More than two decades ago, Jeff Eamer was living the Hollywood dream: landing a multi-million dollar movie contract, working with the top creative minds in the industry and enjoying a luxurious lifestyle. But that didn’t fulfill him.
What brings him peace today is vastly different. Eamer, 62, left the bustle of Los Angeles for a quiet life in Yucca Valley, traded in his expensive clothes for flannels, cowboy hats and boots, and rather than impacting people through film, he now helps them on their healing journey through psychotherapy, which he defines as healing of the soul.
He also gets a little help from two “coworkers”: his black Labrador retriever therapy dog, Koda, and rescue quarter horse, Freckles, whom he sponsors through Joey’s Home Animal Rescue. People who attend in-person therapy sessions with Eamer meet him at the animal rescue — where there are 29 horses, miniature horses and donkeys — and, when appropriate, go on meditative desert walks with Eamer and his four-legged friends.
“Their level of anxiety drops really fast, and sometimes things don’t need to be said,” Eamer said regarding what it’s like for clients to go on these walks. “Sometimes the energy of the space is more important than words could ever convey.”
The Yucca Valley resident understands these clients on a deeper level, having been hospitalized for suicidal ideations in the past and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings — both emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression). But through a support network and daily self-care, he said he’s been free of symptoms for nearly two decades.
With the help of his four-legged companions and his own background, Eamer aims to support others.
Video: Psychotherapist Jeff Eamer talks about holding therapy sessions in nature
Jeff Eamer, a psychotherapist, moved from Los Angeles to Yucca Valley, where he now holds therapy sessions out in nature at Joey’s Home Animal Rescue in Yucca Valley, Calif., on June 29, 2022.
Taya Gray, Palm Springs Desert Sun
Making a difference
Northern Canada native Eamer was enjoying a successful career in the advertising world when his business partner’s commercial, a 1999 Super Bowl Budweiser ad, caught the attention of a high-profile film and television producer.
Said business partner, David McNally, was then hired to direct the 2000 film “Coyote Ugly” starring Piper Perabo. The director brought on Eamer to serve as an associate producer on the film, and Eamer landed a multi-million dollar, three-picture movie contract.
Though his career was taking off, Eamer struggled with his mental health. His bipolar disorder would lead to high highs and low lows, which included “reckless behavior, reckless spending and multiple affairs,” he said.
“When I was high, I’d buy a Porsche. I don’t even drive fast,” Eamer said. “That same Porsche, about six months later, I was in a garage with the garage door closed with the engine running.”
Between the ages of 16 and 46, Eamer said he was hospitalized five times for suicidal ideations.
He left the movie industry behind, never making the remaining two films in his contract, and instead worked on website design projects. Eamer still struggled, however. He would experience bursts of creative energy, win awards and then crash.
“Stressors are a trigger. The advertising and entertainment worlds often come with a tremendous amount of stress,” he said. “The entertainment industry draws many creative people, and mental health issues, specifically depression and bipolar disorder, often align with creative people because often in that burst of energy in a manic state, the creative output is very high. It’s desirable, but lethal.”
In the early 2000s, he began volunteering with a suicide prevention center in Los Angeles, which ended up becoming “a huge part” of his life. In his role, he answered crisis calls and “just listened.” More than a decade later, he joined the Crisis Response Team in Los Angeles to support survivors of crisis situations and others who lost loved ones.
Through these opportunities, Eamer began to find his true passion for helping others. But it wasn’t until a very close friend died that everything changed.
“When somebody you love dies like that, you generally take stock about ‘What am I doing,’ and that was really significant,” Eamer said. “I was sitting with my psychiatrist, and I said, ‘I don’t know what to do.'”
His psychiatrist suggested he enter the mental health field.
“I was one of the most awarded creative people in my country, but what meant the most to me was my work in the suicide prevention center. I really felt like I was making a difference in the lives of other people,” he added.
Eamer decided to go back to school full time in 2015, at age 55, to get his master’s degree in clinical psychology with an emphasis on trauma studies from Antioch University. He started seeing clients in an office in west Los Angeles, but things shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many opted for Zoom therapy sessions, Eamer decided to utilize nature and go to nearby beaches with clients.
