Horses and art help her fight mental illness
September 30, 2010 by LEEMA THOMAS / leema.thomas@
Alanna Lea Wiest of Northport is full of passion and vitality: She's an artist and an equestrian who trains horses and teaches riding.
She also has experienced the dark side of life, which she illustrates in a new book of poems.
"The Other Side of The Mirror," a collection of more than 100 poems, is born out of Wiest's 19-year-long struggle with schizoaffective disorder, which combines schizophrenia and mood disorder. The poems offer a stark look at her formidable battle with fears, anxiety, anger, frustrations, delusions, and the pain of depression and mania.
They also offer glimpses of hope, life, beauty and survival.
The book, published digitally by Chipmunkapublishing, a mental health publisher in London, is expected to be available in the United States soon.
"Poetry is my outlet of emotions and helping other people to understand how I feel and my symptoms," said Wiest, 34, "and how it's possible to get through things. No matter how difficult it is, there's always a light that you travel to."
Wiest, 15 when she was hospitalized for the first time for depression, wound up in the hospital "over 30 times." Today she is under the care of a physician and relies on medications for symptoms from paranoia to hallucinations.
"My thoughts are a lot clearer now, and I can work and function," she said. "That's a really big thing."
One of her poems, "The Storm," was written when she was a patient at Huntington Hospital five years ago. She keeps "a journal all the time" and says the poems in the book were written over the years - both when she was "in the throes of symptoms and when I feel better." They speak of her back-and-forth journey from mania to depression and some calmer times.
In "The Storm" she writes, "Like the wind through the trees. My mind blows away. Rain so hard. Pelting my brain. The storm so close. Yet so far away. Shall this madness. Ever go away?"
Pursuing her passions
Before her diagnosis, Wiest had her heart set on a professional riding career. An equestrian since she was 5, she first competed in a show when she was 10 and became a qualified jumper rider at 15. She competed in the junior hunter division at the Hampton Classic in 1990 and placed fifth in Eastern Regional Equitation Finals in upstate Port Jervis in 1991 for the National Horse Show.
"I was really positive about having a really good riding career," she said, "and when I got really sick I couldn't pursue it."
But her passion for riding didn't wane. She owns two horses: Summer Haze, a 14-year-old Oldenburg-Trakehner, a cross of two German breeds, and Dillon, 32, a retired New Zealand thoroughbred. Summer Haze, whom she described as "big, sweet, very obstinate," is featured in a poem: "A whinny from his stall . . . He's so very strong. We move like a ballet. I love this horse. He's answered my dreams."
Wiest teaches hunter-jumper riding lessons four to five days a week, takes care of horses for a few clients and works part-time as a veterinary assistant, all at the Lloyd Harbor Equestrian Center in Caumsett State Park.
She's also a self-taught artist and showcases her acrylic abstract impressions and other types of paintings at art shows, but said that "poetry is more of an outlet" for her emotions.
An advocacy role
Her illness has made her "a lot stronger," she said. "I don't take things for granted anymore. A lot of people, they complain, and they don't do things to help themselves. But I'm a really big advocate for self-help. She said working not only keeps her busy, but "makes me better."
She has taken up an advocacy role and addressed students at Nassau Community College and nurses at Huntington Hospital. "I talk about my illness, symptoms," she said, "hoping to help other people and educate them."
And she finds her "source of light" in the support from family members and her doctor.
"I'm not ashamed of my illness. Not at all," she said.
"Life now is pretty good. I think it could be a lot worse . . . I want to be strong and keep going."
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