Fully Loaded | Emily Hightower

Issue #17


12 times, she explained, exhaling smoke into the wind away from my face. That’s how many relapses with heroine she’d been through. She snuffed out her cigarette in the dirt and put the butt it in the pocket of her jean shorts. She picked up her pink compound bow with a wink and we walked over to the shooting line. I watched her load up a few arrows and loose them right into the kill zone of the target. She learned quickly, paid attention well, and was safe with a bow. That is to say, dangerously accurate.

Next to her on the line was a woman who was in her second round of recovery. Her energy was completely different. Frail and unsure of herself she filled gaps in any conversation with nervous laughter, oversharing, and questions you had the feeling she didn’t really care to hear the answers to. This was her third archery breathwork session with me. I was bringing her some arrows without letting her shoot on her own yet. Something didn’t feel stable.

After a few guided rounds through the shot process and breathing exercises, she said she was ready to give it a ‘go’. She breathed. Took her stance. Nocked her arrow and set her release. She took three more self-conscious breaths then drew back the bow. At full draw she started looking around excitedly instead of taking clear aim. She started to turn her body with the weaponized bow around to say something to the group. I was right next to her so she only got a few degrees off target. I quickly and firmly said


She reactively pulled the trigger releasing an arrow off target that burrowed loud and deep into a board nearby. The ponies whinnied. She was stunned. Her body started shaking off the stress of the explosion, and she fell silent for the first time. I found her eyes, smiled and coregulated with a few long nasal breaths and asked her to ground with me. Then we took a slow walk to get her broken arrow.

The moment was perfect. 

There had been no moment like this yet in her recovery process. The bow gave her a chance to feel a consequence connected to her nervous system. She realized the phrase “YOU ARE FULLY LOADED” when out of control landed as an obvious connection to her experience abusing substances. She’d been fully loaded driving her kid home from school, at work, in relationships that didn’t have clear aim. She had spent her life taking risks without being fully present; caring more about the next hit (of attention, drugs, excitement) than of her own health. She hurt herself and others along the way. The power of the bow showed her how she has patterned her nervous system to dissociate during excitement. To deny responsibility. To look for a way out.

I asked her what her body felt like when she was at full draw turning away from target.

Dissociated. Nervous, Excited. Buzzed. Spaced out.

When you read that state in any situation, that’s your cue that you’re in the Fully Loaded pattern. It’s your cue to breathe and ground yourself in the moment before taking action. Let’s use the bow to practice moving through the old pattern to take calm ownership of yourself, for yourself.

But can you keep me safe? 

No. Only you can do that. I’ll be right here to help you go step by step, but it’s not safe, it’s a weapon. You just learned that. And it doesn’t care about you, so you must. 

Understandably she didn’t want to shoot again. But that’s exactly what recovery of any kind is. Stepping back up to the line to learn from your past without dragging the shame of mistakes into the next shot.

This is your chance. Do you want to recover from that last shot, from the last relapse? Take a stand. Breathe. Do the shot process at your own pace and if you lose focus, start calmly over. There is no pressure. You have complete control over this experience.

She read, regulated, and reinforced calm attention on that draw and dozens after for the next full hour. She dropped into her practice. It was beautiful. She remade herself; grounded, calm, and quietly confident. 

The 12 time recovery gal came by to walk arm in arm with her as they left the range. It’s not about how many times you go through something, or how many lost arrows of words, deeds, or weapons you flung in your past. It’s about finding your practice to claim power back in the enduring process of recovery. Stability is trainable.

This work was pre-COVID at 4 Winds Farm and informed by the process I co-created with my archery mentor through Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities to train self regulation skills in multi day archery breathwork retreats for combat veterans.