“I started to understand the significance of what it was to be in nature. The rules are different,” he said, adding that he also saw clients on Zoom. If the world did not shut down due to COVID-19, he said he would most likely still be doing therapy sessions in an office.
With a huge career switch under his belt, he realized there was another change he needed to make. When times have gotten tough, Eamer would head to the high desert to “get away for a while.” Each time he would have to go back to Los Angeles, he found it harder to leave. On one drive back earlier this year, he made the “horrible mistake” of leaving at 5 a.m., which put him right in the middle of morning traffic. That trip back, normally around two hours, totaled four hours that day, and he decided he had enough.
Because he was already holding therapy sessions virtually, Eamer knew he could see patients online from anywhere. So, he packed up his belongings and made the permanent move to Yucca Valley in March.
In his new home, he doesn’t see many neighbors and has a 270-degree view of the mountains, which has been “quite magical.” Eamer is not a religious person, but he admits “I think I just wanted to get closer to God, and it’s hard to get close to God in L.A.”
Eamer didn’t particularly want to start a practice in the desert, but “it just happened” when a client found him, he said. Now he sees around 20 men between the ages of 21 and 64, both in person and virtually.
A typical day for Eamer now consists of taking in the quietness of his surroundings, being a “maverick” about self-care, going on daily walks with Freckles and seeing his in-person and Zoom clients.
After driving down a bumpy dirt road with nothing around but open desert and mountains, Eamer’s friendly smile greets me at the entrance of Joey’s Home Animal Rescue.
Founded by Melinda and Joe Allen in 2011, the organization rescues horses that have been abandoned or whose owners can no longer take care of them. The couple retrains the horses while they’re on-site, then rehomes them.
When Eamer moved to Yucca Valley in March, his plan was to own a horse, but after being introduced to Joey’s Home Animal Rescue, he decided to sponsor one, which involves taking care of the animal and going on daily walks. His first meeting with Freckles was not love at first sight — at least for one of them.
“I loved him, but he wanted no part of me,” Eamer said with a laugh. “I was trying too hard, and sometimes you just have got to be unbelievably patient with horses. Sometimes I’d just go into the stall and wouldn’t do anything, I just sat with him.”
That bond has deepened over the last several months, along with the relationship between Freckles and Eamer’s therapy dog, Koda, whom he has had for 12 years. The trio has become an integral part of several clients’ mental health journeys.
Once Freckles feels a saddlebag on his back and his sponsor cues up some southern rock tunes like “Sweet Home Alabama,” the trusty steed knows it’s time to walk around the property with a client who needs his help.
Although, Eamer admits Freckles is “kind of like a teenager: He gets lazy sometimes and doesn’t want to go for a walk.”
The client, Eamer, Koda and Freckles then go on a roughly 10-minute walk on a dirt road where they can talk about anything, if they want, he said.
“As a narrative therapist, we generally are very curious and follow the lead of the client. When I’m first working with a client, I go way back: great-grandparents, grandparents, their birth … to get some picture of who they are,” Eamer said. “Usually people come because something has happened to them, and we certainly investigate that. The big part of doing this job is having rapport that people know that you care.”
The walk takes them to a small cabin that Eamer has claimed as his “office space,” though he only uses the wooden picnic table out front. As clients open up, Eamer shares — if/when it’s appropriate — his own mental health struggles. Sometimes they don’t talk at all. Sometimes they just sit there and take in the desert landscape around them.
Eamer will tell you that “silence is highly underrated.”
His past volunteer work has helped him communicate better with clients who struggle with a variety of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and addiction. Most of the men have also experienced significant issues with their fathers — such as absence, rejection or abuse — and Eamer, in many cases, is the same age as their fathers. He said he can provide a “corrective experience” in a way by holding them accountable, challenging them, inspiring them and confronting their thinking in a healthy way.
What’s most important to Eamer is that clients don’t feel judged. His animals will show them nothing but love and affection, and based on his own life experiences, Eamer said he’s in a “really good position not to judge anyone because who the (explicit) am I to judge someone? I’m pretty sure I’ve knocked off nine of the Ten Commandments.”
Thinking about his clients, Eamer said he is “so unbelievably proud of these men,” who often can’t open up to others. But he also acknowledges that “talk therapy” isn’t for everyone. For some, their problems are deeper than words can help address.
