The Importance of Living the Life of Your Dreams

By Che Sweetland
January 26, 2014
Knotty Goat Soapery
Goat Milk Soap and Lotion

Yesterday, I was profoundly reminded of the fact that I am living the life that I am meant to live. As a general rule, I haven’t discussed my health publicly in any real detail. However, I often engage in conversations related to my health challenges when the conversation arises. I don’t hide these things and I speak about them often, but I don’t focus on them publicly. Today, I’ve decided to change that rule. I am going to talk about my challenges because doing so will help me talk about my successes.

About a month ago, I realized that I needed an updated photograph of myself for use in business contexts. My farm and business are growing and I needed a way to accurately portray myself to those who haven’t met me yet. I have several incredibly talented photographer friends, all of whom have taken some beautiful photos of my goats or my products or my goats and me. However, none of these photos is quite what I want for this particular photo.

So, I contacted one of the most amazing women I know and asked if she could create a headshot for me to use. Thankfully, she said that she’d be happy to help. Even better, she agreed to attempt to take my photo along with one of my goats. However, it is January in Maine. An outdoor photo shoot with the goats and me is out of the question if I want to be proud of my appearance in the photo. In fact, it’s out of the question if I don’t want to be so covered in winter coats, bomber hats, and thick scarves that I’d barely be recognizable.

4-month-old dwarf goatI am fortunate enough to have my tiny little son-of-a-rescue goat, Jeremy. His story is long and detailed, but the important information for this article is that he was born tiny and remains tiny. According to what I know of his breeding, at nearly a year old, he should weigh at least 50 pounds and should probably be closer to 75 pounds. Right now, he is 11 months old and weighs less than 25 pounds. He also grew up with his brother in my living room, so he’s familiar with the sights and sounds of being inside a building and away from the herd. He was perfect to bring into a photography studio.

I promise, this is all important information to understanding where I’m going with all this.

My childhood was abusive. As a child, I was constantly in fear. As an adolescent, I developed severe symptoms of depression. As I approached adulthood, symptoms of extreme anxiety began to appear. Throughout my early adulthood, I was aware of some of my challenges but not others. I didn’t know that I was living with post-traumatic stress disorder and likely had been for years.

At a therapist’s recommendation, I spent many years working the “fake it until you make it” plan. I figured that, over time, the more I confronted and smiled through the things that upset me due to my traumatic childhood, the easier they would become. Little did I know, I was actually making things worse. While the “fake it until you make it” technique may work for some people, it was the exact opposite for me. Instead of desensitizing myself and getting better, I was re-traumatizing myself and worsening my symptoms.

I developed anxiety attacks, traumatic nightmares, neck and back muscle spasms, migraines, suicidal thoughts, gastric ulcers, asthma, gained almost 50 pounds, and other symptoms. My doctors tended to treat my depression and anxiety together, as if they were related to each other. They treated my muscle spasms, gastric ulcers, asthma, weight gain, and other symptoms individually. The doctors didn’t realize that these symptoms were likely all related.

Over time, I became less and less able. I became unable to do much physical activity. Either asthma or muscle spasms would prevent me from doing much. My traumatic nightmares would leave me exhausted when I woke up in the morning. I became more and more anxious in public settings. I developed phobias about my house catching on fire. I began having anxiety attacks at work, making me unable to be a reliable employee and worsening my suicidal thoughts. Finally, I learned that I needed to leave my job in order to try to save my life.

Throughout my life, I have felt a connection with and have found comfort in animals. As I became more and more ill, I realized how important it was to have animals around me. At the time I left my job, I lived with two dogs and a handful of cats. Also at this time, my anxiety symptoms had worsened. I now hardly stepped foot outside of my house without feeling scared. As a result, I hardly stepped foot outside my house. This was also the time period when I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While this diagnosis was upsetting to me, it also allowed me to understand myself and my health better.

I learned about triggers and flashbacks. I learned what some of my triggers are. I finally understood that some of my “anxiety attacks” were actually flashbacks. I learned that I was more ill than I thought I was, but at least I now understood what I was dealing with and was able to learn how I may be able to get better. Because of my lifelong affinity for animals, I suspected they would be a key to my recovery.

As part of my therapy, I got a half dozen pet chickens. These chickens lived outside and depended on me for their care. As a result of caring for these chickens, I began to go outside twice a day, every day, no matter what. In a very short amount of time, I was looking forward to going outside to care for these chickens and to look forward to spending time outside with them. At this point, I was unable to even lift the 50-pound bag of grain that I was feeding them without causing my back muscle to spasm. I was unable to spend more than 2 or 3 minutes at a time turning soil in the garden I decided to create, also for emotionally therapeutic reasons. At the same time, my depression and anxiety symptoms were beginning to get better.

Realizing that these chickens were improving my quality of life and even helping treat my health problems, I decided to expand my farm. When I was in college, I worked my summers at a small zoo. One of those summers, I spent a few days a week working in the petting zoo full of pygmy goats. I loved spending my days with those goats. So, I decided to get some goats for my farm. At this time, I had been unable to work for over a year and finances were extremely tight. I needed the goats to help pay for their own care. After a ridiculous amount of research, I decided to start a tiny herd of dairy goats in the hopes that I could use some money from selling their milk to support them.

