Living with depression can be a daily struggle, as it can surface at the most inconvenient times. For this reason, I have often found it is a perfect excuse to avoid any situation which might trigger it.
So when I was asked by my best friend to drive out to a farm forty minutes away to spend time with people I had never met, and to possibly spend the night, I was strongly tempted to decline the invitation. However, even though some of my depression is situational, much of it surfaces at seemingly random times. The world around me can be perfect and I still see nothing but darkness. On the contrary, in some of the hardest times my depression gives me a break and I am hopeful.
Isabella has been telling me about this place for years. This is her farm, her family, and she is proud to finally give me a look into this essential part of her existence.
"This place is magical," she has told me. At the horse boy farm, children with autism and other cognitive disabilities come to explore their world in a safe environment, where they are free to learn, scream, and interact with animals and nature. I see, before we pull in, what she sees every week when she volunteers here, and I try and take it all in with an open mind. After all, something must be extraordinary about this patch of earth to keep her not only coming back every week for the past four years, but also perpetually excited about it.
The whole thing has a very "Spirited Away" feel - we drive through the country and it feels like entering another world. Horses roam about in portioned off sections lining the main road, and something about the wildness of the vegetation tells you that you are no longer in the city.
At first I don't say much, but instead feel out the atmosphere and the personas that surround me. I meet all of the faces I have heard the stories about, and it doesn't take long before I feel as though I am already a part of it. The day is full of tiring farm work, but water breaks are taken frequently and the staff jokes around and laughs a lot, making the work enjoyable.
I sit in on a play date with some of the kids as well. Throughout the afternoon we take walks with the families and have the kids ride horses, pet rabbits and goats, paint, run, and see-saw. As I push off, swinging back and forth opposite one of the little ones on a swing set, any boundary that may have previously existed between the two of us melts away to nothing. All that remains are our smiles. Me, twenty years old and fighting debilitating depression daily, and him, five years old and on the autism spectrum, swinging and smiling genuinely at each other. It is one of the first genuine smiles I have given to anyone in weeks.
I watch as the parents and staff discuss each child's progress. One had just reached a 50 word milestone. Another take turns with Isabella counting to 100 aloud. It was astonishing to see how these parents had not accepted that their children would not be able to proceed normally in their education due to their individual situations. Instead, they were optimistic about finding alternative methods.
The families leave happy, and all talk about the next day they will come. I watch them leave and sit quietly while the activity on the farm dies down for the day. Volunteers say goodbye and animals are fed and driven into their pens as the sun sets. I am happy to be here. I "get it" now. I understand.
We all have something to overcome. Each one of us is burdened in some way as we progress through this life, but progress is the essential goal.
I found myself immersed in conversation with a group of people thousands of miles from my home, and enjoying myself. For someone who chronically feels out of place, to feel at home somewhere is invaluable. I can only imagine many of the children feel the same way.
This is what the Horse Boy method and everyone at the farm seems to achieve through encouraging progress. Not only for the little ones, but for everyone. The method does not allow for laziness. Shying away from the difficult, the stress-inducing, and the seemingly impossible is not an option. No matter the difficulties we - any of us - are saddled with, we must progress. Life is here, and it is teeming, and it is begging for us to integrate ourselves into it in a positive way.
By throwing ourselves into new, uncomfortable situations, and by trying different things, we see parts of ourselves that we never knew existed. This is the only way in which we live in the world we have been given. The regular volunteers and staff at the farm are like family, and although I was a stranger in a place which could easily have made me feel uneasy and unwelcome, I felt exactly the opposite.
The Horse Boy farm is a special place. That much is clear. But it is not magic. To call it simply "magic" is neither true nor fair. The reality of the Horse Boy is much more remarkable. It is a group of people with kind hearts implementing a system that works, and I am grateful that it exists - because of the safe haven it represents for their clients, and because of what it has done for my sweet friend. After following the Horse Boy story long before visiting the farm, I felt lucky to have finally met the boy and the family I already felt I knew. If the depression had had it's way, I would not have gone to the farm, and would have avoided plenty of situations which have ultimately proved to be beneficial to me.
I have to live with my depression, but I can't let it control me. Backing away from life is the only way to ensure a lack of progress. Today, instead of sitting at home to read, write, or otherwise shy away from the world, I sit in a coffee shop and watch a couple stressed and seriously discussing a topic I'm not quite in earshot of. Instead of focusing on them, I watch their daughter, who is fascinated with her hot chocolate. She explores, moving the foam around with her straw and drawing pictures in it. I think back to the farm and am once again grateful for what I have learned. She looks up at me and we share a smile despite the metaphorical hole I currently find myself in. We both agree that there is something good in today.