About 5 years ago I was at the local pub on Christmas Eve, a tradition that always confused me because the entire town felt under the weather on Christmas Day when they should have been excited that Santa had come. I had joined in on the festivities, but I didn't want to be a late addition to the Naughty List, so I decided to head home early. As I was leaving a boy tapped me on the shoulder.
Exactly a year earlier I saw this boy at the very same pub. He was in the grade below me at primary school, so I recognised him but I didn't know his name. We did the awkward head nod of acknowledgement and went about our nights. We then ran into each other continuously over the next few weeks. I found it strange that someone I hadn't seen for over a decade was suddenly popping up everywhere, from the shopping centre, to the local cafe, to the pharmacy. It was around the 8th time (after the 8th awkward head nod) that I said what we were both thinking:
"Are you stalking me?"
He laughed and confessed he was going to ask me the same question. Exactly what a true stalker would say! I was suspicious. We asked each other the usual catch up questions, and then I told him I had to leave to feed my horses. His eyes lit up. Most people who find out I have horses ask if they can come to see them, and he was no exception.
I received daily messages from him asking to visit the horses. They were only 5 minutes up the road and I was feeding them every day twice a day, but I always seemed to be in a rush, and I must confess, I felt slightly uncomfortable spending the afternoon with someone who was practically a stranger and who 3% of me suspected to be a stalker.
Finally I agreed. On the drive to the property he confessed that he was terrified of horses - and this was no lie. My miniature pony only came up to this 6"1 boy's knee, but that didn't stop him from trembling. When my normal sized horse walked up to him I thought he was going to pass out.
He settled into the experience and we spent the afternoon brushing the the horses and talking about life - it is easy to open up when you're surrounded by such peaceful creatures. I told him about my dreams for my horses to help people going through a hard time, and he told me about his hard times - relationship issues, stress from studying... typical 21 year old problems.
He continued to message me over the next few months asking to visit the horses, but I was always in a rush, or didn't feel like talking to anyone after a long day at uni or work. I never ended up taking him for another visit, and eventually he stopped asking.
Flash forward to me leaving the pub on Christmas Eve and it was this boy who tapped me on the shoulder. He said he wouldn't keep me long, but that he wanted to say thank you. I was confused. He had already thanked me for that afternoon we spent with the horses, and I hadn't done anything else for him to be thankful for.
He told me that he was planning on killing himself that week.
He told me that knowing he could meet the horses gave him a reason to wait.
He told me that the time he spent with the horses gave him hope.
He thanked me for talking to him that afternoon.
And he told me I saved his life.
Most people would feel relieved, or happy, or proud to hear what he said, but I was completely consumed with guilt and shame.
I felt awful that I had never taken him back to the stables. I was ashamed that if it wasn't for him being so persistent, I probably wouldn't have taken him there in the first place. My stomach turned at the thought that I never checked in with him after he told me that he was having a hard time. Taking him to the horses was an effort for me, but for him it was everything. Actually everything. In my mind he had nothing to thank me for. He had everything to thank my horses for.
In the presence of his pain, the horses stood with him, with no judgement, in no rush, and with no awkwardness or agenda. He wasn't getting in their way, or stealing their time, or making them feel uncomfortable. They would have given him all the time in the world with no complaint. They would have greeted him when he returned with a welcome nicker.
I went home that Christmas Eve feeling like I belonged on the Naughty List. I was hard on myself for not picking up the warning signs, and for not spending more time outside of my own selfishness. I saw his problems as generic, but they were insurmountable to him. I wondered how much more severe my guilt and shame would have been had he have taken his life. I was lucky I didn't have to live the reality of that thought, but some others are not so lucky.
I made many promises to myself that night. One of them was that I would always have the warning signs in the back of my mind, that I would never be afraid to ask the question, and that I would know exactly what to do. I ask you to make those same promises to yourself.
When someone you know attempts or commits suicide it is not unusual to carry guilt and shame, to wonder if you could have done more, or if you handled the situation the best you could. Sometimes we miss the signs. Sometimes we don't. When we do see them it is normal for panic to set in, it is normal for your mind to go into a spin, it is normal to not know exactly what to do. So here is what you need to know:
The Warning Signs (Courtesy of Beyond Blue):
What do we do when someone is displaying the signs?
