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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness


My story: Being a young carer




I have recently watched a very helpful lecture by Dr Alan Cooklin, a leading psychiatrist on mental health, entitled "The impact of parental mental health on children" .


I was moved and touched by his work and have decided to write to you to share my experience of growing up with a mother with mental illness, who was only diagnosed when I was 20. This meant that we did not have any access to any support groups or care by any outside agency, i.e. social workers or doctors; and only had ourselves to fall back on with long lasting damaging effects on our lives. I am now at a stage where I would like to share my story in the hope that others may benefit from this. 

Having seen Dr Alan Cooklin's lecture, I felt compelled to get in touch with various mental health charities, in an attempt to try and tell someone who understands what children must go through, about my story. I have looked for years for a support group for people who may have gone through similar circumstances to mine, but have failed miserably as I was no longer living at home and not considered a carer anymore; although the effects and scars have stayed with me till this day. 

I was born in Iraq, both my parents are of Iraqi origin, however we lived in Libya until I was 13. We experienced the US bombings of the early 1980s and economic sanctions imposed at the time. We were extremely isolated, in general, due to the differences in culture between Iraqis and Libyans. However, any family friends of Iraqi origin, that we had during my early years, have all but gone, one by one, they stopped talking to us because of my mother's bizarre behaviour.

By the age of six years old I started to find letters under my pillow at night telling me that I was evil and would burn in hell. At the age of seven, my mother disowned me in a family meeting that she held with my sister and I.  This was the most frightening of all experiences at the time as I had no one to turn to. I often cried for hours in the shower so no one could hear me. The water falling on me was the only thing soothing the pain that was indescribable.

I have one sister who is two years older. Mum was often physically violent to her and psychologically abusive to both of us. She believed strongly that she was a prophet and that she was being persecuted by people and our father, so we had to promise never to tell him. She often preached about us burning in hell if we did not "obey" her. We were frightened of her shadow.

Our father lived in denial and we never discussed what was happening to us in his presence. He never asked us how we felt and never sought help for mother. He was a lecturer and was often extremely involved with his work and the political issues going on at the time. As the years went by, we became even more isolated, in a culture where women cannot go out on their own, we relied heavily on our father to even provide the most basic of supplies and feminine products. We had no access to books or magazines, basic knowledge of how our bodies changed as we grew up was absent. This was not just a cultural matter, as we were from a family that was educated and it was the norm to finish education to a university degree. 

However, discussions with each other or our mother about what happens in adolescence were completely distorted and confusing or simply non existent. We were not allowed school friends and hardly any contact with the outside world. Although we did go on holidays abroad a lot, the reality was, we lived under constant fear as we did not know when our mother was unwell. She often tortured me mentally and force fed me food that made me very ill indeed. 

Mother kidnapped my sister and I without my father's knowledge and took us to Iraq in July 1990. We experienced a terrible time as my aunties seemed to behave in a similar way to her and now I believe they have the same illness my mother suffers from, although none have been diagnosed or received any medical attention. We evacuated and went back to Libya to live with my father as Iraq started its invasion of Kuwait. 

We came to England when I was 13 years old in December 1991. This was most traumatic, as we were not allowed to say goodbye to our friends and had to leave in the middle of the night. Yet my father seemed to keep in touch with all his friends from then. 

I was extremely bullied in school, did not speak any English and my sister and mother said it was my fault. We experienced racial harassment and got attacked several times. The police were unhelpful as this was deemed juvenile crime. Once again, we were isolated at a time when we needed help the most. 

My father was extremely paranoid and suspicious of anyone we approached and would not allow me to see the GP on my own until I rebelled at the age of 17 years old. We never had any help or access to support groups as our father monitored every move we made. He was extremely controlling, more so than many Arab men who would at least let their daughters have friends around; and this was only achieved after very damaging arguments I had with him. 

My mother deteriorated badly and became physically violent towards me. I ran away from home at the age of 18 and lived in a hostel for homeless people. For the ten years that followed, I moved from home to home and lived with people who often misused alcohol and drugs. I suffered terribly and my own health deteriorated. I attempted to commit suicide twice at the age of 19. 

My mother finally received medical attention when the police and other authorities were alerted to her behaviour. My father was forced to admit there were problems. She was sectioned and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Sadly, our problems have not ended there as she refused to accept help, but agreed to take her medication. My father still lives in denial and often says what she did was normal. 

Our family had broken apart and my sister and I have always had our differences, which left me scarred and deeply hurt. 

I am now 35 years old, with a degree in business, worked in the financial and banking sector for several years and am a qualified financial adviser. I am happily married to a wonderful English husband and his family have taken me in and provided me with all the love I have craved all my life. However, there is a deep pain that still resides within me, I feel I have totally lost my childhood and all my teen years. I continued to suffer for years afterwards and struggled to build my life. 

I have read several books on schizophrenia but found that there is a huge gap in the market about children who grew up with parents of mental illness, especially for ethnic minorities where alcohol and drugs are not part of the picture. I was also a carer for my mother, since the age of 7 years old, until I left home at 18. However, I continued to be involved in her care and visiting often. However, sadly, she is deteriorating again as no one from the social services or psychiatric team visits her or arranges for her to attend community support groups. This is mainly because she denies that she is unwell and refuses any interaction with the outside world because she believes everyone is evil and out to get her. My father sadly allows her to continue with this belief and does not seek further medical attention. He lives in isolation and seems to have lost touch with reality and how to behave in a social situation. Both of my parents are now in their 60s and 70s.

I felt that that the lecture cited above was extremely helpful. However, this assumes that help has been accessible and the children featured can attend such groups and be seen by a psychiatrist, who truly understands what they must be going through. Sadly, we had no such intervention, and experienced the full-blown effects of growing up with a mentally ill parent until adulthood.

I feel that by sharing my story with you, I can understand things better about what happened to us and help me heal. Perhaps, others can benefit from my experience as well. 


Mrs LS

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