My Experiences of Being A Young Carer

I was a young carer for five years, between the ages of 12 and 17. As an only child with a very unwell parent, I did not feel I had a choice other than to do this.

My Time As A Young Carer

Of my parents, my dad was dead and my mum was seriously mentally unwell. Mum’s mental illness generally followed a pattern of six weeks of reduced illness, followed by two weeks of intense illness.

One of the main aspects of her mental illness was that she heard a voice in her head. She thought this was someone communicating to her, so she would respond, even though there was no one there. I used to watch my mother as she would speak with, and sometimes shout at, empty chairs and empty corners of rooms. Sometimes she would burst out laughing, whilst at other times she would start crying. Her mood towards me would change very rapidly, and in a short period of time she could demonstrate a range of pleasant and very unpleasant emotions. As a child, I found it upsetting and scary to be in a house with someone who was so mentally unwell.

Even when her illness was not too bad, she was unable to show any sort of affection, love, encouragement, guidance or emotional support. It did not feel that I was living with a parent; instead I felt as if I was in a house with a very unwell adult that I was responsible for. I felt completely alone.

I hardly ever saw any of Mum or Dad’s families. I had weekly phone contact with my grandmother (Dad’s mother) and relatives visited very occasionally.

We lived in a two-bedroom council house in a very small village called Bonawe, in a remote location, 15 miles outside Oban in Argyll. Bonawe was very isolated and there were no village facilities or shops. The house did not have central heating and instead there was a fireplace in the sitting room. When we first moved into the house we were told by the Council that the fireplace should not be used because there had previously been a chimney fire. Therefore, we used a small electric heater to heat the sitting room, but no other rooms were heated. A couple of years later we were told the fireplace could be used, so I used to collect firewood and sometimes we would buy coal. Even if we lit a fire in the sitting room, all the other rooms remained unheated.

None of the windows in the house were double glazed, they were single-glazed windows with wooden frames. Even when they were shut there were still draughts, and during winter the house was freezing cold. We only had hot water if we turned on an immersion heater for two hours, so I used to have two baths per week. Daily we used to boil kettles to have a wash.

We did not have a washing machine, so we hand-washed all our laundry. Sometimes that was done by Mum, but when she was unwell I would have to do it. We didn’t have a phone because we could not afford one. There was a phone box in our little village, so we could make phone calls from there, but we could not receive calls.

We had very little money because my mum did not work and we relied on social security benefits. During all my time as a child carer I managed the family finances, so I monitored our bank accounts, ensuring that bills got paid and that there was enough money for basic needs.

My mum was on pills and I had to supervise her medication. I did not know what the pills were, but the instructions on the boxes said how regularly they should be taken. Sometimes when Mum was unwell she would forget to take her pills, so I would have to prompt her.

At home we ate very basic food. With such little money and no car, we only bought food that we could carry in shopping bags on the bus. We bought bread, milk, cereal, some fruit, biscuits, and tinned foods like baked beans, ravioli and spaghetti. My usual breakfast was a bowl of cereal, and dinner was beans, ravioli or spaghetti with three pieces of bread.

At school I initially got free school meals because I was from a low income household. Then the system changed and we received extra social security benefits to pay for my lunches. This meant that I could leave the school at lunchtime and visit the local shops.

Twice a week my mum would travel on the school bus to Oban to get shopping. Sometimes she was unwell and she would speak to the voice she heard, behave erratically and be rude to other passengers. Sometimes I would have to sit next to her to try to calm her down. Mum’s behaviour on the bus always made me feel embarrassed and angry.

The neighbours were polite when we saw them, but they made no effort to get to know us. Many of them knew that Mum was mentally unwell because they had seen her behaviour, but nobody ever mentioned it. Mum did not have any friends or a social life.

Generally my social life was at school. There were no boys of my age in the village so I had no friends there, but I had a very good friend who lived seven miles away and sometimes I would cycle to see him. I had another good friend in Oban who I would often stay with, which was always a welcome break from living with Mum.

