Finding Your Donkey: Recovery through flow

I was woken up last night at 2 am by the sound of the donkey alarm. He has a particular hee-haw for when he thinks his sheep are in danger, and it's not the sort of racket you sleep through. I'd never heard it at night before, and woke up imagining sheep scattered and trampled and tangled in fences.

I shuffled down the ladder from my loft, and hurried across the icy tile to the bathroom window. Nothing but white snow and dark shadows. I turned back to the sink for my glasses, watched the shadows solidify into Farley running in from the pasture with his head high, ears militant. Freeze, snort, spin, take off again. Not a safe scenario for the flock.

The coldest night since December, I couldn't just throw on my robe and boots and go. It took me a couple minutes to get pants and socks, gloves and headlamp in order, ears tracking the crunch crunch crunch of hooves on snow.

It wasn't the thought of teeth and claws that had me rushing out to check the lambs. At 750 pounds with hooves able to strike in any direction and a head and neck built like a battering ram, Farley the donkey is more than a match for any of the predators in the Bitterroot Valley. Ironically however, his aptitude as a guard animal also makes him somewhat of a danger to his own livestock.

When something alarms him - sometimes a pack of coyotes and sometimes just an unfamiliar vehicle on the neighbor's property - he herds the sheep from out in the pasture into the paddock, where he can put them safely in a well-fenced corner and stand down the incoming threat. Donkeys are smart, but sheep herding is tricky, and sometimes they head the wrong direction or run in frustrating circles which can escalate to panicky chasing. We've never had any injuries more serious than a few missing mouthfuls of wool and a bruised hoof - minor traumas well worth never losing a lamb to predation. But on a foggy night with the electric fence sagging from snow, a low iq ewe could get herself into some serious trouble.

Finally out the door and down the hill. As I waded through the snow, I was relieved to see Farley standing still, statuesque in the paddock gateway and looking every bit the heroic guard animal I purchased him to be. My headlamp picked up multiple sets of eyes clustered under the willow tree, all ewes accounted for...all but one.

My head spun in the direction Farley was facing, and I squinted hard looking for movement - was Tufa out there trapped on the wrong side of the fence, or flipped in the ditch, or strangled in a roll of wire?

Farley gave a threatening snort, and I exhaled. He would be doing a lot more than snorting if a sheep was stranded. I turned back around and rustled in a pocket, nosily stirred about the grain I always seem to have handy. Ah, there, the fourth set of eyes, peeking around the tree trunk.

I put my hand on Farley's shoulder as he took a big shuddering sniff, then snorted again, and I wondered if he had sensed an actual predator out there in the back field. There were some shadows off towards the east fence that could be a coyote or bobcat or mountain lion, but were probably just snow-laden weeds.

I called to Wilbur, busy sniffing around the hay stack for mice, bent towards him and waggled my hands. He sidled up to me and went stiff, letting me lift him over the electric fence. Once his paws hit the snow on the other side, he started grinning and bouncing around my knees, delighted to be sharing a middle of the night adventure. I laughed and gave him a playful rub down, then pointed out into the field with a furrowed brow and whispered, anything out there, W? He froze, suddenly watchful. Tail high, ears taut, eyes bright, he padded out into the night, doing what he does best.

Farley watched us intently as we crisscrossed the field, turning up nothing but snow-covered thistles. I kicked at a few particularly ominous looking clumps, calling back to him, nothing here either! Patrol complete, I was relieved to watch his posture relax and ears get back to their usual floppy antics. I wrestled the frozen side gate open and he led me purposefully towards the shed where he thought his hay could use a top off.

You might assume that daily livestock care and the occasional middle-of-the-night, dead-of-winter predator patrols would be a foolish commitment for someone with CFS/ME. And such extravagant energy expenditure certainly wouldn't have been safe or even possible a few years back when I was stuck in a more acute stage of the illness.

