I don’t know how long I was a young adult carer. It’s too difficult to quantify because mental health is so difficult to define. Like many others, I never considered myself to be a carer until health professionals repeatedly told me I was.
I cared for my parent who has severe mental health issues which led to alcoholism and suicide threats. When I was 21, they were diagnosed with a large cyst in their head which further complicated the situation. They suffered with frequent seizures and were repeatedly taken into A&E until they had brain surgery to relieve some of the symptoms.
This parent had previously been the main wage earner. When they were unable to work, my other parent had to work extremely hard to increase their wage to ensure we didn’t sink. I noticed that they were met with judgement by others about the number of hours they worked. It’s very easy to think you could do better when you’re on the outside looking in!
I am the eldest of five. Two of my siblings dealt with the situation outside of the home. I dealt with it by focusing all my energy trying to ensure my two youngest siblings had the most normal upbringing possible – an unachievable goal, especially when they had to share the caring role.
Lack of time
Through our worst period, I was studying for a degree through the Open University and working full time. Caring was such a demand on my time that my 12-minute commute to work was a major part of my study timetable. I would work through my lunch breaks, early in the morning before work and late into the night. I wrote several assignments sitting on the floor in A&E, and several others at the same time as putting siblings to bed (literally writing three sentences, then filling a hot water bottle, then writing three more).
I find it very difficult to connect with others who haven’t experienced responsibility in the way that I have. The time constraints of my caring role have also lost me many friends as I simply didn’t have the time to maintain friendships. When I did go out, I felt guilty. I frequently daydreamed about running away. When I ‘woke up’ I felt selfish. For me, caring was very lonely.
As a carer, my self-imposed priority was always to maintain the physical and mental health of my family. I did this as the expense of my own. Eventually I realised I was seeing myself less and less as a person.
My youngest sibling was born just before things were at their worst. I used to put them to bed, change their nappies, took them to school, made their dinner, looked after their emotional wellbeing, and much more. We weren’t just siblings anymore; our relationship was different.
Our situation eventually calmed enough for me to feel able to move out of the family home. Look at one of your children now and imagine having to hand them back, then stepping back to become a secondary person in their life. That’s what I am currently going through.
As a result of my circumstances, I had and still suffer with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and difficulty eating, as well as other side effects of poor mental health. I did my best to talk about what was happening at the time, but I realise now how much I had to repress just to keep functioning. Now that the situation is a little quieter, these repressed feelings are coming out in force now - even though at first glance there doesn’t appear to be any trigger for them.
I noticed that sitting in the bath helped me a little. I don’t know if this was because the water was calming or because it was the only part of my day when I didn't have something to do. At one point, I was having several baths a day to keep me from turning to more self-destructive coping mechanisms! Recently, I noticed that I had started to scratch/pinch myself and pulling my own hair to cope with my distress. At this point, I sought out counselling.
Carer’s Support Wiltshire made a big difference. Amongst other support, they were able to help me access counselling.
Counselling has significantly improved my mental health. I am slowly learning who I am outside my caring role and that I need to look after myself too.
I would really recommend other carers to give counselling a chance. You probably have no idea how much of yourself and your emotions you are repressing just to get through the day.
I also would remind them that they need looking after too!