I set the rules in the house because Mum was not well enough to know what was right and wrong. I had to set rules regarding matters such as how we spent money, what food we bought and what household jobs needed to be done. I decided how I should behave and how I should approach things such as my school work and social life.

Physically Restraining Mum

I cannot remember the first time that Mum tried to hit me, or the first time that I had to restrain her, but it became a regular event during her two-week periods of being very unwell. I had to block blows, hold her arms, block kicks and force her to the floor. When I was doing this she would be shouting and swearing at me. Sometimes I had to use considerable force to control her. Very few people have experience of physically restraining someone who is mentally unwell. My experience is that the ill person does not try to limit their actions, so they use all their strength. Also, they do not feel any pain. Therefore, the person restraining them has a considerable challenge.

I have no idea how many times I physically restrained Mum during the five years that I was a young carer. It certainly happened regularly during every two-week period that she was very unwell. Often Mum was bruised after I had restrained her.

I decided not to tell anyone that I was physically restraining Mum. Mum and Dad’s families and the local doctor’s surgery all knew she was very unwell, that Dad had committed suicide, and that I was a child now living with a mentally-ill adult. No one wanted to discuss Mum’s mental health, and as I had been left to deal with her, I was going to handle the problem any way I had to.

I kept my problems a secret and completely separate from school. I liked my friends and teachers a great deal, but I never discussed my mother’s illness or my role as a carer. This was because I wanted to lead as normal a school life as possible. I was also concerned that if the authorities thought the situation was serious they might put me into care. I was worried this might result in being moved to a different area, away from friends and school, and might affect my chances of getting to university and finding a good job. My biggest regret now is that I didn’t tell friends and adults I trusted what was happening.

Involvement of Dad’s Family

I was very close to my dad’s mum, who I called Nan. She lived in Heswall in north-west England. Sometimes she would visit Bonawe and sometimes I would travel to visit her, so I used to see her a couple of times a year. I phoned Nan every week from the payphone in our village.

Nan was in her seventies and had arthritis but would travel all day to get to Bonawe. She would catch a bus from her village to Liverpool, get a train to Glasgow, cross Glasgow to another station, catch a train to Oban and then travel out to Bonawe. When she visited, Mum was often very rude to her. When I went to school Nan would have to spend the whole day with my mum, so she used to spend a lot of time in the bedroom to avoid her. I can remember Nan describing me as ‘an old head on young shoulders’.

When I was a teenager, Nan told me that Mum had been very unwell when I was a baby, so I had been cared for by some of Dad’s family. She did not tell me any details other than Mum’s family had refused to help.

My dad’s sister and her husband never visited in the five years we lived in Bonawe, even though they knew Mum had serious mental health problems. During those five years we had a handful of visits from other members of Dad’s family, so approximately one visit per year. These would be brief visits of a couple of hours that would involve a drink and a polite chat, but then they would leave.

Involvement of Mum's Family

Mum’s sister and her husband lived outside Glasgow so were the closest of all our relatives, but they would only visit for an hour, once or twice a year. Mum’s parents used to visit once a year, but that stopped when I was about 14.

When I was approximately 14 years old my mum’s parents drove to Scotland and spent some time with my aunt and uncle outside Glasgow, and then came to Bonawe. My mother was very unwell when my grandparents arrived, and they repeatedly said to me, ‘Your father made your mother unwell.’

One evening, when it was time for dinner, my mother placed a loaf and some jam on the table and said we would have to have sandwiches. My grandparents looked at me in disgust and complained that they needed hot food because they were pensioners.
My grandfather then said, ‘We are not putting up with this. We are leaving.’ They started packing their stuff and loading their car. He said to me, ‘I don’t know how you put up with this.’ I replied with, ‘I don’t think I have much choice.’ He looked at his feet and then carried on packing.

When it came time for them to leave, a discussion started about why there was so little food in the house, and I explained we had very little money. My grandfather gave my mother some money and then they left. It never occurred to my grandparents to drive to Oban to buy food, to take us out for a meal or even to buy a takeaway.

