I first saw Cheryl Eriksen during the live broadcast of Breyerfest, 2023. She was there selling her first book, and as soon as I heard her speak, I went straight to her website to read her blog and order her books. (Her second book was published shortly after Breyerfest.) That began a conversation that I’m
happy to be able to share with you here.
Cheryl is Breyer collector (of course!), as well as a horse trainer, midwife for racehorses, and an author. During her time in the horse industry, she struggled with her mental health. When she was finally diagnosed with PTSD from childhood trauma, her struggles began to make sense, and she was finally able to begin healing. What she shares with us in her two memoirs, Follow Me, Friend and I’ve Never Been To Me is the beginning of that healing journey. It’s full of happiness, tragedy, self-discovery, and above all, it’s relatable to many of us. She takes us from the highs of discovering new ways to communicate with the horses she cares for, to the lows and pain of wanting her life to end, and back again. Through it all, she writes with brilliant detail and emotion, so you feel you are walking alongside her through this incredible journey.
Her books have already begun winning awards:
2023 Firebook Book Awards Winner
2022 Writer's Digest SP Ebook Awards Winner
2022 Feathered Quill Book Awards Finalist
Eleda: Cheryl, it’s a pleasure to talk with you. Your writing style is so… present, I think is the best word. Memoirs can often come across as dry timelines, but not yours. You bring us into every scene, both visually and emotionally. That’s really a gift. When did you first decide that you had a story you wanted to share with the world and what inspired you to begin putting words on the page?
Cheryl: Thank you, Eleda. Follow Me, Friend, the first book, is the one I wish I could have read when I was twenty. When I first thought about writing down my story, I was in a pretty dark place—during some of my most difficult times—well before I learned what was really going on. About ten years later, I had a greater understanding of what was happening to me and I’d begun to heal. I thought back to that version of me existing the harshest period of my life and wanted to reach her, to offer words that would help her understand she wasn’t crazy, and that NOT talking about what she was experiencing was only perpetuating he anguish.
Eleda: You’ve had some amazing experiences that most horse lovers can only dream of – You’ve been a “horse midwife,” as you like to say, at some of the most prestigious racehorse barns (both Thoroughbred and Standardbred) in the country. How many births would you say you got to witness?
Cheryl: I tried to figure it up once and lost count. Definitely in the hundreds. I’m going into my thirteenth season and figure anywhere from 25 to 55 a year depending on where I worked. I watched many more mares than that though—they just didn’t always foal on my shift.
Eleda: Of course, overseeing horse births is not at all a stress-free job. You’ve experienced, and written about, some sad moments as well. Still, it’s got to give you a sense of pride when horses you saw born go on to do great things. Are you at liberty to share any names of horses that you helped birth that we might have heard of?
Cheryl: You’re right, it is definitely not stress-free. So much can go wrong and being able to catch things early is vital. This can only come through many years of watching horse behavior. I’ve been very fortunate through my almost 30-year career to know and handle thousands of horses.
As a horse midwife, I’ve been pretty lucky to work with some amazing horses at some fabulous farms. I think the foal I helped deliver that your readers would be most interested in is upcoming Breyer model, Cody’s Wish. I’ve also been fortunate to assist in the deliver of a Kentucky Oaks winner and Dubai world cup winner as well as neonatal care of a Kentucky Derby winner. While it’s fun to keep track, I make a point of giving each mare and each foal the same level of attention and care no matter how famous or expensive they may or may not be—to me, they are all special and worthy of my very best efforts.
[Cody's Wish shortly after his birth, with his dam Dance Card; photo courtesy Cheryl Erikson]
Eleda: To someone looking in from the outside, it might seem like you’ve had many dream jobs and you must have been loving every minute of it. But that’s not the case… You were constantly being tormented by an inner voice you called “Mean Cheryl.” Can you tell us about her and how she was affecting your day-to-day life?
Cheryl: Mean Cheryl was an intense manifestation of some out-of-control self-talk. The best way I can describe her is emotionally abusive. Like having a person you couldn’t get away from that constantly pointed out your every fault, and every mistake, while hurling insults and telling you how stupid and useless you are.
I talk about Mean Cheryl as if she was someone else, someone outside of me, because that is how it felt. For decades she felt like a separate person within me. I always knew she was also me—I wasn’t delusional—but I could not turn off that inner monologue and she undermined me at every turn. With her in control of my inner workings, it was impossible to believe in myself, or to love or respect myself. This affected every part of my life from my ability to form relationships, my ability to advance in my job, even my ability to properly care for myself.
While I absolutely had followed my dreams and was doing work I loved, I constantly was at risk of Mean Cheryl sabotaging me and also was incapable of recognizing when I was in toxic relationships and/or environments.
