For Carers Week 2020 one of our local Time to Change Champions has shared her story on how her teachers and kind strangers checking in with her and offering support helped her to stay well and thrive whilst being a young carer for a parent.
“Being a young carer was an incredibly complex time for me.
Growing up, I was an emotional young carer for one of my parents. My parent was quite isolated, so often shared a lot of feelings, emotions, and worries with me. These would be around financial difficulties, relationships, and suicidal feelings. I’ve always been a very caring and sensitive person, so it felt natural to try and help. But I struggled immensely.
I only realised that I was a young carer when I spoke with my teacher.
I was always in the assistant head teacher’s office – not because I was in trouble, but because I struggled to cope with my mental health and needed someone to talk to. Ms Morgan changed my life.
Even in spite of a heavy workload and a ton of senior responsibilities, she always made time for me, regardless of whether it was to listen, offer practical help, or make me laugh.
When I talked about my home life, she wondered if I’d be eligible for help as a young carer. I’d always associated the term ‘carer’ with those who looked after the terminally ill, so this was quite strange to hear! I brushed it off, because I wasn’t doing anything above the norm – was I? I was just helping my parent because no one else could.
She asked me if I’d like to chat with someone regardless, and I said yes. A lady from the charity Barnardo’s came in to sit with me and Ms Morgan, and I told her about my home life. She confirmed that I was definitely a young carer, and Barnardo’s could help.
It was a lot to process, and I felt guilty for receiving help when I felt my parent needed it more. But now I’m an adult with hindsight, I realise it was sorely overdue.
I was assigned a case worker, Nicki, who would take me out for a meal each week so I could have some time out to chat about life. I always looked forward to these outings, as it provided time just for me. Plus, having food paid for you is always an exciting treat!
Nicki went above and beyond for me, securing funding so that I could have a more normal teenage life. Barnardo’s gave me money to buy a gym membership, a ballet class membership, coffee shop vouchers and clothes shop vouchers so that I could do some ‘normal’ teenage things. It was both empowering and liberating, but inevitably came with contradicting feelings.
I was overjoyed to have space to talk about my own mental health problems but felt immensely guilty that my parent didn’t have the same. I really enjoyed my time with Barnardo’s but felt like I was betraying my parent. I felt proud to help them but crushed under the weight of my caring role. I wanted so badly to help my parent but lacked the skills or tools to help them overcome suicidal feelings, financial worries, or relationship problems.
I don’t think these feelings ever go away – they haven’t for me, anyway. But I know that the help I was given by Ms Morgan, Nicki, Barnardo’s and their donors, made the world of change for me, and for that I will always be endlessly grateful.
Why does showing kindness matter?
We all benefit from receiving acts of kindness, no matter how small or large the gesture. Whether it’s your friend paying for your coffee, your other half treating you to a takeout or even just a stranger smiling at you, all these things can benefit our mental health. But how often do we reciprocate these acts of kindness?
There’s nothing more exciting to me than receiving surprise post. Some of my closest friends and I have a small unspoken system where we occasionally send each other cards or presents as a surprise, and it’s something I really value. It’s on some of my lowest days that my friends’ thoughtful tokens have dropped through the letterbox and completely changed my mood, so I appreciate how transformative random acts of kindness can be.
It’s for that exact reason why I love giving more than I love receiving. Overall, it just feels wonderful to show a loved one that they have someone who listens, cares, and loves them. It’s also a way to keep busy in my down times, as allows me the opportunity to be creative with ideas and show them that the small things really matter.
Having lived with mental health problems since childhood, I take the mental health of those around me seriously. If I can help improve an already good day, or remind someone that they’re loved and needed, then that means everything to me.
The science of kindness
They say a problem shared is a problem halved. If that’s the case, happiness shared is happiness doubled. Before his death in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher McCandless wrote: “happiness [is] only real when shared”, and it’s something I think is really important to remember.
Being kind costs nothing and can reap so many benefits for the recipient. But did you know that you benefit too?
Various studies show that if you perform just one random act of kindness a day, your body’s levels of stress, anxiety, and depression will decrease, while calming, happy hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin will increase. Not only will you get a rush of endorphins, but your confidence will improve too.