As my farm grew, I began to change. Over the next three years, I started losing weight. I spent more and more time outside, still on my property, but at least I wasn’t in my house all the time. I became more able. I could lift bags of grain. I could move bales of hay. When I first started caring for my goats, I could only move 2 or 3 bales of hay at a time before needing to take a break. A few months ago, I moved 40 bales of hay in just over an hour without a break. I hardly experience muscle spasms. My asthma is more well-controlled than it has been in almost a decade.

While I still work to manage my depression symptoms, they are more manageable. I have occasional traumatic nightmares rather than several of them each night. I can spend entire days outside, working on the farm, spending time with my animals, and experience very little, if any, anxiety. I have moments when I am comfortable with myself and do not feel afraid. This is a huge improvement for me.

I continue to struggle with anxiety symptoms when I am away from my property. The more unfamiliar the location or the more people that are around, the more anxiety I experience. I have flashbacks almost every time I go out in public. Thankfully, I also have hope. Because of the vast improvements I have experienced with my other health problems, I am able to feel hopeful that these anxiety symptoms will improve over time.

My compassionate farm is the center of my lifestyle right now. I have a new, growing, promising business in which I make and sell goat milk soap and goat milk lotion. I anticipate that my business will continue to grow and will thrive. This is where the need for a good headshot comes in.

Yesterday, I brought my tiny goat, Jeremy, to a photography studio in Bangor, Maine. A good friend of mine is the photographer. I chose her because I knew I had a chance of feeling comfortable around her, even though I wasn’t at home. My boyfriend came with me to help coordinate me, my tiny goat, my changes of clothes, and everything else I brought with me as I over-prepared due to my anxiety. During the drive in to town, I was anxious about how my boyfriend was driving. I had to work hard not to ask him not to change lanes or to take a turn more slowly. He was not driving quickly or erratically. I knew that I was experiencing anxiety about the day’s activities, not about his driving.

When we arrived in Bangor, I was having flashbacks. I was stressed and anxious and having trouble figuring out what to do with myself. That’s where my goat, Jeremy, comes in. To calm myself before the photo shoot, I took a few minutes to walk with him while the snow fell around us. He had a chance to relieve himself and stretch his legs. I had a chance to take a few deep breaths but cars were driving by and people walked too close to me. I was calmer, but still not okay.

When it was time for my photo shoot, my anxiety increased again. Even though I was getting to spend time with my boyfriend, my goat, my friend, and her wonderful son, I still struggled to control flashbacks and anxiety attacks. The photo shoot began with my friend taking my photo alone. This made sense and was the right thing to do. The first few photos of a shoot require a bit of trial and error to get the right lighting and positioning. It was a lot of small changes and flashes that Jeremy didn’t need to, and shouldn’t have to, experience. Again, I kept my anxiety under control, but I could feel it intensely. I suppressed as much as I could so that I could at least appear to be calm.

Then, we needed Jeremy for the photos. Since he’s so tiny, he sat on my lap so we could have our photo taken together. Once we were in position and started having our photo taken together, I could feel myself calming. My body was quieter. Thoughts weren’t flying through my head. I was more still and I felt more at ease. Having Jeremy in my lap calmed me better than anything else I had done that day to try to calm myself. Even better, Jeremy started to relax once he got used to the flashes, which only took a minute or two. He began tucking his little head under my chin and snuggling with me. That’s when I finally quieted. I actually felt calm. Not more calm but still anxious. I felt calm.

During the last few years, I have had several moments like this one which have told me that, without a doubt, I am living the life that I am supposed to live. After pursuing two careers that incrementally worsened my health to the degree that I was no longer able to work and was barely able to live a meaningful life, I have found what I need to do. I need to farm. I need to care for animals. I need to spend time with my animals. I need the daily physical activity that in integral in farming. I need to feel good about what I am doing at the core of my being.

I do not consider it a coincidence that, once I began living this lifestyle, my health began to improve rapidly. Most of my health problems were ones that my doctors and I had been trying to get under control for a decade or more. During that time period, most of the symptoms had stayed the same or worsened. In the three years that I have had my farm, my health condition has improved dramatically. My body needs me to be doing this work. It needs me to garden and to move hay bales and to carry bags of grain. I need to spend time outside every day, regardless of weather. My body needs to wake up at or before dawn and go to sleep not long after dark. My soul needs to be surrounded by animals and trees and fresh Maine air.

With more time, I am confident that my anxiety will continue to improve and that I will become more comfortable away from home. As my business grows and thrives, I will be more and more able to live the life that I have dreamed of. All those years of trying to live the life that I was expected to live made me ill and caused me to want to die. Living this life is causing me to feel hopeful and healthier and to enjoy life.

If you are struggling or stuck or just unsure of what to do, take a deep breath and take one step toward living the life of your dreams. You may not be able to drop everything and reinvent your whole life today, but you can take a step. My first step was getting six chickens. What will your first step be?