Walking Through Darkness to Learn From the Power of Pain

By Hacia Atherton

When my 600kg Horse landed in my lap both my Pelvis and world shattered. I had two choices – give into the darkness or rebuild a new magnificent life from the pain and shattered pieces…

My trakehner warmblood Hysteria aka CC.

We all have key moments in life that will determine our direction, especially when these moments are defined through pain. Pain can transform you and give you a new perspective and pathway in life. My mantra of strength to overcome pain came after a deeply traumatic accident when my passion for international level horse riding quickly became a fight to survive. To live through pain can be a long process of self-discovery and resilience. When you have come to anticipate that you have managed to get all your ducks in a row, only for a sudden tide change to send all those little ducks in different directions completely, life forces you to learn new perspectives.

My sudden key moment was on a frosty winter evening in July 2017 when my tide dramatically changed direction. I had reached the International Equestrian Level of Dressage called FEI Pre St George, an experience driven by my commitment, talent and my absolute passion for horse riding. I had been in training for an upcoming Dressage competition on my young and feisty warm-blood mare, CC. CC had a majestic black coat which was as dark as the night sky and on her forehead was a distinctive white spot, she was a beautiful horse.

To prepare myself physically and mentally as an athlete, with the determination to represent Australia in horse riding, CC and I knew that our fates would intertwine, but how it would be not what I expected. As CC with a jolt, suddenly reared up vertically in the air and threw me to the ground. She then lost her balance and came straight down on top of me, with all 600 kilos landing in my lap. As CC rolled off me to the right, adrenaline and natural instincts took over and I managed to flip myself onto my tummy and arm crawl away from her so that I would not be trampled as she scrambled to get to her feet. A few meters away from her I collapsed. My face lay down into the stone-cold arena sand, my mind in shock, trying to process what had happened. I realized I was unable to move either of my legs, and the first wave of excruciating pain flooded my body. At that moment, I was convinced I had broken my spine, and life as I knew it, was over.

A sudden unexpected tide change can shake you to your emotional core. I have had to learn to walk through this darkness, both physically and emotionally, after this accident nearly rendered me to a wheelchair for life, it was my mantra, to keep being strong.

Post my almost 9-hour surgery at Alfred Hospital.

I was airlifted to the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and spent two agonizingly painful days waiting for the swelling to settle to a point where the surgeon could operate on my pelvis, which was badly broken, along with numerous fractures in both hips and severe nerve damage to my right leg.

I woke from the surgery to receive the news that I may never walk again properly, let alone run. My dreams of competing in horse riding were swiftly taken away from the horizon and what was left was the stillness of the hospital bed. It was at this moment that I decided I was not going to accept this externally placed limitation that I would be stuck in a wheelchair or with walking aids forever. I was absolutely determined to get back on my feet, to learn to walk and then run again.

I spent six months in hospital in recovery from my physical injuries. With amazing support from the Epworth Rehabilitation Hospital and my family, I managed to teach myself to walk again.

I clearly remember the first time I stood on the land, which was 117 days after the accident – it was a horribly painful experience. As I wheeled myself back to my hospital bed I became overwhelmed with defeating thoughts. I couldn’t even stand for a few seconds, so how was I ever going to be able to walk again? As the tears rolled down my face and the darkness of my negative thoughts crushed my hope, I remembered a cartoon that used to be on our family fridge as I was growing up. The title of the cartoon was – Never Give Up – it had a pelican with a frog’s head in its mouth, but the frog was choking the pelican, demonstrating that even in the frog’s last moments and in the most distraught situation, you need to keep fighting.

Overwhelmed by my seemingly impossible end goal of walking, I began to develop a game plan to break it down into achievable “one step at a time” goals. I developed what I call Confidence Building Goals. Ones I knew I could definitely achieve; ones that were still a challenge, yet are not a huge push, and finally my superstar goals. These superstar goals were ones I had to dig deep to achieve and are not achievable daily, though once obtained, really motivated me to keep on going.

Standing for the first time on land 117 days after the accident.

The goals began with a simple; stand for 20 seconds with a superstar goal of standing unassisted for 10 seconds. Little by little, my determination was in focus to achieve what I could achieve, quite literally, one step at a time. I also had to constantly challenge and question not only the external limitations that were placed on me by others but most importantly, the internal ones that my own mind was creating.

With experiencing such devastating trauma, you cannot just turn to survival mode and shut down – you need to keep living your life! I was extremely lucky that I had friends and family who were able to help me to do exactly that. I learned how to transfer from my wheelchair to a car and would be taken from the hospital to nail appointments. I had my hair done a couple of times, went to the movies and wheelchair-friendly restaurants. It’s times like these you have to make the conscious decision to be happy and not lock yourself away from things that bring you joy. It is when you are in your darkest moments that you have to dig deep to find that everlasting spark of light within you and live so that the darkness does not consume you. Of course, you also need to experience the pain and sadness. Not only was I processing my physical pain, I also had to deal with the deep grief of selling my beloved horses and giving up on my life-long dream of becoming a Grand Prix Dressage rider and riding for my country. However, in your darkest hours, it is important that you surround yourself with the right people who will encourage you to live with a positive attitude and have things in your life to look forward to so that pain and sadness do not take up center stage in your life’s dramatic play.

Being presented my Bachelor of Commerce from Deakin University.

I continued to study my CPA (Certified Practising Accountant) program though the entire recovery and I was not going to let my limited walking abilities stop me from collecting my Commerce degree (which I had completed just before the accident), and as I walked across the stage aided with just a walker I felt like those little ducks were starting to come back together, just in a different order.

I have successfully achieved my goal of being able to walk unaided and can take my miniature pinscher puppies for strolls around the park. I swim regularly in the local pool and I’m back on my road bike. I have achieved a 100km ride a few months ago and through sheer determination, I have started to run and have hit the 5km!

Since the accident, I have undergone thirteen operations and procedures in the effort to hopefully restore full mobility and reduce my daily pain to a more manageable level. Each operation has created improvements in my daily living but has also taken an emotional toll which I am starting to feel. Now that my body is in a relatively strong position physically, my mind is taking time to deal with all the emotional trauma. It is a real roller coaster ride, sometimes I just sit in the shower and cry. And this is OK, I have really started to understand the meaning of “it is ok not to be ok” and I allow myself to be in this space. To feel the emotions without fear that I will drown in them and hold onto the faith that “even this shall pass”. I ensure I don’t allow myself to stay in these emotions too long and will make myself go walk the dogs and embrace how grateful I am to be able to do that. However, sometimes I struggle to pull myself back onto my feet and it is essential to recognize those moments and reach out to your support tribe.

The accident shattered not only my pelvis but my world, the easy option would have been to fall away into the darkness, to allow the physical and emotional paid to consume me (and at times it did), to resign to the world the doctors were building for me which would have been a dull colorless life. But nothing ever worth doing has been easy, so piece by piece I picked up the shattered piece of my life and went to work rebuilding a magnificent new picture with vibrant colors.

I may have surrendered one passion (Dressage), yet my journey has led me to a new passion of inspiring and empowering others to achieve their dreams and overcome adversity so they can fulfill their true potential. Through failure or loss come opportunities, and every challenge life throws us can either be a stumbling block or a stepping stone. It is our choice to make the best or worst of any situation – you just need to keep an open mind and heart, take it one step at a time, and never give up!

Always find the courage to smile because the world will smile back at you!
© Copyright Hacia Atherton | Created by the team at Great Humans