The best part is that both this feeling and this random act of kindness is contagious. When we perform an act of kindness, that person is going to feel good and want to carry it on. Let me prove it to you: read about the ‘pay-it-forward’ chain that lasted for 10 hours in a Floridian Starbucks, or discover more about Ashley Jost’s story of receiving kindness and spreading it all over her town in a butterfly effect.
Showing compassion can changes lives forever
I believe that random acts of kindness can change the world forever, and I’m not the only one. Think about the moment Princess Diana shook the hand of a man with AIDS, or the Christmas truce between French, German and British soldiers during World War I which saw them exchanging gifts, taking photographs, and playing football together.
When you think about it, these acts of kindness were only small. Playing a game of football or shaking someone’s hand may not mean much in isolation, but the implications of these acts were enormous, and sent ripples around the world.
Growing up, I always had the worst self-esteem.
My guilt complex was like a huge bag of boulders on my back, weighing me down every day. I felt bad for occupying space, for getting in the way, for doing the wrong thing, and completely spiralled into catastrophe if I upset anyone or got into an argument.
By the time I reached my teenage years, the weight of this guilt had permanently damaged me. I beat myself up for any little thing: for saying the wrong thing, wearing the wrong clothes, not being able to do something.
I told myself I was broken, embarrassing, and stupid. It was like I’d split into two people, and one Seren was beating the other to a squidgy pulp; my inner monologue destroyed any sense of worth I may have previously had.
Because I’d lived with this guilt and self-hatred for so long, it’s almost as if I didn’t realise it was there. Over the years I have been working to remove the bag of boulders and ease my back into a proud and upright position, but naturally this takes time.
By identifying my negative automatic thoughts (NATs) in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and learning to interrupt the negative cycle of self-hatred, I have been able to improve my mental health, set healthy boundaries, and navigate life in a happier way.
I can now say, in total honesty, that learning to be kind to myself has helped me love my life and take stock of the small things, which is why I believe self-compassion is vital and needs to be taught from birth!
Why does self-compassion matter?
Being kind to ourselves can be a hard task, especially if we’re living with a mental health problem.
It’s all too easy to call ourselves stupid, pull at our tummies, or criticise ourselves in ways we would never speak to another human being. But what does it do in the long run?
Our self-esteem lowers, our depression and anxiety heighten, and to quote The Perks of Being A Wallflower, “we accept the love we think we deserve.”
We would never speak to a friend the way we do ourselves, so how do we justify the harshness?
We’re so quick to judge and shame ourselves that we never take the time to question whether we really deserve it. The matter of the fact is, we don’t.
So, what do we do? We start by transforming our inner monologue from a harsh, unforgiving menace into an encouraging and supporting friend. Trust me: our lives and mental health will become all the better for it.
The science of self-kindness
The Universities of Exeter and Oxford found in a study that taking part in self-compassion exercises calms the heart rate and switches off the body’s threat response, which was seen in previous studies to damage the immune system. Consequently, researchers believe that the benefits of self-compassion may lower the risk of disease, which can only be a good thing!
Furthermore, the study found that the research group that focussed on a critical inner voice exhibited increased heart rates, a higher sweat response, and feelings of threat and distress, whereas the group who were asked to be kind to themselves felt more self-compassion, connection with others, relaxation and safety, while also exhibiting a lower heart rate and sweat response.
How do you become easy on yourself?
Turning your inner fiend into a friend is tough, no doubt about it, but there are things you can try! Have a go at one of these, and see how you feel afterwards:
Grab your notes app, or a piece of paper, and create a list with numbers 1-10. Next to each number, write I am, and complete the sentence with a positive word that describes what you are. It may take some time, but be patient with yourself and really consider what it is that you like about yourself, or what your friends and loved ones like about you. You’ll be surprised at the things you come up with! Repeat this every day for a week and see if anything changes – the words on the paper, or the way you start to view yourself.
This is a CBT methodology, which essentially involves the following: you identify a negative thought, such as “I’m such an idiot.” You take it to court for being a distorted thought and go through the defence and prosecution procedure. What does the defence say to convince the jury that it isn’t a distorted thought? What does the prosecution say to convince the jury that it is a distorted thought?
