I’ve often mentioned the fact that I was a young carer for my Mum. I’ve talked a lot about her death, and how it affected me. I’ve never properly opened up on the blog about what it was like for me to look after her, to take on the responsibilities of a parent at about 14 years old (and to some extent earlier). As I am running the Do You Care? campaign from Team V alongside the other leaders, I feel now is the best time to change that. This is how I felt about being a young carer and how it affected my life, but each of the over 166,000 recognised young carers in the UK today (and the thousands who are hidden) will have a different story to tell.
I always say I became a young carer at around 14. In reality, I started taking on responsibility in the home long before that. When I was little my Mum met Steve. They started off as friends, and eventually became a couple. Steve was like a Dad to me; we all went on holidays together, we had Sunday lunches at his Mum’s house, we knew his grown-up daughters from his previous marriage. He brought me Christmas and birthday gifts, and read me bedtime stories. Before Mum met him, Steve had throat cancer, which had gone into remission. However, a while after they started going out, it came back (I’m a bit hazy on the dates and details as I was so young.) Because Mum was taking care of Steve, and was at the hospital with him a lot, I had to help out with stuff around the home, keeping an eye on my brother and being there for Mum emotionally. At the time I didn’t realise the extent that was put on me, looking back I dealt with a lot a seven or eight year old shouldn’t have to. When I was eight my father passed away. I hadn’t seen him for a few years, whilst I was sad it didn’t have a massive impact on my life in all honesty. However a few years later, one summers day my Mum sat my brother and I down, and told us that Steve had died. She cried, and I remember holding onto her and stroking her hair as I cried too. I don’t really remember how she coped with it all, I just remember her saying she wanted to get a tattoo to commemorate him. I was really sad, and missed him a lot, but soon had to get on with school and things, so it sort of faded into the background.
Mum had been studying to get GCSE’s so she could find a job. After Steve died, she began to have problems with walking long distances, having to rest lots and not go out for too long. It slowly got worse over a few years. She would have good days, which meant we could go to town, or to do the food shopping at the big supermarket, then she’d have bad days where she couldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes I’d make dinner, or run a bath for Dan or Mum. I started doing the laundry a lot, dragging the huge bags across to the launderette as our washing machine had broken years before and we couldn’t afford to get it fixed. As she got worse I had to help Mum get dressed, or walk to the toilet, or brush her hair for her. Eventually she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She was devastated, but finally had some answers. Her medication didn’t work first of all, and she was in and out of hospital with various problems, or having fallen and not been able to get up again. I learnt to constantly watch my phone at school in case the hospital or her social worker called me. Sometimes I got in trouble for having it on, but I always stood my ground to the teachers and usually they understood once I explained.
Alongside all of this going on, I was really badly bullied at school. I don’t really know why but the other kids saw me as a weak target, and played on my insecurities, making me feel alone and worthless. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I didn’t want to bother my Mum with my problems when she had enough of her own. Some days I’d come home to find her crying because she hated not being able to get up and do things for herself. I would listen to her talk and try to make her feel better, bring her a cup of rooibos tea (her favourite) and some biscuits. Without realising it until much later, I was extremely depressed and anxious, constantly worrying about a million things.
The washing and cooking, the food shopping, the brushing Mum’s hair and helping her into the bath, none of them were the problem. I got on with all of that because I loved her, and in all honesty because I just didn’t have a choice. It was all I knew how to do, just get on with things and get through each day. The thing which really affected me though, that left scars which are still healing, is the fact that I was given basically no support. My Mum had a social worker. My younger brother had a social worker. I lived in a two bedroom flat on my own at 15 when my Mum was mentally sectioned, sorting out disability benefit paperwork and paying the bills with her bank card. Nobody realised how much I needed someone, because I didn’t say anything. I had nobody to talk to when I had an unrequited crush, or was trying to choose universities to apply to. When I had bad period cramps, or felt sick and needed to stay in bed, there was nobody to look after me. It was the fact that from about 9 or 10 years old I started to keep all my feelings and worries to myself, because my Mum had enough going on and I didn’t want to stress her out any more. I became an adult when I was far too young, but I never actually got the chance to grow up. When I did badly in a test, or did really well, there was nobody to give me a present or cook me a congratulatory dinner. I had nobody helping work out my strengths and skills, no-one to talk to about my hopes, dreams, and fears.
I am in no way blaming my Mum for any of this. She raised me as best as she could, starting off as a single Mum with so many things stacked against her. She sacrificed a lot to provide my brother and I with things we needed and wanted, taught us right and wrong, and to treat everyone with respect. I know that she was so proud of all of my achievements; with Youth Parliament and the other groups I was a part of, with being in a TV show on BBC One, and anything else I did. When I went to visit her in hospitals or nursing homes, all of the staff knew me from her speaking so highly and proudly of me. She loved me unconditionally and totally, I know that much. I just wish I’d been given a normal teenage growing up.
Now you may think this is all really depressing and kind of a downer of a post. As usual I won’t leave it on a negative note though. I have slowly worked my way through all of the issues which affected me over the years, and am beginning to feel more confident, happy, and like I have an idea about what I want to do with my life. It’s taken me years to unpick all the issues and insecurities which held me back for so long, but I’ve come a really long way. I’m lucky that I always had the spark to do more, to haul myself out of the situation I grew up in and reach for my dreams. My Mum instilled that in me, which was the greatest gift she left me. Unfortunately a lot of young carers (and other young people) don’t get that, and grow up feeling like they can’t do anything great. This is why I am in the youth sector, and why Do You Care? is so very close to my heart. If you live in the UK, I urge you to find your local Team V leader and see how you can help them out with the campaign. If you can’t, then please like the Facebook Page and leave a message of support for young carers across the country. We can’t take away the caring responsibilities of these young people, and they probably wouldn’t want us to, but we can show them that people care about them too.