How Tragic Endings Inspire Courageous Beginnings

Guest post: Kristi Horner, Executive Director, Courage to Caregivers

He shared that he wanted to end his life.

I was booked on the next flight with him. We then worked together diligently for 2 more weeks to get a workable care plan in place. We struggled mightily to somehow get his life back in order.

My family and I eventually came to realize that the trauma of relatively minor surgery left our brother with chronic pain. The minor surgery aggravated his underlying depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What followed next for our family was 4 years of becoming his primary caregivers. In the trauma of this time we found ourselves treading water, always waiting for the next call. My sisters, parents and I were his primary long-distance caregivers. We provided untold hours of emotional support on the phone. His first real caregivers were his wife and small children who provided his daily physical and emotional care. In the end, his inability to manage his mental health challenges ended up in divorce and a custody battle.

May 30, 2014
Our lives were changed forever. We received a very different call.
Our brother ended his battle with mental illness by ending his life.

So you see, as caregivers and family members for someone we loved very much with mental illness we learned a thing or two about not only how to provide care, but ultimately, how we needed to take better care of ourselves.

Self-care for the Caregiver – Is it possible?

For me, it’s ALWAYS easier to OFFER help. This impulse is at my very core. I love helping people get smarter, grow stronger, feel more empowered, and become more independent.

If someone says they're sick, I offer to get soup. If someone has a flat tire or gets stuck in the snow, I call AAA or come to the rescue. If someone is having a bad day, I offer to come over - take a walk with them - or just listen. But where my own well-being is concerned, I'm the first to downplay my feelings. I like to be a problem-solver. I don't like to feel “needy.” I've had to be strong and independent my entire life. I don’t like to admit when I feel vulnerable because then I open myself up to feelings that I’m not strong or independent enough.

Does that sound like you, too?

Finding a comfort zone with self-care starts with the mask.

Owning your own story of being a caregiver to someone you love living with mental illness is the first step.

Owning your own story of being a caregiver to someone you love living with mental illness is the first step.

Self-care often gets a bad “rap.” It's become a “buzz-catch" phrase. It might even sound selfish. And yet, we know that self-care is NOT selfish. In fact, it’s like the flight attendants’ message to “put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping those around you.” Often, we want to help everyone around us FIRST and then put on our oxygen mask. Yet, did you know you have only 18 seconds of “useful consciousness” after the oxygen mask deploys? So, if you don’t put on your oxygen mask first, what help can you be to those around you?

We now recognize that self-care is a literal “oxygen mask” for the mental illness caregiver. Our webinar will help you recognize caregiving's effects on wellbeing. We will identify barriers to self-care, and review a self-care checklist to ensure the caregiver has the resources to stay strong and healthy.

The tragic ending inspires a courageous beginning.

Courage to Caregivers is a nonprofit organization founded in Cleveland in 2017 to provide education, support and empowerment for the caregivers and loved ones of those living with mental illness. I founded it after four years of providing emotional and mental health support to my brother living with his mental illness

Following his suicide in 2014, I realized there had to be a better way to support mental illness caregivers. I had allowed his mental health and well-being to take priority over my own. And yikes! I gained forty pounds in the process. I’ve learned a lot about improved self-care practices for caregivers as we’ve diligently worked to create program models for Courage to Caregivers.

Courage to Caregivers was formed to help people like Nancy, who found herself in need of personal support as she cared for a family member. In Nancy’s words:

I was scrambling for tools and understanding on how to respond. I called Courage to Caregivers and was given immediate and ‘lifesaving’ attention. As I practiced and utilized the tools and tips, I also developed greater confidence and learned the importance of self-care as a caregiver. I am forever grateful for Courage to Caregivers and their tools for life!

Courage to Caregivers launched its first pilot program - the One-to-One Caregiver Support program -in November 2018. The program connects caregivers with volunteers who have experience caring for someone living with a mental illness. The purpose of the program is to provide participants with training and resources to help them take care of themselves both physically and emotionally so they are better able to take care of their loved one. Good news – this program can also be virtual!

We have launched our next two pilot programs – Breathing Meditation and Support Groups on the East and West sides of Cleveland.

Free Live Webinar!
Join Kristi and Rita for a free 1 hour continuing education webinar: Essential Tools for Mental Health Caregivers for social workers on February 12, 2019, 10:00 a.m.