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Karen Mata never expected to be a caregiver, especially not at 30 years old. She'd just finished law school, was hired by a firm in D.C., and got married when her mom was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
She took time off work, and moved to her parent's home in rural Virginia. Every day was about making her mom more comfortable. "I'd get up, check on her, I'd make sure she'd get her meal. Her stomach wasn't functioning, so I spent the greater part of the day trying to figure out how to get some type of nourishment in her."
She was taking care of her mom nearly 24 hours a day, for a year-and-a-half. Then, three weeks after her mom passed away, she got a call that her dad was in the hospital, and he needed her.
Mata handed the phone to her husband, and crumpled on the floor below her. "Some capacity that I had within myself, some inner strength, it is gone," Mata remembers thinking. "And what am I gonna do? Cause now my dad needs it, and I don't think I have it."
Maude Harrison-Hudson, a bereavement counselor at Montgomery Hospice, says it's very common for family caregivers to reach a breaking point. Many people take on too much, and end up overwhelmed. "I think many people feel they need to be strong for this loved one, and then there's pressure from the spouse, or whoever that they don't want someone else to be involved in caring for them." That pressure, she says, can make it even more difficult for a caretaker to retain a sense of calm.
As for Mata, having just cared for her mother, and with more caregiving on the horizon, she knew something would have to change. She came across a book about yoga, and started taking classes. Before long, the hour-or-so she spent doing yoga became the anchor of her day. She decided to visit an Ashram in India, where she ventured into a little boutique, and noticed a necklace, a carved piece of wood hanging from a thin rope.
The necklace's tag explained how it was carved wood of the Kadamba Tree, which grows in Southeast Asia and blossoms only at the sound of monsoon thunder.
When Mata read the tag, it instantly resonated with her. "That's me!" she says, "and that's other caregivers. When you go through turbulent times, it's a chance to actually blossom and find strength you didn't know you had before."
Mata now teaches stress management classes for caregivers through her organization, The Kadamba Tree Foundation. She combines elements of yogic breathing, movement and group therapy to empower each person to care for him or herself.
She's in a place now, she says, where she feels like she can help others. "I'm more stable, and I'm steadier," Mata says. She doesn't expect caregiving to be easy, but by taking better care of her self, Mata's realized, it doesn't have to be quite so hard.
[Music: "Beginner's Theme Suite" by Brian Reitzell, Dave Palmer, Roger Neill from Beginners: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]