Emily Norton Opens Up About Battling Depression as a Caregiver

Caring for her husband, who is quadriplegic, took a toll on her mental health.

Posted in , Aug 27, 2019

Emily and Chris Norton

If you recognize the names Chris and Emily Norton it’s probably because a video of them has popped up on your social media feeds. When Emily helped Chris, a quadriplegic, walk across the stage to accept his college diploma, the couple went viral.

Part of the reason the video was so moving was because after being injured during a college football game, Chris was told he had a 3% chance of moving anything below his neck ever again. Emily and Chris trained for months so Chris could walk at his graduation. Another reason the video was so touching was because the couple had just gotten engaged the night before.

After successfully completing the graduation walk and being interviewed by numerous media outlets, Emily and Chris returned to normal life. From the outside it might have seemed like they had a fairytale love story, but on the inside their relationship was crumbling.

“I went into a deep depression,” Emily told Guideposts.org. “How I was feeling—with the lack of energy and just wanting to stay in bed—I honestly lost hope for ever feeling like myself again.”

After the graduation, Chris and Emily moved to Florida and fostered Whittley, a teenage girl Emily had met while volunteering with a mentoring program for elementary school kids. On top of taking care of Whittley, Emily was also taking care of Chris. 

“If it had to be done, I did it—grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, everything,” Emily wrote in the couple’s first book The Seven Longest Yards. “On top of that, I was Chris’s full-time caregiver. I filled his water bottle, emptied his leg bag, set him up on his bike, stayed nearby in case he fell, and helped him get ready each morning and night.”

Things that were a normal part of the couple’s daily routine, now seemed impossible. Even getting up to fill Chris’s water bottle felt exhausting. Despite the change in her emotional state, Emily didn’t think she was depressed. How could she be? She was engaged and in love. But instead of reaching out to loved ones, Emily remained stubbornly independent.

“I didn’t let Chris help,” Emily said. When he suggested they hire someone for caregiving assistance, she refused. “I buried…my feelings. It just got to a point where it was, everything was so hard and I became really, really angry instead of feeling anything else. I just felt anger.”

She struggled with insomnia, sometimes sleeping only two hours a night and her heart raced constantly. Despite Chris’ suggestions, she wouldn’t go to a therapist.  Her health struggles made her feel weak and vulnerable and she kept them secret from everyone except Chris, who received the brunt of her anger.

After a particularly bad outburst that left Emily in tears, she realized that her mental state was putting all of her relationships at risk. At a loss, she went to church. She started praying and journaling, habits she had lost over the past few years, and began to feel more like herself.

“The switch really got flipped when we went back to church,” Emily said. “I started feeling a little hope. That was the thing I hadn't felt [in] a long time, feeling like maybe…things could possibly change.”

One Sunday, the pastor gave a message that changed Emily’s perspective completely.

“I felt he was talking directly to me,” Emily said. “He shared the message that sometimes people go through hard moments, so that pieces of them that aren't meant to be there…will get stripped away so [they’ll] be able to pursue [their] purpose.”

As an example, he talked about how a really independent person going through a hard time might need to realize they had to depend on God. Emily knew instantly that she was that independent person and letting go was exactly what she needed to do.

“I had been doing everything myself for so long and viewed help as weakness,” Emily said.

After hearing that sermon, Emily made an appointment with a therapist and received medication that gradually helped lift her out of the fog of her depression. A few weeks after, she was playing cards with Chris and for the first time in years, felt a deep love for their life.

“That was the first time I had thought that for so long and I was living the exact same life, but the chemicals inside by body were just completely messed up,” Emily said.  “I just needed some help. I realized that getting help is strength not a weakness.”

As Emily learned to surrender control and accept help, her relationship with Chris strengthened. They chose a date for their wedding and began training for the big day. In 2018, they were married, and Chris walked with Emily down the aisle after the ceremony. Since getting married, the couple has expanded their family even more. They adopted Whittley, who graduated high school while living with them, and four sisters they had been fostering. The family of seven has no plans of slowing down. In 2019, Emily told the Des Moines Register the couple plans to continue fostering. 

“I've learned to surrender the weight to God…and just focus on what I can do,” Emily said.  “I honestly don't think that we would be foster or adoptive parents if I didn't learn that.”

Emily still takes many intentional steps to maintain her mental health and be the best wife, mom and caregiver she can be.

“With caregiving…I have lost the control I was trying to hold on to,” Emily said. “We have someone come in to help Chris with his routine, and getting [him] up a few days a week and during the day.”

She also makes sure to take time to exercise and do things just for herself in the midst of her busy schedule. Emily recognizes there will likely be difficult times ahead, but chooses to focus on the joy of each day.

“I have a strong relationship with God and I find a lot of peace in that,” she said. “I focus on what I can do each day and just keep pushing through.”

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