1. Let the person know you are concerned
People need to know that there are others who care about them. Don't feel awkward to tell someone how concerned you are and how much you value their life.
2. Ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts
Some people worry that asking this question will increase the chances of the person committing suicide... it won't. Asking shows that you care and it gives them a chance to talk about their feelings. Be direct and unambiguous by saying: "Are you thinking about suicide?".
3. Ask them if they have made any plans
If they answer "yes", do not leave them alone. Ask them if they have a time, place or method? If they do, check if they have the means to carry out the plan. Remove access to objects that they can use to hurt themselves.
4, Take action immediately
Tell them there are options other than suicide and that help is available.
Call 000 or Lifeline on 13 11 14 if their life is in danger.
Inform the authorities that the person is suicidal, that they have a plan, and that you fear for their safety.
5. Encourage them to get professional help
If the person tells you that they don't have a plan and are not going to act on the suicidal thoughts, make an appointment with the GP, counsellor, psychologist, or employee assistance program. Contact a family member or friend immediately. Contact lifeline on 13 11 14. Support is essential for someone contemplating suicide.
6. Look after yourself
It can be emotionally taxing to support someone who is suicidal. Seek counselling or find someone you trust to talk to about your experiences once you have dealt with the situation appropriately.
If you are reading this and you are having suicide thoughts, remember that there is hope, you are here for a reason, and support is available.
Lifeline - 13 11 14
Kids Helpline - 1800 55 1800
Suicide Callback Service - 1300 659 437
Call 000 for emergency medical or police attendance
Get Help from HEAL Psychology - 0420 990 234
I was 12 years old the first time I ever loved a boy. It probably wasn't real love, but it was the closest thing my childhood heart had experienced. He had moved to Australia from Canada, and from the moment I saw him under the sun shelter at little lunch I was smitten. Everything about him intrigued me. From the way he laughed with his friends, to the way his hand lingered in the air after he threw a basketball. I would follow him around the playground, formulating plans on how I could get him to like me.
At our school disco all my dreams came true when he asked me to dance. I felt like I was going to bring back up my sausage roll and pink donut that I had just gobbled down. He grabbed my shaky hands and we bopped along to an Aqua song.
Talk to him! I coached myself.
"So... you're from Canadia?"
Without correcting me he smiled and politely nodded - like only a true Canadian would. I heard the laughter of my friends. I seemed to be the only person in the room who didn't know that "Canadia" wasn't a place. The next few weeks involved me turning bright red whenever he was around, and my class being amused by my obvious crush.
All it took back then for someone to become your boyfriend was for your friends to tell them you liked them. So my best friend (who is next to me in the image below and still holds that title today) told him I wanted to be his girlfriend. He looked at me from across the playground and nodded his head - that meant it was official.
That afternoon I was pulled into the library with the news that my new boyfriend had something to tell me. A circle of bodies surrounded us. I'd never stood this close to him. I looked into his pretty blue eyes.
"I love you" he said.
My world catapulted. My heart beat was drumming in my ears and I remember my vision blurring.
"Thank you." I whispered, before turning away and leaving the library.
Thank you? THANK YOU? His feelings must have been hurt, because that afternoon he sent one of his friends to tell me that he was going to break up with me. I watched him finish the school year going out with another girl who was much more comfortable with vocalising her feelings than I was. He moved back to Canada a few months later.
It's been 16 years since I have seen or spoken to him, but through social media I found out he was in Australia. I sent him a message and we organised to meet. We spent hours laughing and reminiscing, and we even visited our old school. Towards the end of the day he gave me a compliment. I awkwardly laughed, sheepishly looked down to the ground, and started to walk away before he said something that shocked me.
"Oh NOW I remember you!"
He confessed that when I asked him to meet up, he didn't actually know who I was. I couldn't believe it. This boy - who I had thought about every day for a year, who still crosses my mind, who I count as my childhood love - didn't remember me!!! He could recall my friends because they pestered him, he recognised the teachers who taught him, he could navigate his way around the school that sheltered him, but he had no recollection of the girl who loved him. At least not until he saw the top of my head and my back. Part of me was hurt all over again, and he could tell.
