It is a relief to me as a middle aged adult, to finally put a name to the experience I lived during childhood. To say my experience as a young caregiver shaped me into the person I am today is an understatement. As an adult, I am only beginning to comprehend the profound impact that young caregiving continues to have on my life today. What I find amazing as I listen to the childhood stories of other adults, is that young caregiving has always been with us and it comes in many shapes and sizes. Yet no matter what the situational circumstances, the feelings and emotions have a common thread of alone-ness and sadness. These stories are told factually and with resigned acceptance of "I did what needed to be done".
Like me, most adults with these stories do not see themselves as 'young caregivers' at first. You are in a family and you have no choice but to survive so you go on auto-pilot to get through whatever situation faces you and your family. An adolescent experiences so many other things in the outside world that whatever is going on at home is not talked about. Yet it weighs on your mind all the time. You know things are different in your house. You think you are the only one in your circumstances. You might be embarrassed to let anyone know that anything was different for you at all. So nothing is said.
Young caregiver situations can be very different in the actual circumstances but the feelings and thoughts and burdens of worry carried are hauntingly similar. As an adolescent, I did not have the verbal skills to express what was accumulating inside of me. Because there was no visible, tangible 'thing' wrong with my family, I was confused on why things were not 'right' so I took on the responsibility of being the cause and spent a lot of energy in being 'really good' so that things would not explode. I walked a tightrope and 'fixed' things so that explosions would not happen. Then, I waited.
Waiting for the next explosion was an unspoken tension among my siblings. There was no real violence and these explosions were not often. Funny, I just wrote that from my childhood perspective… as a trained professional adult that is an untrue statement. It is difficult to write about my childhood as a young caregiver because it feels disloyal. I am telling my family secrets that I was told to keep "because it is nobody else's business". I am trusting that if just one other young caregiver knows that they are not alone or 'crazy' because their family situation is different then this will be worth it.
How was I a young caregiver? I was 4½ and my brother was 3½ when my 2½ year old sister took sick one day with meningitis and was dead the next day. Childhood came to an end that day for my brother and me as chronic depression and later alcoholism took a grip on our parents. It was all my mother could do to take care of our 1 year old brother while my father struggled to go to work. I became the caregiver to hold things together for everyone involved. Yes, it taught me valuable life skills. But the cost I have paid has been enormous. If I had someone to talk to or if I could have known that I was not alone, life would have been different. On some days, I gain strength from knowing I made it out alive. On other days, I still feel like a casualty. On those days, I just stand still and count my blessings…