I started having anxiety attacks a couple of summers ago.

I would drive to the barn after a good day at work, and swing on to my first horse. Shoulder in, canter half pass, rein back, or a cavaletti or two, my ride would go well.

I would untack, hose off, sweat scrape, and place my horse back in his cool stall. I would undo his halter, swing it over his head, and calmly hang it on the door in front of him.

And then I would walk to the stall of my other horse, reach for his halter, and suddenly feel a pit in my stomach.

It is a feeling like nothing I can explain. Something I can only compare to the homesickness that I felt as a child when my parents would drop me off at my grandparents for a sleepover.

Something like the walls closing in on you, and extreme danger lying under your feet—the very feet standing on ground that just recently felt sturdy.

Something like an upset stomach and a tension headache rolled into one.

Suddenly, I was in my truck heading home without riding that second horse. Suddenly, I was on my couch an hour earlier than planned, with nothing left to do with my evening but stare at the TV. Suddenly, I was angry at myself for falling victim to this internal demon telling me that I wasn’t safe. That I needed to leave. That I shouldn’t stay.

And the worst part was the very place that I was escaping from had always previously been my escape.

I didn’t truly understand what I was dealing with until I opened up to a colleague who immediately, and simply, said “Oh, you had an anxiety attack.”

And with that I realized I was suffering from a mental illness.

Luckily for me, I came from a family that is understanding of these illnesses and fully supported speaking about them and getting help. I at least didn’t feel alone.

But it isn’t until you are going through it yourself that you truly understand just how your mind can take over.

And just how much damage that can do to your life.

Because I was unhappy in my riding, unhappiness seeped into every other aspect of my life.

I felt unaccomplished. I felt frustrated. I felt disabled. And I felt like a failure.

I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just rationalize with myself. Why couldn’t I just tell my brain that I was perfectly safe swinging onto Mak? Why couldn’t I just tell my body to put his halter on and pull him out? Why couldn’t I just make myself do what I knew would ultimately make me happy.

But I couldn’t.

We’ve heard it a lot in the past year. Mental health knows no boundaries. Wealth, gender, sexual orientation, status, beauty, or even age.

And it certainly didn’t discriminate against me.

It doesn’t restrict itself to your youth, and it doesn’t judge which activity it will inhibit. It doesn’t listen to your passions, and it doesn’t discriminate on time.

And we as a society need to fully appreciate that. Open up to that loved one or that colleague. Listen to the advice of that therapist or seek out that specific medication. Speak of these diseases and disorders as if we have the flu or an infection. And offer no judgement for those who approach us asking for help. For assistance. For an ear, or a shoulder.

All it took for me was someone who I loved telling me that what I was experiencing was normal. Was experienced by millions of others around the world. She gave me advice on steps to overcome it, and offered assistance when I felt another wave of emotions roll in.

But moreso, she was just there.

A friend who knew the truth. A friend who texted to see how I was. A friend who offered no judgment.

And, at the end of the day, that is the first step towards progress with these diseases and disorder. A loss of judgement and an understanding of truth. May we all take a moment today to truly try to do either, or both.

Because the people you think of as the happiest, or the strongest, can ultimately be the ones who are suffering the most. They put on a brave face, post a pretty picture, or even wrote an uplifting blog. But they are suffering too. So many of us are.

To access the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, click here.

To speak to someone about your own concerns of mental health, click here

About the Author

Carleigh Fedorka holds a Ph.D. in Veterinary Science from the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the Thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.