"How was I supposed to see someone who didn't want to be seen?" he asked.
He was right. How could he remember a girl who made herself so unmemorable.
At 12 years old it was hard to understand why I acted the way I did, but as I reflect back I am able to make more sense of it. I couldn't build a connection with him because I was scared. I was scared of talking to him incase I made another mistake. I was scared of succeeding in winning his affection and then failing by losing it. I was scared of not being good enough for someone that I adored so much. Instead of being grateful for that beautiful moment that he opened up and told me how he felt, I was scared of how I would feel when he moved away, so I put on my armour, and built up a wall. The tragic irony is... all of the things that I feared would happen ended up happening because of my fear.
As much as I would like to hope that those 12 year old fears stayed locked away in my 12 year old self... they didn't. 12 year old Sam lives with 27 year old Sam. She still whispers uncertainties in my ear and wants to look down or run away when there is a risk of being hurt. Even in writing this blog she plants doubts: what if people think this is silly, what if no one cares what you have to say. The difference now is that 27 year old Sam has some psychology on her side.
We all want to be loved, and we all want to belong. Research has found that people who feel a strong sense of love and belonging have the following attributes:
This vulnerability is the willingness to tell someone you love them even if they just say "thankyou" back, to do something where there are no guarantees for the desirable outcome, to spend time working on a relationship that may or may not work out. As Brene Brown states, "Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love", and of building connections with others.
So what would I tell my 12 year old self (based on the research and life experience), who so timidly loved a boy who was kind and vulnerable, but who never really got the chance to see her?
I can't go back in time, so instead I will remind my 27 year old self of this, and hope that by showing this vulnerability I am giving other people permission to do the same.
B. PSYC (HONS). M. PSYC (ORG)
Psychologist / Founder of HEAL Psychology
Recognise the thought.
I'm not good enough. I feel ashamed. I'm worthless. These thoughts become our feelings, and they have a significant impact on our body. If we don't identify our thoughts we can be burdened with anxiety, muscle tension, headaches, depression and more. By recognising the complaining or blaming thought that is forming in your brain without judging it, you have the chance to accurately identify what you are feeling, and take steps to express those feelings appropriately.
Relax your body so you can release your thoughts.
When you have negative thoughts your body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Take some deep breaths to physically relax your body. Ask yourself what you are thinking, and then analyse those thoughts without judgement. Then ask yourself how you are feeling because of those thoughts. Breathe out and imagine the negative thoughts leaving your body. If it helps, you can also talk it out or write it down.
Change your perspective.
Now that your body is relaxed and your negative thoughts have been released, you have some mental space to think of things that are good in your life or that you are grateful for. It could be thinking about a friend, realising that you are healthy or safe, or thinking about something good that is about to happen in your life. Whatever it is, stick with that thought for a while... after all, it's much more pleasant in that space.
Practice this regularly and watch your negative thoughts have less of a hold on your feelings and your life.
I preface this blog by saying: I was never planning to post this on HEAL. This piece of writing was only supposed to go on my personal Facebook profile as my reaction to the Hold Tight campaign currently running with ANZ. The reaction I received was overwhelming, and I feel that it is my duty to spread my story - no matter how uncomfortable it makes me - in the hope that it will impact the lives of young people. I initially wasn't going to post it in the fear that potential and current clients would judge me as a person and as a therapist and that it would impact my work. Then I realised that fearing something like that is the exact reason why I NEED to post this on HEAL. My experiences have given me insight into life events that a huge amount of young people are struggling with. So instead of hiding it... I proudly share my story with you.
Last year I fell in love with my friend and we were together for an incredible year. This friend was a girl. It completely took me by surprise. I have never looked at girls romantically, but when I looked at her I only saw her soul, and it was the most incredible soul I had ever met.
