A new film promises to open the conversation about family caregiving in America by focusing on a topic traditionally spoken of in whispers: mental health.
In the documentary “Hidden Wounds,” writer and director Richard Lui introduces viewers to three families, including his own, to reveal the tightrope family caregivers walk, balancing their daily lives with caregiving duties. The movie shows how caregiving is a pure act of love, a selfless, all-encompassing commitment that puts relationships, careers and finances on the line. The only thing holding caregivers up is their own mental health, and if they fail to focus on self-care, everything else will come crashing down with them.
The only thing holding caregivers up is their own mental health, and if they fail to focus on self-care, everything else will come crashing down with them.
Lui is a journalist and news anchor for MSNBC and NBC News, and “Hidden Wounds” is his second film about caregiving. His first, “Skyblossom,” shines a light on the five million children in America who are caregivers, and his book, “Enough about Me,” offers tips on how to lead a selfless life—something caregivers do well.
The title “Hidden Wounds” refers to both mental health injuries and the invisible illnesses of each care recipient featured in the film: the Alzheimer’s disease that Lui describes as taking away bits of his father’s brain; the terminal breast cancer of marine veteran Kate Hendricks Thomas, believed to be caused by exposure to burn pits while serving in Fallujah; and the dual diagnoses of Army Ranger Luke Bushatz, who developed post-traumatic stress disorder from continued exposure to combat and sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) when an improvised explosive device blew up near his vehicle in Afghanistan.
The film rotates between these three families at different times in their caregiving journeys, showing the challenges they face and the strategies that help them cope. Lui’s mom Rose learns to play violin at the age of 79—the music gives her renewed joy and energy. But she gives it up for a while once caregiving becomes too demanding. Luke’s wife Amy works out regularly and applies the tools she’s learned in therapy – “I’m angry at the injury, not at Luke” – to handle the challenges of loving someone with PTSD and a TBI while co-parenting two young boys; and Shane, Kate’s husband, overwhelmed by sadness, must learn how to be a single parent to their young son while his wife’s still alive. With Kate’s help, he gains confidence in his parenting skills and accepts the situation. Ultimately, he chooses to fall in love with her again and hold off on grieving until she dies.
In the midst of revealing raw caregiving challenges, Lui captures moments of joy—Luke’s family going on rides at a carnival, Kate’s family laughing at the dinner table, and Lui’s mom playing the violin at his dad’s bedside.
“I don’t want folks to think about caregiving and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’” Lui explains. “I want them to say, ‘It’s difficult but it has been a life-changing journey and don’t you feel stronger because of it? Didn’t you laugh in ways you never laughed before and cry in ways you never cried before—joy despite the difficulty?”
He also wants viewers to understand that mental health is not a binary conversation.
“You have it or you don’t,” he emphasized. “And it’s OK to start talking about it.”
Luke’s wife Amy expounds on this message in the film.
“The hurt goes away when you look at it and talk about it,” she says of her husband’s PTSD and TBI symptoms. “It hurts more when you put it in a box.”
Lui was a caregiver to his father for six years, sharing duties with his siblings. They took over from their mom when caregiving began to take a toll on her health. In the film, he casually mentions that caregiving spouses with diseases are likely to pass first—a fact caregiving families know all too well.
Upon witnessing Lui’s caregiving journey, you realize his story is not just his; it belongs to every caregiver. Whether he’s meeting with his boss to discuss balancing work with caregiving duties; moving his father to a care community (a necessary step that causes his mother to run out of money); going against doctor’s orders because “the caregiver knows the patient best”; witnessing his father’s decline during lockdown; or shifting his caregiving duties to his mother after his dad dies, he’s not alone in his experiences.
More than 50 million caregivers live with hidden wounds in the U.S., according to Lui. Unpaid and untrained, they go about their duties quietly. In this film, however, their voices are finally heard.
Hidden Wounds will be released commercially in May 2023. To see the trailer, visit www.hiddenwounds.com.
Lui’s words of wisdom for caregivers
- Bring up caregiving at work. “When women become pregnant, they fear that conversation with the company because it often will mean fewer opportunities and decisions, both conscious and unconscious, made about their potential,” Lui explained. “Caregivers go through a similar moment.” He emphasized that COVID has opened the door to these conversations and now is the time to have them—because eventually it will close.
- Share your story with others via a blog or by creating an employee resource group. “Helping others feel less alone will help you,” he said.
- Give yourself grace. “You don’t need to be perfect,” Lui said. “As long as 51% of the time you’re caregiving for the right reason, then you got it…just move the ball forward for your loved one.”
- Don’t give too much unmitigated selflessness or the rubber band will snap and you can’t help at all.