“To feel safe in an environment and feel they aren’t being judged and experience a world that is peaceful is what I’m trying to provide to my clients, and I have a lot of help,” Eamer said. “I have the help of the hawks, the coyotes, the quails, the roadrunners, the geckos. It’s like a little Disney movie out here.”
Eamer isn’t looking for more clients at the moment, but he wants to find more ways to support the community. He’d like to speak at schools about mental health struggles or do other advocacy work. He also used to hold a men’s group, and with so much space available in the desert, he said he may be open to setting one up again.
Helping both horses and humans
Eamer didn’t foresee the integral role Joey’s Home Animal Rescue would play in his life. The rescue was originally meant to be a place to help horses, but along the way, it started helping humans too, said owner Melinda Allen.
She recalled one man in his early 80s who arrived to the property looking to ride a horse one last time. After she and her husband helped him mount Freckles and led him around, she noticed tears streaming down his face from pure bliss.
“It’s the stories you hear from people, and the people you meet are just amazing,” Allen, 73, said. “Plus, the horses you meet are amazing.”
Allen, born and raised in Palm Springs, moved to Yucca Valley in 1969 to have horses on her property. After a lifetime of enjoying their company, she and her husband were down to just one. In 2011, she received a call about a starved, abandoned horse in the mountains north of Desert Hot Springs. A long search ensued, and when they located the horse, he was brought back to the couple’s property.
Allen called a woman who was always interested in owning a horse, and the woman said she would take him and pay for all his expenses — if the couple could keep him at their ranch. That horse was named Joey, and at the age of 39 or 40, Allen estimates, he’s still on the property to this day.
Eventually, the couple kept seeing “the desperate situation for horses after the real estate crash” and decided to start the rescue. For a while they saved horses that were up for auction or listed on Craigslist, while today they receive them from owners who have to give up their beloved animals often due to declining health.
There are 29 horses, miniature horses and donkeys from the Bureau of Land Management on the property, along with a few chickens and roosters. They each have unique names that fit their personalities, such as Waylon the donkey, named after singer/songwriter Waylon Jennings, and a horse named Zion, whose coat matches the color of the rocks at the national park.
Visitors from all around the world have come to the rescue, Allen said, and volunteers and sponsors, like Eamer, help take care of the animals. Being around the wildlife is a healing experience for many, she said, like for one man who visits every Sunday, gives out treats to the animals and pets them.
“He says, ‘I’m here for my Sunday church service,'” Allen said. “Many people have come here and said that this saved them.”
When Eamer told Allen he was interested in bringing clients to the property and spending time with Freckles, she was supportive of the idea, knowing how much that experience benefits everyone involved. Their process is simple: The psychotherapist gives Allen a heads up when a client plans to come on the property, and then Allen gives them their space.
“Melinda fully supports this idea of me having clients spend time with the horses,” Eamer said. “From doing therapy in a west L.A. office to here, it’s hard to explain. I see this one client at the end of the day, and as we finish our walk, the sun is setting, the breeze is blowing, and it’s so healing.”
But even though so much good is being done on the property, times have been tough lately for rescue organizations. Allen said the price of hay and feed has gone up, and water restrictions make it difficult, too. But the Yucca Valley nonprofit has to keep providing for the animals because “we don’t have anywhere to send these horses.” The year before the pandemic, the rescue was able to adopt out 11 horses. So far this year they’ve had around five or six adoptions take place. Another three horses are waiting to be brought in to the rescue once space opens up.
In an effort to raise more funds for the rescue and introduce more people to the property, Allen will be hosting donkey walks, aptly named Hike Your Happy Ass, starting in September. People will be able to pet the donkeys on the property, feed them carrots and go on morning or evening strolls. Allen said they’re even planning on selling shirts with cheeky messages on them.
The organization also lists a number of ways community members can help on its Facebook page.
To learn more about visiting the rescue — located at 3805 Condalia Ave., Yucca Valley — or to inquire about volunteering, adoption or sponsorship opportunities, contact Allen at 760-401-2208 or send a message to the Joey’s Home Animal Rescue Facebook page. The rescue welcomes visitors ages 16 and older from 7:30 a.m. to noon Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
To contact Eamer, visit eamertherapy.com.
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Ema Sasic covers entertainment and health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @ema_sasic.
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