My grandparents would have arrived back at my aunt and uncle’s house near Glasgow earlier than planned, and I imagine they would have explained why. Needless to say, we did not hear from my aunt or uncle.

Support from Friends

I had a good friend who lived in Oban with his mum and step-dad, Catherine and Tommy. Sometimes they invited me to stay at their house, which meant I could attend social events like school discos and rugby training sessions. It also meant I could go to rugby games that involved travel outside the Bonawe bus times. I never worried about leaving Mum for a night because I thought she could cope by herself for short periods of time, which she had to do anyway when I was at school. Every evening I stayed at my friend’s house, Catherine cooked a three-course meal and every morning she cooked a full breakfast. The food was excellent and completely different to what I had at home. Tommy would give me a lift to Bonawe if there were no buses available. They were both extremely kind and generous.

For several years I had a holiday job as a gardener at a stately home near Bonawe called Ardchattan Priory. The gardener and his wife, George and June, lived in the gardener’s cottage with their four children, two dogs, a cat and a lot of tropical fish. Their house was never quiet and I liked the life and energy in their home. George used to tell lots of stories from when he had travelled the world in the Merchant Navy. June used to supply lots of tea and biscuits and add to George’s stories. There were always jokes being made and I can remember laughing a lot. George and June were also extremely kind and generous.

My Opinion of My Situation

When I was a young carer I remember sitting on the edge of my bed with my head in my hands.  I can remember summing up my situation as follows:

  • My father was dead, having died a miserable, violent death.
  • My mother was extremely mentally unwell.
  • I was an only child, so I did not have any brothers or sisters.
  • My family were not interested and lived a long way away.
  • Our doctor knew about my mother’s condition but was not interested.
  • We lived in a tiny hamlet, miles away from anywhere.
  • We lived in a very run-down council house.
  • The neighbours knew my mother was unwell, but never mentioned it or made an effort to get to know us.
  • We had very little money and relied on social security benefits.

During that time I felt a range of very intense emotions. I felt deserted by my family and a lot of anger towards them for leaving me in this situation. I was extremely frustrated that others could leave/ignore Mum’s illness and our situation, whilst I felt I had no choice other than to stay.

I felt lots of emotions when I had to physically restrain Mum. I felt sad, alone and without support. Then I felt even more anger towards my family. I felt guilt and shame that I had bruised Mum, even though I believed I had no choice. I felt completely trapped in a situation I did not want.

I was extremely embarrassed when Mum was mentally unwell in public, for example, on the local bus. I could not believe that people took her behaviour at face value and could not see that she was mentally unwell. This made me even angrier.

I sometimes felt despair and loneliness. These emotions resulted in me experiencing a huge amount of stress. I hid this from friends and family and thought it was a burden that I had to carry alone.

It became obvious to me that no family members or medical professionals were going to help me. My options were to survive or fall apart. I chose to survive. I believed that survival required me to suppress my emotions and I became very self-sufficient. I also felt that society had failed me. Therefore I was going to abide by the rules of society that I agreed with, but I was going to ignore those that I disagreed with. I became completely used to separating different parts of my life, telling certain people certain things, and keeping a lot of secrets. At times I was completely unemotional and only saw life in black and white terms. Sometimes, I’m not proud to say, I demonstrated no consideration towards others.  

I had been interested in joining the military since I was about ten years old. I wanted to do a job that involved challenge, adventure, working in a team, and where I could improve myself. Following Dad’s death and the lack of support from my family, the military appealed even more.

I recognised that I needed qualifications to achieve my ambitions. Therefore I started studying every evening, sitting in my freezing cold bedroom and reading for hours. I also started physically training. I designed a training programme consisting of runs, bike rides, push-ups and sit-ups. I stuck to this regardless of the weather, which meant I often went out running in the rain. Some of the locals stared at me whilst others laughed. I just carried on running.

Staying Away From Relationships With Girls

I noticed girls throughout my time at school and felt very strongly about several in particular.  I looked at these girls and some of them looked back. There were a few girls, on average one per year, that I really fancied and I think they liked me. There was a lot of eye contact, little smiles, and even more eye contact.

