Battling tragedy to become role model for carers

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When Kirsty Gill was 14, the sudden death of her grandmother rocked her family.

Grief sent her mother into the grip of depression, which was compounded when her father left.

Although the youngest of four siblings, responsibility fell to Kirsty and she has cared for her mother and widower grandfather, who has cancer, ever since.

“It was pretty hard because I was always a daddy’s girl and I didn’t really feel I could speak to anyone,” she says. “I felt like I had to grow up straight away.

“Some days my mum could be in bed all day and not come out of her room and if things needed doing, someone was going to have to do it and it would have to be me.”

As well as cooking, cleaning and helping with the bills, Kirsty has supported her mother through the suicide of her partner, and helped her through periods when her mother felt suicidal herself.

“It’s awful. You don’t feel good enough,” she says.

“She has said I’m not enough to live for, that I’m not a worthy reason, but you’ve just got to ignore it because you know it’s not her talking, it’s the depression.”

By the time Kirsty was 16, the situation at home had got so bad, she made the difficult decision to move out and live by herself.

“I couldn’t stay there,” she says.

“That was hard. I’ve had the struggle of getting my own house and getting my own stuff, then I’ve always got the worry of how my mum’s doing.”

She lost contact with her mother for two months around that time but they are now back in touch.

“I look up to her because I see how much she’s been through and she’s still here,” she says.

“I admire her for that, but sometimes I wish she could see from my point of view.”

As well as looking after her mother and accompanying her to medical appointments, every day Kirsty makes the two-hour round trip from her home in Farnley, Leeds, to her grandfather’s house in Wakefield to help with his housework and bills and keep him company.

He has been battling cancer and also suffers from diabetes, angina and residual pain from a bout of shingles.

With so much to juggle, she began to act out at school, where she felt ashamed to speak up about the worries forever on her mind.

“When I was about 14 or 15, I started being really rebellious. It was annoying me that I had to be so quiet at home – at school I felt like I had to be so quiet again and I didn’t want to be,” she said.

“I actually felt ashamed because of what I had to deal with at home and didn’t tell any one.

“I never saw my friends – I didn’t have time but I felt guilty if I was having fun because mum wasn’t.

“Other kids at school would moan because they wanted new clothes – I just wanted my mum to get better.”

Despite the difficulties she faced, she has excelled academically. She passed her GCSEs at just 14 and had sat her A-Level maths exam by the age of 16.

She is now studying for more A- Levels in law, business and sociology at Park Lane College.

Her success in the face of adversity was this year recognised with a Sue Ryder Young Woman of Achievement award.

“Some days I used to stay in school until about 9pm on my own just doing work,” she says.

“I knew that if I whinged I wouldn’t get very far. I don’t say why me, I just say why not me?

“Most days I have a positive attitude but the hardest part is remembering what it was like before my mum got ill.

“I never cried because I thought if my mum sees me she’ll think I’m weak and won’t lean on me anymore. And that wouldn’t have helped anyone.”

Now Kirsty has found support through the Willow Leeds Young Carers’ group run by Barnardo’s, where she is described as a role model to other young carers.

When she turns 18 she will return as a volunteer to help other young people in her position.

“They might see it as they can talk to me a bit better because I’ve been through the same thing,” she says.