“Music, animals and Stevie Nicks saved me,” Katie laughs. I sit across a diner booth from her and realized it had never occurred to me that this woman I’ve known for years suffers from PTSD. “It was a result of childhood abuse,” she explains. “My mother was an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic with some multiple personality issues. I have memories of her playing games with me which resulted in her locking me in a toy chest, closets. I would have to sit outside on the steps and wait for my father, who was sexually abusing me. These things were never discussed.”
Now, Katie openly talks about her trauma, her diagnosis and her healing process, which started with horses. A nearby stable barn provided Katie a much-needed refuge, “Because my mother was terrified of horses.” Katie’s time with animals allowed her to “Dispel energy that was both of anxiety and anger as it is a more highly focused activity than it is physical.” But more than just the physicality, animals allowed Katie to experience unconditional love. “Between you and the animals,” she insists, “There are no lies. That mutual trust is very powerful.”
Additionally, Katie was taken in by a couple, Beryl and John, and began to excel, emancipating herself from her parents at the age of twelve and graduating high school by fifteen, holding within her all the promise of a bright young woman until her foster parents were killed in a car crash just before her twenty-first birthday. By the time Katie was a young woman she was, as she describes herself, “Nearly unshakable.” To cope, she self-medicated with alcohol and cocaine. “Although never in the excessive amounts everyone else was doing, but it brought me out of my shell enough to talk about my past with new people who understood, were older, empathized and wanted me to shine as bright as what they saw in me.” As she began breaking out of the protective shell she adopted to survive her childhood, Katie met both Stevie Nicks and her future husband, Bill. “I met Stevie Nicks when I was 11 at my first concert,” Katie recalls. “She took a shine to me and let me sit on stage and braided flowers into my hair.” Katie became absorbed in the world of rock and roll and moved into Stevie’s home, a veritable castle Katie describes with a “Hippie commune vibe.” Her red curls shake with laughter as she recalls, “It was a huge Tudor mansion with, no kidding, a swing from the cathedral ceiling covered with flowers and turrets, and I was in tow. And terrified.” Katie was brave enough to seek out what she’s been missing, the very thing that had caused her so much pain, a family. She describes her decision to marry her former husband: “By ’86 coke was ruining all the people I loved around me, and I was the youngest and soberest of the lot and always dealing with OD’s and that sort of thing. I decided I needed to choose a healthier lifestyle. I chose Bill and the horses.” However, the horse-show world exposed Katie to more drugs and decadence than she’d seen in rock-n-roll. Her marriage fell apart. “My world was shattered,” she tells me, and the thing about PTSD is, there’s no shelter from knowing what’s already happened.
Still, Katie did not surrender to her circumstances; instead, she returned to animals. “They saved me when I was a child, and they saved me as a 35-year-old adult,” she says. As Katie began reordering her life, she developed the skills to compete in the Olympics as second reserve for the show-jumping team, but between healing from PTSD and a back injury, she’d missed her window and lost a bit of her nerve. “It takes a killer instinct to jump 6-foot fences at speed every day. Some days I had it, others I couldn’t do it,” she says. With the love given to her by a few special people remaining in her life and the animals always there for her, Katie began helping others, as well. “Just one person. That’s my motto.” She, along with Stevie Nicks, volunteered for Wounded Warriors, bringing animals, including her Jack Russell Terrier, KC, into Walter Reed to visit disabled veterans. Katie describes men back from Iraq, missing limbs and living in filthy conditions with minimal care, but, “With animals,” she explains, “There’s no judgement.” When a service dog is brought into the hospital, they don’t see a vet’s amputation or burn scars, just a person who can love and be loved. KC, was “unflinching,” regardless of the veteran’s medical condition or living environment, which enabled them to, perhaps, consider a different perspective, as well. Her own injuries gave her the ability to sit with a Marine who “May want a visit from a cute woman and her little dog, but not to talk, and to accept that. It’s the hardest part about volunteering, knowing when your silent acceptance, your dog and your presence, is all that person needs or wants right then. I still get letters and phone calls weekly from some of them,” Katie beams. She started a non-profit Riding for the Handicapped program, using retired show horses and ponies, “That you pretty much can’t faze,” to assist autistic children and adults. She’s also worked with dolphins, become a veterinary technician and continues to work with dogs, which she describes as her “Anchor to reality.”
Like Sailor T. mentions in the article “No Safe Place,” Katie understands that PTSD is, “Always with you, all the time.” Yet she insists, “If you have it, you learn to cope with it.” Katie, like many who live with the condition, still experiences social anxiety, fears trusting others, and wakes from nightmares that “Stay with you all day long.” But her work with animals taught her to use her hypervigilance, a classic symptom of constantly being aware of one’s surroundings, to her advantage. “I have near photographic memory. I know where people are at all times and I see things coming.” She used this with training animals, intuiting their needs and the smallest shift in their reactions. Certainly, no one can see everything that’s coming, and Katie reminds me of a quote she loves by Mark Twain, “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.” Whatever does happen, Katie has the wisdom of the few who manage to lift themselves above an existence they never asked for and create a new one for themselves, along with the humor Twain intended in knowing whatever might come, she can handle it.