According to The Children’s Society there are more than 166,000 young carers across the United kingdom.
The official definition of a young carer is ‘…a person under 18 who provides or intends to provide care for another person.
These young carers are forced to grow up early and miss out on the same opportunities as other children because they care for family members who are disabled or chronically ill, or for adults who are misusing alcohol or drugs.
In todays blog I interview Sarah, a thirty year old mother of one from London. I want to know what it’s like to be a young carer and how she coped with the responsibility and pressures.
LJ: Can you describe your home life and childhood from an early age…
My parents separated before I was able to remember them being together, so my Mum was my main carer. She was a nurse before she had me, which was her joy and passion, but unfortunately she seriously injured her back while lifting a patient, meaning she had to give up work altogether. I came along the following year and from what I hear, I was her world..! Just before I turned 4, my brother was born. There were complications with his birth and within the first few months of his life my Mum had the gut feeling that something was wrong. He was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, Epilepsy and later, Hydrocephalus (a build up of fluid on the brain, a potentially life threatening condition). As a single mum to two young children, a full time carer to a disabled child, and having been declared unfit to work, meaning she was unable to live her dream and instead live off state benefits, my Mum was at a very low point in her life. Enter depression, and a lengthy struggle with alcohol.
LJ: How old were you when you realised that your mum wasn’t like other mums? How did you notice this was the case?
I think there were a lot of things about my experience of childhood that meant I couldn’t stay childlike for very long. I had to grow up fast, but I didn’t know any different, so at the time it didn’t necessarily feel like a bad thing. As a young child I wasn’t aware there was a difference, but as I got older I felt if I could have chosen, I would have traded my experience.
Having clinical depression, my Mum was medicated for more than a decade. She drank most days to numb her daily fight; this meant she was tired, low, lethargic, negative, angry, frustrated… With no one to share the burdens of life with, I was her closest thing to a partner, so she shared them with me. But I was not her partner, I was her child, so I couldn’t give her what she needed. There was lots of shouting, rage, and violence, as she struggled to manage her mental health. I’d spend lots of time voluntarily barracaded in my room to escape the turbulent outbursts.
My early memories include, me climbing up on the bath to reach the top shelf for her Prozac tablets, and the sour stench of white wine, or white lightening permeating the living room. Christmas dinner often came in the form of a microwave ready meal, in fact, many of our dinners came out of the microwave, and I was too embarrassed to bring friends home for tea after school. My mum even joked to herself that she just couldn’t cope with the washing up, so she would just throw dinner sets away and buy new, much like clothes, so our house looked like a launderette; with piles of clothes everywhere as washing and ironing was just too much to deal with. With these habits, we were always skint, and I felt gutted to not be able to afford things like school trips or new trainers.
My Gran and family friends would take me for days out or overnight to give me some respite from the challenge of caring for and living with my Mum and brother. For my Mum to get respite being a carer herself in the holidays, she would send us to holiday camps for children and siblings with disabilities. I really found it hard at these camps. I resented being there if I’m totally honest, as I just wanted to enjoy my holidays as a child, just as me, not the sister of a disabled child or the child of an ill mother. Instead, it felt like I was being singled out again for being different, not being celebrated or supported, but being segregated.
Something that did help to champion me as an individual, just for being me, was a great charity called Capital Carers based in London. They put on workshops, had Christmas parties, weekends away, and built community for children classed as carers in the city. I still felt reluctant to carry the identity of ‘carer’ and was pretty reserved in getting involved at first, but I’m glad I did, as they ran a mentorship programme. They recognised I loved the arts, and that was my big passion, so paired me with a wonderful woman who worked as a freelance TV producer. 12+ years later we’re still in touch now, and I’m so thankful. She was a big inspiration in my seemingly insignificant life, as it challenged me to think that just maybe anything is possible with the right attitude, determination, and resilience, which I still believe today to be true.
LJ: Do you have any top tips for any readers who may be going through similar circumstances?
To other young carers out there, you are doing an incredible job.
Firstly, be kind to yourself; get rest, eat well when you can, get your own space where time allows. Look after your own well being, otherwise you won’t be able to look after anyone else’s!
Do things that energise you regularly; listen to your favourite music, exercise, be creative, read a good book, veg out and watch your favourite shows- whatever makes you feel relaxed, positive, full of purpose.
Surround yourself with positive people, and friends you can trust; Even if it’s one person, make sure you have someone you can confide in, and vent to. Someone who will keep your confidence and won’t judge you, someone that you feel safe with.
If you can, find a mentor or an older person who can listen and advise you where you need them to, whether that’s about home life, or school, or helping you with practical things like application forms or homework if your parent isn’t able to support you with that.
Make your school/teacher aware of your home situation, they may be able to help practically or be more lenient with school work and deadlines.
Now I’m a Mum myself, even through all the hardship I can see she did her best with what she had, with the hand she had in life. I can see how hard she had it, and I don’t resent her for the experience I had, I commend her for pushing on when it would have been easier to give up.
If I could speak to myself as that child shutting herself out from the world behind her barricaded bedroom door, and to those who are doing the same today, I would say;
You are loved, even though you may not feel it in this moment, I promise you are.
You are strong, even though you may feel like you can’t do this any more.
You are seen and you will be seen, even though you may feel like you’re invisible.
You matter, even though you may feel like you’re not the priority right now.
You will get through this, and who you are and will become is being shaped in this very moment- and nothing you’re experiencing now will be wasted.
You can make this life something to be proud of; something incredible, something beautiful.
LJ: Wow! What a powerful story and some brilliant food for thought.
If you or someone you know is a young carer then why not check out: Young Minds.
Thanks for reading Sarah’s story. All blog posts are written from the heart to encourage and inspire.