Write a letter to yourself 5 or 10 years ago. What advice would you give them? What have you achieved since then? Tell them all the things you’ll learn, go through, and achieve. It’s a fantastic way to remind yourself of all the amazing things you’re capable of!
Practice makes perfect
Challenging our thoughts and changing their patterns will take time, so your first act of self-compassion is to be patient with yourself. Maybe keep a list where you’ll see it, with questions like:
Whenever I call myself something nasty, I try to immediately follow it up with a retraction and a supportive comment. For example:
“I’m an idiot for not knowing this before. Wait, no – I’m not an idiot, and shouldn’t call myself an idiot. This is brand new information, so I can’tt be expected to know this. I am learning, and I’m proud of myself for it.”
Remember: you deserve kindness, and you deserve to like yourself. When we learn to love ourselves, our mental health can only flourish.
Why should we be kind to those we don’t know?
Growing up, we’re all told never to talk to strangers. If you’re a child, make sure you listen to that instruction! But as adults, we can break protocol every now and then when safety dictates to be kind to those we don’t know. Why? Because it’s a good thing to do and can even save lives.
John Bunyan famously said, “you have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you,” which I think is a beautiful sentiment (if not a little pressuring!). Think about acts like buying a Big Issue or donating to a local charity. If you’re not in the position to do that, though, don’t worry. Random acts of kindness don’t have to be big, and definitely don’t have to cost any money – sometimes it’s best when they don’t.
Fundamentally, helping someone who can’t give us anything in return is a good way to live your life. Having been in a position of need at various points throughout life, it’s been the unpayable generosity of others that have lifted me to higher planes.
I’ve experienced lots of random acts of kindness over the years. When I started university, I was in a tricky spot as my guarantor for my accommodation had fallen through, which I only learned as I arrived at the letting office to pick up the keys.
It was excruciatingly embarrassing to ask my boyfriend’s parents for help. They were my only option, but they’d only known me for a few months, and it was a huge ask to make them responsible for any rent I missed. But they agreed to help me and happily signed the documents for my entire degree. I wouldn’t have been able to move in without their help, and it’s something I’ll always remember.
Stories of kindness of strangers
I believe kindness makes the world go around. Last year, when I was traveling to Turkey, I went to a Pret in Stansted Airport for a well needed cup of tea. I was in a wheelchair as my chronic illness was quite bad at the time, and the barista decided to give me my order for free.
It wasn’t a pity token; at least it didn’t feel like it! The barista was so smiley, helpful and kind, it really made my day and has stayed with me one year on.
When I’m in visible pain – for example, using my walking stick on public transport – it’s the random acts of kindness from strangers that make the biggest difference. Offering me their seat or asking if I need help with my luggage is the kind of act which stays with me forever.
There are so many wonderful stories all over the globe about the kindness of strangers. Here are some of my favourites:
After nearly 20 years of companionship, Unger discovered that Schoep had severe arthritis and was close to needing to be put down. The man had heard of water therapy helping people with arthritis, so he started to take his best friend for floats in the lake, which enjoyed higher than average temperatures in the summer.
The soaks helped to ease Schoep of his symptoms and his limp and brought tears to millions of people on the internet.
“It’s such an unusual circumstance to do this,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live, “and there are lots of situations where you couldn’t, and shouldn’t and wouldn’t – but I think in this situation there were so many factors.
“There were no animals going to suffer by intervening. It wasn’t dangerous. You weren’t touching the animals and it was just felt by doing this… they had the opportunity to not have to keep slipping down the slope.”” – BBC News
Dewayne Brown served 12 years and 62 days in prison for a crime he didn’t commit before being exonerated – 10 of those years were on death row. Stolarz is still fighting for Brown to receive compensation from the state of Texas, and people from all over the globe are coming together to help tide him over.
The story rippled all over the world, and hundreds of people contributed to a crowdfunder that raised over $150k for Harris.
What can I do for a random act of kindness?
There are so many things you can do as a random act of kindness, that could help change the world – or someone’s world, even if just by a little bit. Here are some ideas to help guide you:
No matter how big or small, your actions can make someone’s day, week, year. It can even save someone’s life.
Share your kindness this #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek!
The Portsmouth and Southampton Time to change hub is delivered in partnership by Southampton City Council and Portsmouth City Council, co-ordinated by Solent Mind.
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