Today, the 26th January, is National Young Carer Awareness Day.
I was, and still consider myself very much to be, a Young Carer.
What is a Young Carer?
A Young Carer is a young person (under the age of 18) who helps and cares for a relative which a disability or a mental health condition. They are young people who engage in tasks which are considered adultlike, whether that is cooking, cleaning, providing emotional support, organising medication or helping with the care of younger siblings.
There are over 700,000 identified young carers in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with some as young as five when they start a caring role. They are the “hidden army” of healthcare, providing continual support. Some young carers start caring so early that they consider the tasks they undertake to be “normal”, they are “just helping out” and it won’t be until someone says “hold up, you shouldn’t be doing that at your age” that they realise something might be different.
Many young carers won’t be identified, possibly because they don’t want to be, possibly because they don’t consider themselves worthy of special treatment. If caring is your everyday, why would you need extra help?
The Snowglobe Effect: My Story
When I was in my early teens, my dad nearly died. Overnight, my world changed. Before that, my biggest worry was passing my maths test or what I was going to get for Christmas. Suddenly, those were trivial worries. My worry was about whether or not Dad would wake up from his coma, whether mum was coping, whether my sister understood what was going on, whether my brother was dealing with it all. My worry was for them.
In a situation like that, painfully stressful, you band together with the people you love, who understand how you feel. My family and I are incredibly close, even now, nearly a decade later, because I can depend on them, and they can depend on me.
He woke up on Christmas Day, a miracle he was even alive, we were told he’d never walk again. Six months later he walked out of hospital with memory problems and no upper body strength, but alive. Mum had to work constantly, getting up to do all dad’s personal care before going to work, and doing the rest of his personal care when she got home late at night. She was exhausted.
I tried to take as much of the slack as I could, hoping to relieve the pressure on my mum, and ease the permanent worry in her eyes. I would try and make sure the house was clean, the laundry was done, that dinner was cooked and cleared so she didn’t have to. I would wake in the middle of the night to check on my sister. As I grew older, mum worked more, and dad even managed to return to work and get his drivers licence; something we were told by the doctors would never happen.
It was stressful; I was taking my GCSE’s, obsessed with leaving school with a perfect score to prove ….something. School was my escape and I piled pressure after pressure onto myself, because I didn’t want to have to stop and think about what was happening.
My form teacher knew about my situation, but I didn’t tell many people – I didn’t want anyone treating me any differently because of my home life, I didn’t want to be pitied or to be given excuses. Except for my form teacher marking me present when I was running late. Late because I had to take my little sister to school on the other side of town, before walking to my own school, half an hour at least on a good day. I would pick her up from her after school club as well some days.
Then, mum started getting ill.
Our life was a snowglobe: the pieces of our life were the flakes, and every now and again someone would shake our life violently, with the pieces falling haphazardly around us. Just as we thought everything had settled, we suddenly had new things to worry about.
The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with mum for ages – seemingly at random, mum would pass out and experience what looked like a fit – but she didn’t have epilepsy. We adapted, of course what else can you do? Mum never left the house alone, and we were all well practiced in deterring questions if she fell ill in public. The diagnosis didn’t help – Non Epileptic Attack Disorder. That was it. I worried about her whenever I couldn’t see her. I didn’t realise this at the time, but I had begun to always be keeping half an eye on mum and it got to the point I could diagnose a “funny” before mum was even aware – sitting her down or extracting her from situations. I couldn’t even tell you how I knew, I just did.
When I was 16, I had a nervous breakdown. Too much pressure all at once, and I just snapped and needed a week off school to be able to get through the day without a panic attack. I still had panic attacks, frequently and my anxiety is still with me to this day – I just learnt how to control it better. At the end of the week I went back to school embarrassed that my entire year had witnessed my breakdown and determined to pretend it never happened.
I left secondary school with 10A*’s and an A – hugely proud of myself, and accepted into the nearby Grammar school. Mum and Dad separated that year too, with mum and my siblings moving away. Dad was pretty much completely independent by this point, and most of my focus was on mum and my siblings. I loved my sixth form, and was starting to make plans about university, leaving home. It felt so far away at that point, like a dream.
I can clearly remember a day at sixth form, it was barely halfway through the day when I got a phone call, asking me to come home because Mum had a funny and he didn’t want to leave her alone. Mum had been getting them under control, but it left a funny taste in my mouth – I had dashed out of my classroom when my phone rang, and I rushed down to my head of year, begging to be excused from school. She agreed when I told her why, offering to take me home herself. I had already organised a lift, but it was nice of her. I always worried about her more when I couldn’t get there easily. I was always worrying and sometimes I worried that if I left I would worry more. An endless cycle of worry!
Going to University
Leaving was hard – you get so used to routine – that was normal for me, being busy constantly and having a never ending to-do list (most of which I set myself, because I hate not having something to keep my hands busy) and then suddenly it is just you. I ended up mothering my flatmates; making sure they ate properly, cleaning, providing hugs and a sympathetic ear and a never-ending obsession with Disney. I taught myself how to sew to occupy my time.
I worried that if something happened it would be too far away to go home. I worried about emergencies even though they never happened. I worried that mum wasn’t telling me things because she didn’t want to worry me. My first year of university was hard in many emotional respects – I depended on my family so much. In other respects, I already knew how to look after myself, the hard part was only looking after me. I liked caring for people, I was used to it, and I enjoyed making other people’s lives easier if it meant I didn’t have to deal with my own. Going to university meant I had to deal with everything myself, no excuses.
It took three years and a summer spent interrailing to reduce my obsessive need for control. Mum is a lot better now and I know she is well taken care of by her husband. I am far more relaxed. I achieved a First in my Psychology undergraduate and I am now doing a masters in applied linguistics and I have no idea what the future holds. Once upon a time that would have terrified me, but it doesn’t bother me so much now.
Being a young carer is a mindset – no matter how long it has been since you were actively caring, it affects the way you act and think. Carers have to grow up very quick, and that does have an impact on how you see the world as an adult.
My snowglobe is currently very settled, and I really hope it stays that way.