However, I did not ask any of these girls to be my girlfriend. I worried about things like how would I go on dates when I lived in such a remote place, how much money it would cost and how I would introduce Mum. I stayed away from relationships, which meant I was sacrificing elements of my life to be a carer. I stopped looking at these girls and they stopped looking at me. This meant I stayed single and again isolated.

Physical Effect On Me Of Being A Young Carer

I believe the stress of being a young carer affected my physical health. I started suffering with awful migraine headaches when I was approximately 14 or 15 years old. I didn’t get these often, but when I did I felt dreadful. I would be physically sick and have to lie down for hours. I went to the local doctor’s surgery about these headaches but was told that some teenagers suffer migraines as they go through puberty. I now know that migraine headaches are sometimes caused by stress.

When I was about 16 I started suffering with fainting. Oddly enough, this only happened when I was at home and never anywhere else. At the time I was extremely fit because I was doing a lot of physical training. Again, I went to the doctor but was told it could be low blood pressure and I might be standing up too quickly. The advice from the doctor was to stand up slowly.

In retrospect, I feel disappointed that my mental, physical and emotional health needs were not better looked after.

Focusing On School and Rugby

I enjoyed school, both the studying and the social life. I made some great friends who I have stayed in touch with all my life. There were many other good friends who I have lost touch with as our lives have gone in different directions. I was also lucky to have some excellent teachers. Overall, I can remember lots of laughter, jokes and farting.

I started playing rugby at school and it became more and more of a focus for me. I loved the physical challenge, the competitiveness and the aggression. Rugby felt like an outlet for all the challenges in my life and it was a way to rid myself of anger. At the time it felt fantastic to be on the rugby pitch, filled with aggression and taking it out on the opposition. I loved winning and I loved beating my opponents, regardless of how it made them feel. What did they have to complain about? They knew nothing of the challenges in my life.

In my second last year at school I was made a prefect and in my final year I was appointed Head Boy. I was probably seen as responsible and reliable. I thought it would look great on my CV and I enjoyed the position of responsibility.

One of my friends had a car and he was generous in giving me lifts, and occasionally he and some others would drive out to visit me. If there was a knock on the door and Mum was unwell, I would tell her to go upstairs before I answered the door. This was

Involvement of Doctors

Poo In The Kitchen Sink

Twice when I was 15 or 16 I returned home to find that my mother had smeared her own poo over the kitchen sink. She had pooed into a bucket, emptied her poo into the kitchen sink, mashed it up with her fingers and forced most of it down the plug hole. On both occasions I repeatedly filled our kettle in the bathroom, boiled the water and then poured it all over the sink. On both occasions I phoned the local surgery and a doctor came to visit, but both times they simply asked Mum not to do it again and then left.

Hospital Admission Following Collapse

In 1990 I attended a three-day course with the army. Whilst I was away I was told by an officer that my mother was OK but had been admitted to hospital. She had tried to walk the 15 miles from Oban to Bonawe on a very hot day whilst carrying shopping bags, and had collapsed with exhaustion and heat stroke. She was admitted to hospital for a couple of days, when apparently she demonstrated serious mental health problems, but nothing further happened after her discharge from hospital.

Family Awareness of Bruising

In 1990, in my fifth year as a young carer, my mum’s sister visited and spotted that my mother had bruises from where I had been restraining her. I was accused of beating her up and several days later a doctor spoke to me about the bruises. I explained that I had to restrain Mum when she was very unwell. The doctor did nothing other than to suggest that if Mum was being difficult I should stay out of the way.

After the doctor had spoken to me, my mum’s sister and her husband came to visit us. My aunt took my mother into the kitchen and my uncle spoke to me. The conversation went like this:

My uncle said, ‘You need to stop hitting your mother.’

‘I have to defend myself and also try to restrain her!’ I replied.

‘You are bigger than her now, so I don’t believe that,’ he said.

I replied with, ‘She is seriously mentally unwell and tries to hit me.’

