Words by Kate Oliver, founder of The Caring Collective.
I still don’t really think of myself as a carer. I’m not sure whether that’s because sometimes it doesn’t feel like I ‘do’ enough, or because my brain hasn’t really bought into the idea we’ve been sold of carers being someone different from us. It’s taken me a long time to process all of this and get to the point of setting up The Caring Collective.
My mum first became ill in 2017, and since then we’ve dealt with the lowest lows depression and anxiety have to offer. When my mum first became ill, I was 25, and had some big plans on the horizon, which I delayed until mum was back on her feet. Sitting down now to unearth some of those ideas again after five years, I’m struck by how much of a journey I’ve been on. A mostly painful one if I’m honest, but one that’s really made me think a lot about where we stand as carers and how I’d like to contribute to changing that.
The first time I really stopped to think about it and admit I might need some help to manage everything that was happening, I remember picking up my phone at 2am, sleeping in my childhood bedroom, and feeling slightly humiliated as I typed into Google ‘caring in your 20s’. I felt even worse when I saw that the first two pages of results were variations on how to find the right skincare routine, and how to take care of my ‘youthful figure’, and quickly diverted to Instagram to remind myself what I should be doing instead. It didn’t matter that I was exhausted, lost and terrified — I got the memo that these weren’t things I should be thinking about right now.
Being a ‘young adult carer’ (a term so bland I despair) is hard enough when you’re battling the narrative of ‘do it while you’re young’ and ‘make the most of this time to yourself’, without the extra guilt of trying to figure out whether you should even be talking about this stuff at all. Was there any wonder that in the five years I’ve been looking after mum, I’ve only met a handful of people in a similar situation. If 1 in 4 of us have a mental health illness in our lifetime, how come we haven’t heard from any of the people supporting them?
As I grew slightly more confident in recognising what my role in our situation really was (not just a good daughter, thanks guys), I then stumbled into the second barrier that carers, and especially those who are younger, encounter all the time. My identity was tied to another person, and in accepting I was a carer, I had to accept that my experience of this situation was deeply rooted in someone else’s reality. In reaching out for support and saying ‘hey, this is difficult’, was I undermining my mum’s own struggle, and even worse, was I betraying her trust by speaking up and asking for help?
One of the big things I wanted to deal with when I started writing about our experiences — my experiences — of what happened to mum was starting the messy task of separating what was happening to me, from what was happening to her. It felt impossible to try at first, and the self censoring was so real it had me reading back old diaries going ‘but, it probably wasn’t as bad I made out, maybe I was just being dramatic’, lest I accept that sometimes doing an inherently good thing, motivated by love, can feel totally, utterly hideous.
In the end, that was the realisation that made me believe there is a place for something like The Caring Collective.
It’s not a place where I claim to have all the answers (or in fact any on some things) but it is a place where the mixed middle of being a carer is brought out of the shadows. These are complicated feelings, never ever made any easier by a vow of silence we’re expected to take for fear we might say something that doesn’t fit with what we’re told: caring for someone you love is the easiest thing in the world, they’re the only thing that matters, and ‘you shouldn’t be worrying about something like that at your age’. It took me too long to realise that there are no rules with this stuff, it’s messy — but hearing so can be hugely helpful.
When I think about the power that something like The Caring Collective could have for liberating us all from the idea that you can’t talk about things like this, I feel incredibly hopeful — and for someone with experience of managing complex mental health issues — that is no small thing.
It’s likely that I will be caring for my mum in some capacity for a very long time, if we’re lucky. I don’t want that side of my life and everything I’ve learnt to be condemned to the pile of ‘not relevant’ just because it might not fit with what we’ve come to expect. Instead, I want everyone who sees themselves in some of what I describe to know it’s ok to want to share it. It’s ok to take up that space, and I’d actually really love it if you came and joined me.
Kate Oliver is a writer and charity professional, originally from Rotherham in South Yorkshire. Despite migrating south, she still spends a lot of time in the North supporting her mum, who is her inspiration for setting up ‘The Caring Collective’ and sharing her experiences of being a carer. When Kate isn’t in transit, she spends as much time as she can in cold water (but draws the line at the River Don).