Stigma, secrets and separation: the truth about life as a young carer.

It was about 3am on a school night and I had woken from a nightmare. Like most 12 year old’s, I ran to the comfort of my mother. She took me over to the window and looked outside; I assumed this was to reassure me – like when parents search the contents of a wardrobe in order to show there are not any monsters inside. My mother simply said, ‘MI5 are after us’.

At first I was not sure if my mum was being serious or not – she could be quite silly at times, so I humoured her and let the James Bond themed game play out. Sometimes it comes to a point in games, as I am sure many of you are aware, when someone goes just beyond the boundaries of ‘fun’, which makes you feel uneasy and scared. That point was when mum took me downstairs and held the house phone to my ear. She asked if I could hear the buzzing, telling me that it was bugged. It was not so much what she said, as they way she looked when she said it. Her eyes wider and darker than usual and there was no hint of a smirk coming across her anxious face, that might highlight a break in character.

This erratic behaviour continued for several days – she could not sleep and sat up all night, listening for secret codes and messages that were being transmitted via the television and radio. On the day she was sectioned, my mum would not come out from under her bed, convinced that people were after her. At around 5pm that day, my step-dad called the doctor and explained her behaviour. The doctor stated that a sectioning can be a long process, as two doctors and a health worker all have to be present. My mum then became suspicious of all the phone calls that my step-dad was making. She began hiding knives around the house and in-between the sofa, in order to protect herself, realising that something was being arranged without her knowledge. The doctors then refused to enter the house without a police presence, considering her to be too dangerous.

By the time the sectioning team arrived, along with two police officers, it was 11pm. I sat with my mum throughout the sectioning, so as to keep her calm and not frighten her. The experience was extremely distressing as, though mum was clearly unwell, it was also hard to see her being taken away against her will. My mum refused to go willingly and begged me to tell the doctors that she was fine. She was still crying and extremely emotional as they drove her away to the hospital. It was like watching my mum being driven to prison. Although I was anxious about how she would react when she got to the hospital, I was also relieved that she would be receiving 24 hour, professional care and it felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders.

Though I was not aware at the time, my mum was experiencing a ‘manic’ episode of her bipolar disorder – she was given the diagnosis whilst in hospital, after being sectioned. Bipolar, also known as manic depression, is a mental illness whereby the sufferer experiences manic highs and extreme lows. Whilst manic, the individual can recklessly spend, talk fast and find it difficult staying focused, or more extremely suffer visual and audio hallucinations. But the sufferer often then crashes and can experience feelings of depression and low self worth. Prior to her bipolar diagnosis, there had been evidence of these lows. When I was about 9 years old, I remember sitting in an ambulance as my mother was rushed to hospital, having attempted to commit suicide by an overdose of prescription medication.

As a child, I found it incredibly difficult to understand how someone could feel so low for no particular reason, and therefore carried a lot of guilt. I did not talk to anyone about my mum’s suicide attempt because I had assumed that my bad behaviour had lead to the event. Though now I realise that these lows are uncontrollable, at the time I had believed that not tidying my room or arguing with my mum could have pushed her to that point, and felt too embarrassed to confide in anybody about it.

1 in 4 people in the U.K suffer with mental illness at some point in their lives – that is around four in every classroom. Yet, throughout my entire education, there was never a ‘Mental Health Awareness Day’ among other charity events, such as ‘Comic Relief’ and ‘Jeans4genes’. I knew nothing about bipolar disorder, other than the fact that my mum had it and that she was crazy, therefore I probably should not talk to anyone about it. Though the statistics show that several of my peers were probably experiencing similar things, I felt completely alone. Mental illness can feel incredibly isolating, and the mental health taboo acts only to further ostracise those that are effected.

