by Kelsey Kirkwood (MA, LADC) and Lynn Moore (MA, LADC), Acres for Life Therapy and Wellness Center (Minnesota)
One of the first things counselors are taught in school is the value of individualized treatment planning. Taking into consideration evidenced-based practices and approaches, as well as customizing a plan specific to the individual being treated, is a major aspect of becoming an effective clinician who works with those struggling with addiction. Research shows that the majority of people who are diagnosed with some form of chemical dependency are also struggling with some degree of mental health concerns. The value of providing clients with an option of therapy and support services outside of traditional talk and group therapy is immense. Taking into account the correlation of multiple mental health diagnoses—including PTSD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder—it is relatively easy to recognize that, when it comes to addiction treatment, there is no “one size fits all.”
Those who have studied addiction or who have experienced it in their lives know and understand its depth. Addiction is so far beyond just using a substance or drinking too much. Addiction takes place when an individual’s serotonin levels are imbalanced, and when the neurotransmitters in their brains are rewired to view alcohol or drugs as a necessity, right up there with food and water. Addiction is a disease, but viewing it as such is still a new concept. Due to the newness of the disease model, and in spite of ongoing research to continue to understand addiction, there is still significant stigma around being an addict.
No More Stigmas
Visualize for a second what comes to mind when the words “meth addict,” “alcoholic,” or “crackhead” are used. Too often, what is pictured is a person on the street with dirty clothes, unhealthy teeth, sores all over their face and body, asking for money. The reality is that these addicts are people, though they are often not recognized or treated as such. They are perceived differently due to their addictions and stigmatized when seeking help. The amazing thing about equine-assisted psychotherapy is that horses do not perceive in that way. Horses do not recognize stigmas, regardless of where they’ve come from or where they’ve been. Horses provide a chance to let down those walls of self-preservation that have so commonly been built around those battling addiction.
When someone struggling with addiction steps into the pasture at Acres for Life Therapy & Wellness Center, a Minnesota Eagala Model facility, there is no stigma. They are surrounded by horses, living beings, and for that span of time are not faced with judgements on character, questions of “Why can’t you just stop?” or “What is wrong with you?” Horses hold no judgements on character, but rather erly on their biological ability to assess for safety, based on what has entered the space that they are in. For many people in recovery, or still in the midst of their addiction, Eagala (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) offers time in which people are provided a space they can enter exactly as they are, exactly where they are, and still be provided a place to be open and heal. For some people, Eagala becomes the only time in their life that they feel emotionally safe. And that emotional safety is vital to healing.
The Pasture as Safe Space
The Eagala model is a solution-focused, experiential therapy. It allows the client to transform the pasture into a metaphor for their life, to experience things as they unfold, and to recognize the solutions that facilitators of this model believe are within them. It allows clients to build self-awareness, self-efficacy, and self-confidence. Clients are given the opportunity to take everything that comes hand-in-hand with addiction—shame, guilt, self-loathing, anger, trauma, whatever it is that they’re feeling and experiencing—and take that out of their head. If they choose, they are able to label a living, breathing creature as their drug of choice, as their addiction, and observe and interact with it based on where they are. Through four main areas of focus within the model (observe, move, relate, and create), the horses and the space that a client enters becomes a living, breathing metaphor.
Facilitators can ask an individual to observe the horses and think about which one they most closely identify with. A client can be asked to move the horse that represents him or her to a “safe space,” or whatever fits their story. Clients can be asked about what “their” relationship is to the other horses out there. An individual can also be asked to create what recovery looks like “out there.” The options and ability to customize Eagala to an individual are endless. The ability for the facilitation team—a mental health professional, an equine specialist, and the horses—to foster an environment where clients can come as they are, regardless of where that might be, is unique to this specific model of therapy.
In June 2015, Johann Hari gave a TED talk focused on addiction. In his talk, he references professor Bruce Alexander’s experiments in which he questioned how deep the “chemical hooks” of addiction were, and what role environment and adaptation to our environments play in substance abuse disorders. After studying and gathering data on rats in cages, Professor Alexander wondered, “What if addiction is about your cage?” He was referencing our cages through the metaphor of the rats that he studied, but in the literal sense, he was referencing our adaptation to our environments. Johann Hari ended his talk saying, “The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” This idea, and the importance of connection in human development, creates a strong argument for the need for connection in our lives in order to be healthy.
Connection in human development, from conception to death, is vital. The opportunity that Eagala provides to create connections with horses, to be able to invite them to become a part of an individual’s story, is something that by many is considered “safe.” Eagala provides an opportunity for people to step outside of their normal environment, to step outside of their “cage,” both literally and figuratively. The ability for people to externalize what is so often consistently internalized is hugely valuable. The chance to take things out of our heads, and to label organic, living beings as our diagnosis, our loneliness, our depression, or our families is huge. Again, horses do not pass judgements on someone’s past. Horses do not repeat what humans vocalize. Horses are unable to share information that clients divulge. Beyond that, horses are also biologically wired to survive from connection.
Being herd animals, horses are able by basic instinct to use communication and rely on each other for survival. In the wild, horses are prey animals. This means that they are always on alert, and always aware of their surroundings. The herd mentality fosters connections with each other, roles within the herd, and a hierarchy of leaders within what essentially becomes a family. For a client to step in and observe the relationships between the horses, and begin to formulate a story based on the interactions of the living creatures in the pasture with them can be vital as people take the first steps towards healing, growing, and learning more about themselves.
The ability to enter a space with a chance to make and get out of your own head, and the confidence of the therapy model that allows you to find your own solutions, is powerful. Eagala, and more so the horses that are used, offer a judgement-free, no stigma, safe place for people to bring their addictions, their diagnosis, their trauma, and their pain into the pasture, and ultimately leave it there. Eagala provides space and opportunity for connection, which in turn provides space and opportunity for healing.
Treatment at JourneyPure At The River
As an official sponsor of the 2018 Eagala Conference, we’re proud to offer Eagala Model equine therapy at JourneyPure at the River to assist our patients regain mental and physical strength. If you or a loved one are seeking treatment, call us today at 615-410-9260 and our admissions team can help.