Chris Norton was just 18 in 2010 when, playing college football at Iowa’s Luther College, he suffered a spinal chord injury that left him paralyzed.
Doctors said he had a three percent chance of walking again.
His near-decade that followed has been tumultuous, heart-wrenching and inspiring.
He met Emily, an Iowa State University student, in 2013. They got engaged in 2015, the night before his MBA graduation when he made headlines by walking up to collect his degree. The couple got married in 2018, with Chris walking seven yards down the aisle. And they have fostered 17 kids and adopted five girls.
Now, Chris and Emily have shared an intimate account of Chris’s agonizing seven-year quest to get back on his feet to walk at their wedding in a book called The Longest Seven Yards.
Through it, they also shine a light on the difficulties of care-giving, sharing Emily’s battle with depression as she came to terms with being a life-long carer.
Chris and Emily Norton have written a book about their marriage and personal journeys
Emily opened up for the first time about her battle with depression in the last four years
Beautiful moment: Chris trained for seven years to walk seven yards after they exchanged vows at a ceremony in Jupiter, Florida last year, supported by Emily the whole way
The couple got engaged in 2015, the day before Chris walked to pick up his MBA
Speaking to Robin Roberts on Good Morning America, Chris said: ‘We really wanted to share our story in this book to show people that life’s lowest moments can be the source of our greatest gifts.’
Emily added: ‘I’m happier than I ever have been, I’m more me than I ever have been, and I never thought that I would be at that point.’
The couple met on a dating app, while Emily, then 20, was working at a care home for young people who had suffered abuse.
Chris’s motivation, and perseverance stunned Emily, she told PeopleTV in a video of their wedding last year.
‘I was extremely drawn to him and his story, and how he wasn’t just going to give up. That’s how we first connected,’ she said.
Both devout Christians, they soon decided they wanted to marry, and Chris popped the question in 2015 at a favorite restaurant of theirs in Michigan, with ‘Will You Marry Me?’ spelled out in tealight candles on the floor.
The next day, they became headline names: a video of Chris walking up to collect his Masters degree, with Emily’s help, went viral.
For Emily, though, that moment of euphoria was followed by a heavy crash into depression, anxiety, and soul-searching.
The graduation video and their story went viral, but it was the start of depression for Emily
Emily’s experience – depression as a caregiver – is hardly unique, but it’s not one many 20-somethings are forced to reckon with so early in their lives and independence
‘I went into a really dark time,’ Emily told Robin Roberts on Tuesday. ‘I lost hope completely.
‘I felt like I was never going to be me again.
‘I’m extremely independent, I want to do everything myself so I tried myself to fight it and instead of really facing what was going on I buried it down.
‘I put a smile on my face, no one had any idea that I was struggling.
‘Everyone thought that we were doing great, and it was going well, and I was fighting this battle that I had no idea how to get through.’
For years, she resisted seeking help.
‘I thought getting help would make me weak or I wasn’t going to be OK in life if I got help,’ she said.
Her experience is hardly unique, but it’s not one many 20somethings are forced to reckon with so early in their lives and independence.
Studies suggest between 40 percent and 70 percent of the 44 million Americans caring for a loved-one have clinical signs of depression, and the sheer act of shouldering the care for your spouse raises your risks of mental health issues substantially.
Both devout Christians, they soon decided they wanted to marry, and Chris popped the question in 2015 at a favorite restaurant of theirs in Michigan, with ‘Will You Marry Me?’ spelled out in tealight candles on the floor
It was imperative, Chris said, that they shared as much of Emily’s story as they did of his, because that was the really hard part: the emotional hard work in the background during the seven years that he trained to walk seven yards at their wedding
He is still battling to gain more mobility with constant physical therapy
Emotional strain, feelings of frustration, and subsequent guilt, are common among caregivers, which all wear down at their feelings of self-worth, according to a recent study at Georgetown University.
Female caregivers, who outnumber male caregivers 2:1, have routinely been shown to report more depression and anxiety, particularly if they dedicate more than 36 hours a week to supporting their loved-one.
The US faces an uphill battle to create an infrastructure to support the growing number of caregivers, who largely have to build their own safety net.
For Emily, raised a Christian, leaning back into the church helped give her a forum to express the feelings she felt too guilty to share.
‘I was able to get hope and strength and courage from God in order to finally make an appointment with a mental health therapist and get put on medication,’ Emily said.
‘And it was that combination of medication and God that really was able to just flip things around.
‘That’s why I was so open in this book, and it was really hard to do.
‘It’s hard to be so vulnerable and open up about something [like this].
‘I want anybody out there who’s struggling, who feels like this is the end, who feels like things are never going to get better, they’re never going to be them-self again, to just know that you are not alone, that things can change.’
For Emily, raised a Christian, leaning back into the church helped give her a forum to express the feelings she felt too guilty to share
Chris said: ‘Everything happens for a reason but a reason can be created out of those bad things’
It was imperative, Chris said, that they shared as much of Emily’s story as they did of his, because that was the really hard part: the emotional hard work in the background during the seven years that he trained to walk seven yards at their wedding.
‘That walk down the aisle was probably the easiest part of our journey,’ Chris said.
‘I set the goal I’m going to walk Emily seven yards down the aisle at our wedding, it took seven years to do that. All the way from my spinal cord injury.
‘But,’ he added, ‘all the struggles and the ups and downs that we went through just to make that wedding happen.
‘There was a time where I didn’t know if a wedding was even going to happen.’
Now, having fostered 17 children over the years, they have adopted five girls.
‘It’s been absolutely amazing, it’s crazy at times, but we love it, it’s just a blessing to be able to give hope and love to these kids,’ Emily said.
Chris said: ‘Everything happens for a reason but a reason can be created out of those bad things.
He urged others facing insurmountable challenges to ‘just keep going’.
‘Hold onto that hope that things can get better, keep fighting, [and] that reason can be created.’