He said accusingly, ‘What sort of a son hits his own mother?’

‘A son that is defending himself from his mother,’ I said.

He raised his voice and said, ‘I am telling you that you are wrong.’

I replied with, ‘I am telling you that I don’t have an alternative.’

The conversation continued like this for quite a while, though my uncle got steadily angrier that I was disagreeing with him. After we had been speaking for a while I gulped, which he saw, and he said:

‘You just gulped. You are cracking. You are about to start crying.’

‘No I’m not. We have just been talking for a while,’ I replied.

‘Yes, you are. You are cracking,’ he said.

I paused and said, ‘Let me make this clear. You are in your mid-forties and I am sixteen, but I have looked you in the eye throughout this conversation, replied to everything that you have said and repeatedly pointed out that you are wrong.’

My uncle paused, smiled at me, and then said, ‘You know, Michael, I have got this wrong.’

‘Really?’ I replied.

‘Yes, I had thought you were just a violent thug, but actually you are a cold, calculating, evil boy.’

I immediately felt anger surge throughout my entire body. I paused, took a deep breath and then said, ‘I don’t see any point in continuing this conversation.’ I stood up and left the room before I exploded.

Whilst all I wanted to do was punch him, I knew that being violent would support his argument. About five minutes later my aunt shouted up the stairs that they were leaving. I came downstairs and my uncle was still staring at me. My aunt held out a £5 note and said it was pocket money for me, but I replied by saying that I did not need it because I had a part-time job. My aunt looked really embarrassed, stuck the £5 in my shirt pocket and then quickly left with my uncle.

Dad’s family were more supportive, but did nothing of any real help. They said they knew how bad Mum could be and that I would not have bruised her without reason. They made some stupid comments like, “If your mum is being difficult, go for a walk until she calms down,” and “Don’t get angry; just ignore what she is saying to you.” They returned to their lives and I was left with Mum.

What Happened Next

After my family and the local doctor’s surgery knew that I was physically restraining Mum, I still made the decision to keep my problems a secret from school. This was because:

  • If my family and a doctor thought it was acceptable to leave me with Mum when she was so unwell, why bother telling anyone else?
  • I was attending courses with the army and did not want to affect my chances of becoming an army officer.
  • I felt that I could cope with the situation until I went to university.

I knew it was not my fault that the problem existed, and I also knew that I had been left to cope in dreadful circumstances whilst all the adults had left. However, when the bruises came to light, I was criticised by those people who had done nothing. I felt even angrier at my family.

When Mum became very unwell again, I again found myself having to restrain her, not because I wanted to, simply because I did not have a choice. Again she was bruised, but because Mum’s family and the local doctors never checked how we were doing, they never saw the new bruises.

Finishing School and Leaving Home

Shortly after finishing school in 1991 I was accepted onto a degree course at Dundee University. Whilst I wanted to join the army, I was keen to get a degree because I knew qualifications would help me get a job when I left the army.

My mum and grandfather decided that when I left home, Mum would move to Widnes. My grandfather was moving into a sheltered accommodation flat, which meant that Mum could live in his old house. She was going to move house several days before I started at university, so my grandfather came to Bonawe to take her to Widnes. He repeatedly complained that he should not have to do this and that I should accompany my mother to Widnes. I eventually said, “I start university in three days,” to which he replied that there was plenty of time for me to get to Widnes and then get a train to Dundee. I responded with, “I have my own life to lead”, after which he walked away.

After my mother and grandfather left, I spent three days in our empty council house.  The neighbours lent me a sofa bed and I slept in my dad’s old sleeping bag. I spent the days walking and reading, which was really pleasant after life with Mum. My five years of being a young carer had come to an end, which felt like a huge weight being lifted off my shoulders.

June and George kindly offered to take me from Bonawe to Dundee and they took a day off work to do so. Upon arrival in Dundee they insisted on finding my halls of residence, helping carry my bags, walking me to my room, and getting me settled. They then gave me £20, saying, “Enjoy your first night in the student’s union.”