Eleda: Almost all of us have a negative inner voice, but for those with PTSD from childhood, it’s much stronger and more vocal. Why do you think she was such a powerful force in your life for so long?
Cheryl: I believe Mean Cheryl started as a coping mechanism. The abuse occurred when I was seven years old. At that age of development, the child still believes that they are the cause of the things that happen around them. This is normal. It’s not until the child is older that they are capable of understanding the concept of how other people effect their world. That means that if something bad happens, the child will blame themselves, even if there is no possible way they could control it (think about kids who believe they are to blame for their parents’ divorce).
For me, in my seven-year-old mind, the only way to keep myself safe, was to make sure I never made a mistake—I had subconsciously come to the conclusion that I’d done something wrong and that is why something bad happened to me. Mean Cheryl was that inner voice that reminded me constantly that everything bad was my fault and therefore I had to be very good if I wanted people to stop hurting me. She tried to keep me safe by punishing me any time something went wrong. I never learned the part about how I can’t control the actions of others, no matter how hard I try, until much later in life. As I grew older, she grew more powerful and by the time I was an adult, she was completely out of control.
Eleda: And the kicker is, you didn’t even remember the trauma while you were dealing with her, right?
Cheryl: That is true and that was part of the problem. It never occurred to me that Mean Cheryl could be wrong. That there was not something wrong with me. That I wasn’t defective or unlikeable or ugly or anything else she said about me. I had no memory of the event that created her. I just figured I was crazy and she was part of that. Therefore, I hid everything that was happening to me. This only served to strengthen her.
Eleda: The mind is an amazing place, capable of protecting us from remembering life-changing trauma when we need it to, as children, but not knowing how to “turn off” that coping mechanism when we become adults, where it can sometimes do more harm than good. You credit your lovely Paint Mare Farletta (whose registered name is Follow Me, Friend) for helping you first realize how your energy changed when Mean Cheryl was speaking to you. Can you tell us about that discovery and how it set you on the path to seeking therapy?
Cheryl: Farletta was extremely sensitive to my energy, more so than any other horse I’ve encountered. Farletta and I had always had an amazing connection, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul, and cell-to-cell as Linda Tellington-Jones put it. But one day her behavior toward me changed drastically. She behaved nervous and anxious, as if she couldn’t stand to be near me. It was a long process with multiple layers, but the lesson Farletta taught me was that my energy changed when I was trying to suppress my fears/anxiety/feelings, etc. When I finally stopped trying to hide everything, and instead was honest with Farletta about how I was feeling—this is when her behavior changed back to the quiet, comfortable horse that I knew.
Eleda: Horses (and all animals) are amazingly intuitive and sensitive. And often, so are people with PTSD, because we’re always watching, listening, and “feeling the room” for signals that could mean danger. I think that’s why we find so many people who have PTSD working to make the lives of animals and people better, at places like animal rescues, hospitals, and as social workers. Speaking of which, you went back to school and got your degree in social work. Congratulations on that. How has that helped you in your daily life and in your own healing?
Cheryl: Thank you. Yes, I realized this in social work school, that every one of my classmates had a personal experience (or a loved one with such an experience) that inspired them to get their degree in social work. I think this is true for so many of the helping services. I knew a man who became a doctor because he was upset no one could save his dad who’d died of cancer. I think there is something about helping others that gives meaning to our own suffering. I often say God gave me this story because I could tell it in such a way that it would reach and help others.
As you mentioned earlier, my writing is not like many others. I was given an ability to organize words in such a way that it reaches people on an emotional level. I want my readers to feel what I felt, I think this is where two things come into play 1) a recognition of the reader’s story within my own, and 2) a way to develop empathy in the reader—to help them better understand something they may not have experienced, but that is certainly affecting people around them.
Eleda: Through sharing your story, what do you hope the reader will come away with?
Cheryl: A sense of hope, and a curious mind. I’d love for people to look at others from a place of curiosity instead of judgement. We never know what the other is hiding or how hard they are struggling to keep themselves together.
This extends to our work with horses. Farletta taught me to look at horse behavior with curiosity, to ask why she might be behaving a certain way instead of just punishing, disciplining and/or trying to change the behavior. Horse behavior is communication. If you only seek stop the behavior (communication), you never learn what the horse is trying to tell you. Be curious. The horse has a lot to teach us.
Eleda: If someone is struggling with their own version of “Mean Cheryl” or other challenges, whether or not they have had serious trauma in their past, what do you recommend as a good first step?