But last summer when I'd been holding steady at almost 50% (of my pre-CFS energy levels), I decided to take the plunge and restart my tiny sheep farm. Recovery is a very fickle thing, and I had a lot of doubts leading up to my purchases. I could so well imagine another demoralizing retreat back to the sidelines of farming, selling off my flock because I could no longer keep up with their care. I have certainly struggled through some dips since then and even a months-long winter back-slide, but I am so damn glad I took the risk to buy myself five sheep and a spotted donkey.

I knew owning a donkey would be something I'd enjoy - I've had the horse bug for decades - but I never really expected any health benefits. In the months following my purchase of Farley and the sheep, I was thrilled to notice small improvements in my energy almost every week. Every day after work, I'd go walk and play with him, sometimes getting so lost in our interaction that I'd find myself out well after sunset. I'd never experienced nighthawks booming overhead until last summer's long walks. It was bliss. By September I had the endurance to work almost full time, while easily keeping up with daily animal care and even a bit of a social life.

Caring for livestock - and most especially training an equine - is my most effective way to tap into flow state. It's challenging, playful, and creative; it demands that I leave the day's baggage at the gate and bring out my best self. Which sounds rather exhausting - yet the resulting partnership with a powerful, opinionated, and intelligent prey animal is a magic that somehow creates more energy than it consumes.

Donkey time completely engages my mind in a way that's rarely accessible when dealing with persistent brain inflammation. The hours float by without resistance, without a moment's worry about new symptoms and coming crashes and mold paranoia. It's the one part of my day when sustained focus isn't a Herculean effort, but a pleasure.

Of course, daily flow state with an adorable donkey isn't the silver bullet for everyone's chronic illness recovery. There were a lot of other factors at play for me - I almost always improve in the summer months, I had just started a new medication (VIP) that was making a difference, and I was glamping in a totally mold free camper that proved great for my environmental allergies. I'm certainly no longer capable of working a 40 hour week and hiking daily now that I'm in my yearly seasonal slump. But while I'm not miraculously cured, I absolutely believe that my health is much better than it would've been without the donkey.

I wish I had an easy answer for how to find your own elixir of healing that's somehow within your energy budget and also within all the complicated constraints of life circumstances. I'm incredibly lucky to have the living situation and means and energy right now to take on a donkey and his sheep.

What I can offer is some ideas on how to harness flow for healing.

To achieve the ecstasy of flow, the challenge has to be right at the edge of your skill level and motivating enough for you to keep pushing the envelope. For whatever reason, I don't have the same drive to improve and excel at dog training that I have for horsemanship. Though I enjoy teaching my dogs some tricks and nose work and agility, it never keeps me up at night, and it doesn't particularly energize me. In donkey training, I find myself obsessively analyzing my technique and getting an undeniable high from every success.

While it needs to push you, the challenge also can't be too far beyond your skill level to obtain flow. Certain activities miss the mark for me because of my perfectionism or unrealistic expectations, causing anxiety instead of bliss. Most art-making falls in this category as far as I'm concerned, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit I quit a beginners community ceramics class a few years back because I was just driving myself too crazy. However, I can totally get into carpentry and welding using scrap materials - the stakes are low and the successes are delightful. I can also get engaged in bone carving, but need a distraction so I don't obsess over mistakes. Listening to stand up comedy or episodes of the Office usually does the trick. I realize that's not quite flow, but it's enjoyable and a great break from worrying about my swollen lymph nodes.

There also may be some options to ease into your preferred flow activity without a big commitment. When I was considerably sicker, I leased a neighbor's horse one afternoon a week and that regular two hours of joy definitely boosted my recovery. I also volunteered at a local animal shelter grooming dogs, which is another creative outlet I can get happily absorbed in. It can be hard to let go of bigger ambitions, knowing what we were once capable of, but sometimes a little bit of a good thing is just enough to turn the corner on recovery.

If you have an intuition about what might light you up and feed your soul, I'd encourage you to take a risk on it. I'd also love to hear what your best sources of flow are and how you work them in around your own health limitations!