and Care Coach Maura Horton
Putting Out Fires While Caregiving
Care Coach Maura Horton Reflects on Mental Health Awareness Month
“Is this Mrs. Horton?” The caller on the phone asked.
"Yes, it is," was my response.
With urgency, I heard, "Ma'am, I need you to come home immediately; your house is on fire."
We moved to Raleigh in 2007, and within a month of us being there, the house that we bought to build our family's future memories was destroyed. The one improvement we needed to make immediately to our home was a new air conditioning system. We were warned that we couldn't wait on this since summers in the south can be brutal without this luxury.
I had taken our girls to a local pool to cool off after they finished the install—a carefree day since they had been cooped up. My mind doesn't remember much other than the fire chief saying to come home immediately, it was not a total loss, asking if we had any pets, and saying we don't know what happened; a neighbor called 911, relaying they saw the roof blow off and flames shooting everywhere. Long story short, soldering of the equipment had gone into the insulation, where it was smoldering, and there was an explosion.
I often feel like every day since that day, I have been putting flames out with a giant-sized extinguisher. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I think it's essential to recognize all of those caregivers who extinguish flames every day, every minute, and every hour. The cumulative effect of juggling everyday life adding to caring for a loved one can test anyone's mental strength. At that time, I began rebuilding a house, trying to put our pieces back together while holding a three-month-old, juggling the fears of a 4-year-old, and keeping my husband's diagnosis of Parkinson's private as well as adjusting to being newly diagnosed.
The day I received that call was awful, and the days that followed equally horrifying. The clothes, or shall I say swimsuits, were the only clothes we now had in our possession. My 4-year-old at the time received her first American Girl doll and was so worried about it that when I was able to re-enter our house, that was all she asked for. My heart still silently breaks when I remember telling her I couldn't find her doll, but the truth was, it was so charred that I couldn't let her have the visual memory of that.
My husband was so devastated and stood there looking to me for what's next. My 3-month-old truly never let me put her down for the next few years. I still feel she was sensing our silent fear and latched on for dear life.
This, unfortunately, is just a tiny glimpse into caregiving for me. The neglected struggles of the daily vigors of caregiving are complex.
That complexity shifts as new challenges enter the room. This compounds, often leaving the caregiver unrecognizable at times. For me, it wasn't the unrecognition of others who saw me. Some would comment and say, "Maura, you look tired." Note, that's never a good thing to speak to someone - ever.
For me, it was when I took a long look at the metaphor of a mirror and knew I was trying to hold it together for others for so long that I neglected my mental well-being. I was tired. I was scared. I was often winging it, making decisions as they came in thrown like a curveball at 100 miles per hour.
In hindsight, rebuilding our house became my mission and focus because it meant trying to rebuild my family. I often reflect that this is what my caregiving journey has been like, reacting and adjusting every day. We are served obstacles, challenges, and futures we didn't plan and honestly aren't necessarily equipped to handle.
I didn't get through our house fire alone. Thankfully I have a fantastic family who drove through the night, helped, and didn't leave until we could adjust, but I can also say I didn't get through it unscathed. It left an imprint and toll physically, mentally, and spiritually.
It took a year to rebuild our home. Still, I just felt like I was jumping into new fires. Shifting with the progression of the disease, our children getting older and their needs and demands, as well as loss of independence for not just my husband but also for the caregiver, me. It's hard to feel as if you're out doing something, but your brain, mind and heart are tethered to worrying about something or someone else.
In the spirit of Mental Health Awareness Month, let's try to remember the things we've overcome, the bright spots, where we are now, and recognize we can't put every fire out.
Some fires will leave us with feelings of a complete loss, changed forever. It is ok to wave the white flag and try to rebuild something new. Try to take personal assessments along the way and know your mental health is always important.