By Carol A. Hulse
December 1, 2008
When I signed up for Cindy Horsfall’s “The Heart of Canine Aquatic Therapy – Level 1” training held in November 2008, I eagerly anticipated learning all about how I could help dogs heal physically and emotionally through warm water therapy. Little did I know that I would also personally experience the healing power of water as part of my training.
My interest in dogs and healing grew out of my firsthand experience with how therapeutic dogs can be for humans. Silver, my first dog, magically came to me during the most challenging time of my life, about one month to the date of my beloved husband’s death in June 2006. My Martin had been diagnosed with inoperable gastric cancer shortly before our first wedding anniversary in early 2005. After a partial remission, his condition began to rapidly deteriorate in early May 2006.
Silver came to live with me in January 2007. Taking care of her gave me a reason to get up in the morning and to leave the house. She definitely helped me to remain connected to the world around me when a part of me only wanted to curl up in a corner. Silver continues to be a close and cherished companion in my grief healing journey–I don’t know how I would have made it through the past several months without her.
The long-awaited first day of canine warm water therapy training finally arrived and my fellow students and I excitedly settled into the lodge. I felt a slight twinge in my neck as I carried my heavy suitcase upstairs to my bedroom upon arrival-I chose to risk the possibility of temporary soreness rather than incur the certain inconvenience of unpacking downstairs and dragging my stuff upstairs.
My neck felt somewhat sore the very next day. I attributed the pain in part to a lack of sleep on my first night-the result of new surroundings combined with my roommate’s loud snoring. I found myself increasingly angry and frustrated that I felt so tired as I faced my first day in the water working with the dogs. I wanted everything to be perfect this week–I felt like a lot was a stake for me because I was following my passion around dogs and healing. Ah, my old friend, perfectionism…
By the following day, my neck was throbbing with pain and was becoming so stiff I had trouble moving it from side to side. I did my best to participate in the training but it was nearly impossible for me to concentrate on anything but the intense soreness. I kept trying to figure out what was going on and why my neck was aching so badly, to no avail. I had never experienced neck pain like that before in my life! Ice packs and massages provided me with only fleeting relief.
I broke down in tears in the pool the next day. I was so frustrated and angry with myself – for the pain, for not doing as well in the training as I wanted, for being so needy-I felt utterly helpless and much too vulnerable. I’m typically the strong, independent one who gives to others, the one in control – my realm of safety. I felt extremely alone. I didn’t trust that support would be there if I let down my guard and fully reached out for it.
I finally laid down on a bench by the pool while my classmates went on an outing. I pulled out a pen and paper-writing helps to clear my mind and calm me down. It felt good to write out my thoughts.
This trip to Washington was nothing like I imagined it would be. I had such high expectations for me. I’d become a great canine warm water therapist and my life would head in a whole new and meaningful direction. Why, I’d figure everything out during this training and the rest of my life would be. I could leave Martin’s death behind me.
I considered the prospect of going home but that felt much too overwhelming. Cindy gently encouraged me to stay put and feel my feelings, which were excruciating based on my neck pain, rather than run from them. She also helped me to realize that perhaps what I was experiencing was also helpful to my fellow students–they could see firsthand the intense emotions that water can bring up along with the subsequent release and healing. And everyone rose to the opportunity to provide me with care and support.
I did my best to stay present with this bewildering experience and my emotions. It was so difficult for me to let go and be vulnerable to others and to accept their support. But I did it. I also allowed myself to be fully present for my initial fabulous WATSU (warm water massage and shiatsu), an intensely relaxing and rejuvenating experience provided by Cindy Horsfall and Tom Cobian, two extremely gifted WATSU practitioners.
I realized that the intensity of my neck pain reflected all of the anger and frustration I’d been holding inside since my husband’s death and probably for long before that. By the next day, my neck pain virtually disappeared. I still struggled with the feeling that I didn’t do as well as I “should have” in the course and was fearful of the test Cindy had in store for us on our final night. But I showed up. I’m proud to say that I took the test and graduated!
Once onboard the plane for the flight home, I immediately opened the “Splash” summer 2008 newsletter and read Wendi Crandall-Amidon’s story about ancient earth and animal oneness meditation retreats for animal parishioners and animal lovers. In this article Wendi writes, “Sharing with animals has to be a healthy balance between giving and receiving. One needs to self-heal before they can truly give to others”.
In other words, my profound and personal warm water experience was a necessary step in my self-healing so that I can be a more effective, authentic healing presence for other beings. The therapeutic properties of the warm water helped me to surface and then release agonizing emotional pain; I’ve felt such freedom since this experience, freedom to be me and to follow my dreams. This occurrence also tremendously increased my body awareness, which is essential to helping my canine friends and others.
“Change Your Life”-I saw this billboard as I headed home from the San Francisco airport. As soon as the plane had touched down, I realized that I had outgrown my way of life here. For the last several months, I’ve known that I want to spend more time outdoors and in nature and that I need more room for Silver and me to roam. My canine warm water therapy training also confirmed that I want to follow my passion and realize my dream of working with dogs-I’m not able to make that my priority in San Francisco given the high cost of living.
To that end, I’ve decided to leave that city I’ve called home for over 26 years. Without the release of so many painful emotions, I don’t think I’d feel so freed up and open to this new exciting adventure. I just know that I need to follow my passion around dogs and healing and to create the best life I can for Silver and me.
Most importantly, my intimate understanding and appreciation of the healing power of water and of the intrinsic connection between emotional and physical well-being will help me help me to be a much more present, effective and compassionate healing arts practitioner for my canine and human friends.