After being in hospital for over a month, my mum returned home. My family also rarely ever discussed my mother’s illness. Mum had forgotten a lot of the things she had done before she was sectioned and I felt as though, if I brought them up, that she would just break down again. A lot changed when my mum was released and I considered her to be both unpredictable and fragile. Some days she would be very active, clean and cook, but other days she could barely pull herself out of bed. She and my step-dad also separated not long after her diagnosis. A lot of arguments centred around her sectioning, as mum believed that the action was unnecessary, because she was fine. Now that it was just mum and myself, I felt as though it was my duty to protect her from the outside world.

Not talking about my mother’s illness, or being properly informed about bipolar disorder, was extremely destructive to our relationship. I harboured a lot of resentment towards mum, as I blamed her for the breakdown of my mum and step-dads relationship. I also felt as though I did not have the same opportunities as my friends, because I was too frightened to leave my mum alone, especially if she was experiencing the severe lows that go along with her illness. This also made me very distracted at school, as I would constantly worry that something might happen, which might suddenly cause her mood to change. It was this unspoken resentment that fuelled many arguments, and eventually caused me to leave the family home, at the age of seventeen, to live with my step-dad.

My mum has been sectioned a further 3 times since her first admission to hospital, which has also put a great deal of strain on her other family relationships and friendships. Some people find my mother’s erratic behaviour to be quite scary and makes them feel uncomfortable. A couple of years ago, just before mum was sectioned again, she took her neighbour’s child from their garden, without informing the child’s parents. Though she and the child were just playing, her parents were obviously very distressed. When my mother feels low, she also does things to test people’s loyalty, such as lying about her health; she once claimed that she had developed Leukaemia and only had a year to live, which was extremely upsetting. It is difficult for some people to understand the control that my mother’s illness has over her everyday life. Her friends are now mostly people that she has met during her time in hospital, as she finds only they can really understand what is it like to suffer with a mental illness.

It is only through writing this article, that we have addressed how myself and my mother felt during this very dark and difficult time. My mum said: ‘I felt as if you had shut me out after I was diagnosed – we never spoke and I felt as if we had drifted apart. I also carried a lot of guilt and thought that you hated me. I was convinced that everyone was staring and talking about me. I lost all of my confidence, to the extent that I would get dizzy whenever I stepped out of the front door. I was so frightened to tell anybody that I had a mental illness, because of the stigma attached to it’.

Amidst the chaos that was going on at home, both me and my mother would have greatly appreciated seeing these issues being accurately portrayed within the media, rather than dramatised ‘crazies’ that go around killing people with a chainsaw in horror films. Though mental health is now more widely represented, most recently in the Oscar Award winning film the Silver Linings Playbook and Channel 4 series My Mad Fat Diary, the mental health taboo still acts to ostracise those that are effected. However, through sharing our personal experiences with mental health, we can help to break this chain of secrecy.

Simply talking about my mother’s illness has greatly improved our relationship. A lot of the time in life, we assume that friends and family know what we are feeling, just as we also assume to know how others are feeling. But mental illness is incredibly complex and we can not begin to understand it until we discuss it. This is something that Mental Health Awareness Week aims to achieve. Running between the 13th-19th May 2013, in the United Kingdom – the campaign aims to raise awareness about mental health and well-being through posters, leaflets and various charity events, such as sponsored runs. The campaign also highlights the fact that mental health can effect anyone and it does not just simply prey on weak minded individuals.

Simon Johnson runs a project in Bury St. Edmunds called the Malt House Project. Their Cafe (the Kiln Cafe) offers a safe place for various people that suffer at the hands of prejudice, including the mentally ill, which aims to rebuild their confidence and enable them to feel comfortable settling back into society. Simon states: ‘Raising awareness is very important, as people are still scared to approach the mentally ill for various reasons. Our project often visits schools, where we help children that are effected by mental health and learning difficulties. We do projects with the children to raise awareness and show what other help is available, such as Mind focus groups and The Bridge Project’. Society needs to abandon the belief that the mentally ill will break down if you ask them how they are, or that not talking about a problem will make it disappear – only then can we begin break the barriers that act to ostracise those effected by mental health.