Being a young superhero: Growing up as a carer

6 Mins read

Looking after a parent or someone close who is unwell can be one of the most difficult challenges that life can throw at you.

It’s a dark and wet night in mid-December 2010, and I’ve just come home from a day out with my mum. The lights in the house are completely out – the only one on our street that isn’t lit up with Christmas lights and gems, the only one without any life to it, it’s as if we had some sort of blackout. You would think that nobody else were living in the house to revive it all. 

We knew my dad was at home that day, as he normally would be at that time, probably watching TV or in the middle of cooking dinner – being the extremely caring human that he was. It was more than weird that he wasn’t. Instead, my mum found him lying on the floor, asking for nothing else but ‘help!’.  

Everything that continued to unfold that night and everything that occurred after has become a distant memory because there has always been the tendency for me to get triggered or upset over the thought of my dad being perfectly fine one moment and then suddenly falling ill as he did.

At the age of nine, when my peers were learning new sports and enjoying other activities, I had to grow up and take on a responsibility that I had very little knowledge about. As boastful as it might sound, I will never know how I managed to go and grow through it all (self-appreciation let’s label it as that). 

The concept of being a young carer can be classified as any individual under the age of 18 that has taken on the role of caring for and looking after a relative/parent who may have an illness, drug or alcohol problem, mental health condition or disability. 

It was a life-changing and shaping experience for someone so young to go through such changes that they see a parent go through when their health deteriorates.

There are a range of different responsibilities that a young carer can take on: physical help such as getting a relative dressed and cleaned, helping one move around, get out of the house, cooking, cleaning, taking medication or be there as emotional support.

The list of tasks that one young carer can do in a day, to help their loved one with day-to-day basics may seem like so much for a young individual to handle; it can be even more overwhelming to know that around 800,000 young people across England alone fall into the category of being a young carer, taking on the responsibilities for as long as they need to. 

Our family friends always told me that I should stay strong and make sure to “always look after daddy and mummy” the best I could. It is not the typical thing to say to any child – it shouldn’t ever have to be the expectation for any young person to have to take in and understand what that means.

The nuclear expectation planted by society at the end of the day is that the younger ones are to be looked after by the older ones in the world – if only it were that simple for the 1-in-5 young people across the country that have to deal with the reality of life in a more complex and advanced way.

I could only do so much with helping my dad with some of his everyday needs, like making food, helping him to feed himself, freshening up, and even communicating with other people as he continued to become unwell.

Witnessing the different transitions each year with my dad’s health condition deteriorating created an abyss of darkness and heartbreak.

I couldn’t help but constantly worry about him, the hardship of having to live a completely different life to what he was used to, adjusting to new medications, always being faced with other health concerns and appointments, always meeting new faces throughout his medical journey, along with trying to remember familiar faces.

With all these things in mind, all I ever wanted to do was create a safe and normal space for my dad to live in for as long as he was given. This is the expectation for any parent to make for their children, not just limited to grown-ups because kids can do more than what people see too.  

The first part of my childhood was always a blessing to live. Both my parents always gave me what I needed and gave me nothing but love, encouragement and warmth. I was lucky. I always will be, even with all the tough days that we had to go through as a family. We got through it together. 

Not only was it a sad thing to see my dad go slowly, but it was equally as hard to see my mum be his main caregiver until the very end. It was what encouraged me to do the best I could, no matter how little or big help I would be, it was always acknowledged by both parents.

Over the six years that we cared for my dad, the older I got the more I started to realise and appreciate the importance of emotional intelligence and patience. I had to be patient with the process of having to help take care of my best friend, I had to remind both my mum and myself that we ought to take the same mentality on board with ourselves to stay strong together too.  

In some ways, now that I look back, I tried so hard to create some sort of a support system for both my parents as best as a teenage girl could with what she knew.  

I tried so hard to create some sort of a support system for both my parents as best as a teenage girl could with what she knew.

The peak of this hardship was knowing that my dad was not guaranteed to make it as far with his later life as we would want. Towards the end of my time being a young carer for him, it became more emotional and sentimental.

It was the thought of having to say goodbye at an advance pace that kept me up most nights and balancing to be as reassuring and as comforting towards my dad’s final years.

I didn’t realise that the emotional aspect was just as much of a challenge and part of the package with looking after a parent. Most of the time, I just got on with what I had to do. Instead of allowing people to feel sorry for me and for me to feel pity over myself, I had to keep pushing through and be as brave as I could be.  

People always say that the world is your oyster, in my case, I used the world around me as a reminder that life is always going to be at a continuum and that mixing in between with the realities that I had going for me served as a way to take breaks from the constant heavy feeling of an endless weight being on my little shoulders.

At the end of the day, I still had to prioritise going to school and being a free-flowing teen at the core of it all – but this was always easier said than done. 

Now that I look back over my time taking on such responsibilities at the age that I was, I feel like I didn’t appreciate the patience and effort that I put into the responsibility that I had as a young carer, in supporting not only my dad but my mum too for any of the little things that contributed to the turbulent journey that we were on.  

One thing I wish I had known in my journey as a young caregiver was the variety of charities and support groups that have been made available to those who need such support or practicalities around coping with the responsibility and emotional effects of being a young carer.

There are such charities such as Honeypot, who offer countryside respite trips for young people that have certain responsibilities the time to take some time out of their everyday lives and build on themselves for the bright future they have ahead of them. 

Others such as Bernardo’s, the NSPCC and Action for Children who all raise awareness and offer emotional and a short form of support for the many young superheroes out there. 

In all honesty, I was never really one to talk about it much and I kept it behind closed doors – maybe because I wanted a separation between the two lives that I was leading. Seeking help and support was never something that I would have thought to find at the time this was all happening, but I feel like it is something that is essential for anyone so young to take the opportunity to.  

Throughout lives waves of worries and overwhelm, the young carers in the world are never given enough credit for what they do and already have so much to handle and think about.  

This type of challenge has set me up for many other stories and chapters that life might have planned out for me to live and experience. I just wouldn’t have thought I’d be learning this in my early days, but I don’t think I could trade it for anything else only because it has made me see things with a more determined and resilient perspective. If you can go through something tough, you can get through anything. 

To anyone that is caring for someone close to them: you are doing one of the toughest jobs in the world, give yourself the credit you deserve – you are a young superhero saving the world around you and much more. 

Featured image by National Cancer Institute via Unsplash.

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