward and whisper to her, running my hands along her neck as she gets used to my weight and remembers my touch. We start out slow as I find my rhythm. It’s been too long. The muscles that I used in the desert aren’t the same as the ones I use at home.
She isn’t used to me being off balance. That seems to be the right word for my world: off balance. How do I come back from where I’ve been? I feel the numbness taking over, as all of the names and all of the faces flood my mind. I need to escape. I urge her forward, faster. I need to feel something, but it hurts to feel. I concentrate on the ache in my muscles instead of my mind. We go faster and faster, maybe I am hoping to outrun my pain. It doesn’t work.
Eventually, I slow her down and bring her to a walk. It feels like we have been riding for miles, and my legs are sore. I look up and realize we haven’t even left the property. I have been riding in chaotic circles. She snorts at me, frustrated. The creek is starting to run again after a hot dry summer, so I get down and walk her over to let her drink. She wades in and cools herself, glancing back at me occasionally as if trying to figure out who I am. I wish I knew. This place is where I feel the most myself. Only now it is also a painful reminder that I am no longer the person I used to be. I have been changed, and I don’t know how to make my way back.
I can still see the barn from here, though it looks small. The roof needs replacing. I’ll have to do it before I leave again. So many things to do before I leave. I’m leaving again. The words knock around in my brain, down my throat, and into my chest. I am leaving again. I feel the pain of an oncoming anxiety attack with each word.
I need to focus on something small, I can’t give in to the panic. The hills roll around the barn, dotted with the wildflowers my girls always pick and bring to the table. I focus on them and force my heart rate to steady. Glancing up, I can see lights on in the house. They are waiting for me. That’s when I realize that no matter how many times I leave, those lights will still be on. The barn will still be standing there, and they will all still be waiting for me, no matter how off balance I am. This is where I will find myself again. I exhale deeply, climb back in the saddle, and turn towards the barn.