Falling for someone of the same gender was an unbelievably eye opening experience from a personal perspective. As a psychologist, it was also an incredible experience from a social perspective. It was interesting seeing people's reactions when I would say I had a 'girlfriend'. I could hear the clogs in their minds try to comprehend what I had just told them, internally battling that I didn't fit the stereotype or that they only knew me to have boyfriends. Some people were shocked, some asked me inappropriate questions, some tried to put a label on me, and some just smiled and continued the conversation like I had just told them I ate a toasted cheese sandwich. Telling people that I had a girlfriend during that year never made me nervous, but there was one thing that did - walking down the street holding her hand.
I have never been one for public displays of affection, but this act, with this person, was especially difficult for me. I could feel people's gazes burning my skin as they stared. Some people would take a double look. Some would make comments under their breaths. I can honestly say that these were some of the most uncomfortable moments of my life... and every instinct told me to let go of her hand, but I never did. Every time I felt the anxiety rushing over me, I remembered the world that I want to live in. A world where no one should feel shame for who they love, where no one should have to hide who they are. So instead of letting go, I would hold her hand tighter than ever. I held it knowing that I was willing to push through the discomfort, cop the stares, hear the comments, deal with the giggles, and pave the way so that the next generation didn't ever have to experience the same judgement and ignorance.
Boys - hold your boyfriends hand. Girls - hold your girlfriends hand. Never be ashamed of who you love. Hold on tight so our children, and their children, and their children's' children can walk down the street with no shame, only pride in their hearts. Hold tight, things will change! #holdtight
Before a battle, the Native Americans would paint symbols on their horses that they believed held magical and spiritual significance. These symbols were thought to protect their horses, making them faster, stronger and braver, so that the horse may in turn protect it's rider during hard times. When the battle ended the Native Americans would paint yet another symbol on their horse, this time, representing what they went through during warfare.
In 2013 HEAL Psychology held a program for children in the foster care system in Sydney. At the end of the last day the children were asked to paint a symbol on a horse that represented their experience.
A 15 year old girl who had been in the foster care system since the age of 3 painted a tree trunk and three large green leaves. When asked the meaning behind her symbol, she explained that the tree trunk was her past. It represented strong roots of sadness and trauma that held her down. She went on to explain that the leaves were her future, bright and full of hope, and that only through working through her battle with the horses was she was able to learn and grow.
What this young woman didn't know, was that the Native Americans believed that painting the colour green on a horse represented endurance, clearer vision, and the power of healing. With that, the symbol of HEAL Psychology was born.
Today the three leaves represent a place where people from all walks of life may learn, grow, and heal with horses.
Founder / Psychologist at HEAL Psychology
I had a 21 year old woman wanting to start therapy. She contacted us because she was suffering from an eating disorder and anxiety. When she arrived at the farm she said a timid hello and filled out the initial consultation forms with shaking hands. We walked into the arena where there were three horses waiting and she stood on the inside of the gate.
My Equine Specialist and I invited the young woman to introduce herself to the horses. When we do this, clients will generally walk up to the horses, pat them, talk to them, ask us questions about them, move with them, brush them – interact! Some people are so caught up with the horses that it is difficult to move them onto the next activity or tell them that the session has finished. Not this client.
I had never seen anyone stand in the one position for the entire session, until this day. She didn’t speak to us, she didn’t move, she stood with her head looking down at her feet.
My Equine Specialist and I glanced at each other as the minutes ticked by. Do I ask her if she is okay? Is she bored? Does she want to leave? Did she not understand what we were asking her to do? This is awkward. What do I do? What are the horses doing? They are standing still too. Do something horses! She will probably never come back. I wish we could have helped her. How long is she going to stand there? How much longer to go? It’s only been 5 minutes! I should say something.
I didn't say anything. We stood in silence and stillness, my mind running rampant, for 42 minutes. I had convinced myself that she hated being there, that the therapy was useless for her, and that she was never going to come back. After those painfully awkward and long minutes, something happened. One of the horses walked over and stood in front of her, it’s head almost touching hers. The client didn’t look up. I held my breath.
For the remainder of the session they stood in front of each other, still as statues, until the client shifted weight off her left leg. Not two seconds later, the horse shifted weight off his leg too. I heard my Equine Specialist let out a gasp. She must have been holding her breath as well.