Cheryl: Be gentle with yourself. And don’t try to go it alone. You don’t have to suffer in silence. Your strength is not based on how much you can carry. Find someone to talk to. There are so many options now that we never had before. Just reach out. But know that not everyone is capable of helping you. That does not mean you don’t deserve help. It only means that that particular person is not the one you are looking for. Not every therapist is good at their job and not every therapist is a good fit for you. It’s OK to keep looking. You deserve to feel validated.
Eleda: I want to bring up that early in your attempts to work seek help, you tried at least one therapist that wasn’t a good fit. I think the fear of that happening can stop a lot of people from trying to find one in the first place, or discourage them if the first one they see is like that. Can you tell us a little about that, and the importance of finding one that you were comfortable with? Also, how did finding a “good” therapist help you move forward?
Cheryl: Finding the right help is vital. It helps to think of your therapist search as you interviewing someone for a job. They need to meet your needs—it’s not your job to fit into their style. Some people don’t have the skill set that will benefit you most, some people just aren’t that good at their jobs, some people didn’t do enough work on themselves to prevent them from unintentionally projecting their own “stuff” onto their clients.
As I said above, it’s OK to keep looking. The right person is out there.
Eleda: And how is your healing journey coming along now?
Cheryl: Good. It helps to understand that PTSD is something I will always live with but I now have the tools to live with it and still thrive instead of being a victim to it. My PTSD used to blindside me with triggers that could send me spiraling into depression or worse for days or weeks. Now, I’m much better at seeing things for what they are—trauma responses—and understanding where they come from and how to deal with them.
Eleda: I really enjoyed both of your books. Do you want to tell folks where they can buy them?
Cheryl: The easiest place is Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0C1ZVCQKL.
Eleda: Thanks! And thanks for talking with us today. I think your books have the potential to help a lot of folks find the inspiration to address their own personal issues and begin to feel better as well.
Cheryl and I both want to let you know that if you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s okay to struggle, but it’s better to work on healing. That doesn’t mean it’s easy; we both have days when we still struggle, but it’s safe to say we’re both very glad we chose to work on making our lives better and more comfortable for ourselves. We also want to warn that there are parts in her books that relate some things that can be really hard to read about, so we hope readers will take their time, and if something evokes some big feelings, stop for a while and let your mind work through why that part is particularly hard. It may have things to tell you that will help you in ways you never considered.
And whenever I talk about mental health, I always want to say, that no matter what you’re going through, there are still good times waiting on beyond that dark place, so face it, fight it, get through it, and you’ll come out stronger… and perhaps be able to help someone else through it someday.
If you’re struggling and don’t have a safe friend or family member to talk with, most countries have a Mental Health hotline, answered by people who volunteer because they care and want to help.
In the U.S., it’s: 988 (just like 911, it only requires three numbers)
Or text HOME to 741741 for any mental health crisis, including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts. www.crisistextline.org
In Canada, it’s: 1-800-668-6868 or text 686868
(Fun Easter Egg at the end) 😊
Eleda: As a fun tidbit for those who have read to the end of this conversation, the artwork style on the covers of your books jumped out at me as somehow familiar, and then you tell us why in your books. Do you mind sharing that special “Easter Egg” with readers here?
Cheryl: The art on the cover of Follow Me, Friend was done by artist Ruth Sanderson. As a kid, I loved reading Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. The first one I read was my favorite: Man O’ War. When I purchased and read the series in the 1980s (released by Random House in the 70s), I lived inside those paintings on the covers of the books. They were my secret hiding place. When it was time to have the cover done for Follow Me, Friend, my best friend encouraged me to seek out the same artist who had painted those covers I loved. Her name: Ruth Sanderson. I found a website/email for Ruth, told her my story, and we struck a very reasonable deal. The original art hangs on my wall. Such an amazing treasure.
Eleda: I love that! Farley’s Man O’ War was one of my favorite books as well. Thank you again, and I look forward to continuing our conversations.
If you want to read more about Cheryl, her horses, dogs, and Breyer herd, she has two blogs on her website. Both are great reading, and I highly recommend them:
Peace Horse Journey talks about her healing journey and life in general, while Sputter Moo Breyers highlights models in her collection, some of the real horses that inspired them, and some well-researched bits of Breyer history!
And, last but not least, Cheryl is starting an email campaign to get Breyer to make a portrait of Farletta, the mare who inspired her healing. She'd be a great model to have for Breyerfest 2024, which is themed "Against All Odds," and will bring us some great stories of overcoming challenges! Let Breyer know you'd love to see this lovely Paint Mare and her inspiring story immortalized as a model.
In addition to helping Cheryl heal, Farletta herself was differently-abled - She lived for many years with just one eye! Check out this beautiful custom Breyer model of Farletta made for Cheryl by Franceyn Dare. Wouldn't we all love to have a Farletta of our very own, in our collections?!?