We advised our client that the time was up and without a word she left the farm and drove away. We didn’t hear from her for two months - not that we were expecting to – until one day she called to book in. When she arrived she handed us ten pages full of journaling about her experience in that first session.
I learn two important lessons that day. The first was that things are not always as they seem. To me, that sessions was a failure because it didn’t look the way most others looked. To her, it was one of the most powerful experiences she had been through, and the catalyst for the biggest changes in her life.
The second lesson I learned was that silence is powerful. One of the thoughts written down on the pages was that she was constantly “talked at” – by her parents, by her friends, by her doctors, and by her other therapists. She was thankful that she had an hour of silence and that we didn’t demand anything from her, that the horses simply stood with her, and that she could hear her own thoughts. We held space for her, and that was exactly what she needed.
The following sessions she engaged in activities with the horses, she spoke to us about her life, and she started making positive changes to grow and heal. She couldn’t have done this without experiencing that first session. I as a therapist also grew. I now embrace silence, I go into sessions intending to hold space for people, and I no longer have expectations of what a perfect session should look like. I couldn’t have done this without that first session either. Thank you to this client, and to all my clients who have made me a better therapist.
Founder / Psychologist at HEAL Psychology
In the summer of 2012 I was on a family vacation doing what most people do when they are on holidays - sitting around! My boyfriend's little sister was next to me and closed the last page of her book with a loud exhale. "Well, that was intense." She left the book on the couch. Never really losing myself in books, I thought I might be occupied for 15 minutes before tiring of the slow plot line and continuing to stare at the gecko in the corner of the room. I was wrong.
The story of Jaycee Lee Dugard being kidnapped at the age of 11 and held captive for 18 years was gripping, well written, and, she was right... intense! I found myself reading throughout the night, and the next day, and the next night. It was around 4am when I reached page 249, the chapter named "Therapeutic Healing with a Twist". I was a third year Psychology student at the time, and was admittedly feeling like I'd chosen the wrong career path. The thought of sitting in a small windowless office talking to people about how they felt made my teeth grind. Nevertheless, my interest was sparked.
The 'Twist' was that the therapist involved horses in the sessions. As a horse lover - and when I say horse lover I really mean that I was the crazy horse obsessed girl in school who tried to saddle up the dog and click her tongue at people when they were moving too slow - I took a moment to gather my thoughts. Psychologists don't have to sit in an office all day? They can work outside? And spend all day with horses? It sounded too good to be true. I rushed through the final few chapters and as soon as I heard my family waking up, I announced that I would dedicate my life to helping people heal with horses.
My four year journey since then has been full of worldly adventures and opportunities, of successes and failures, tears of joy and tears of frustration, moments when I have felt like giving up, and moments of looking into a clients eyes and seeing a change in their lives that couldn't have happened without the horses.
I just finished reading Jaycee Lee Dugard's second book, Freedom - a gift from a very special person who remembered this story - and I am more proud than ever to be a part of this growing community.
Thank you Dr. Rebecca Bailey, PhD - Transitioning Families for the work you do.
Thank you Jaycee Lee Dugard for sharing your story.
From the dark there came light.
Founder / Psychologist
It is a common misconception that therapists don't need therapy. That they have been blessed with all of the answers, and that only those in pain need to seek help. This couldn't be further from the truth.
As a therapist, and an empath, not only do I deal with - and feel - the pain of others, but I also have my own life circumstances and feelings to navigate. At times I don't have a compass, at times my map gets rained on and smudges, and there are moments when I feel like I am walking alone... but I am not.
In order to help my clients, I need to continuously heal myself both emotionally and energetically. In order for my horses to feel safe in sessions, I need to be living authentically and without discrepancy. I do this with the help of my therapist.
There is no shame in asking for help, no matter your age, your issues, or your profession. Only when you receive the help that you need to flourish in your life may you be empowered to help someone else. Thankyou Mel at Heavensabove Helensburgh for empowering me.
Founder / Psychologist at HEAL Psychology
Samantha Tassini, Psychologist and Founder of HEAL Psychology shares her experience as a therapist and in helping people heal with horses.