Waheed Akhtar is a successful health and fitness nutrition expert, but he spent much of his childhood looking after his family. He talks to Anna Bragga.
As a 12-year-old boy starting a new life in Halifax, Waheed Akhtar had big dreams.
Moving to Grosvenor Terrace to be closer to relatives sounded like such a good idea. He could never have imagined that within weeks of leaving Pakistan, his brother would have been so badly affected by the culture shock – with devastating consequences.
Waheed’s dad had been in declining health, with undiagnosed symptoms of schizophrenia, which meant he couldn’t work. But somehow his mum managed to hold the family together, caring for a sick husband and five children.
Until, that is, older brother Masood began acting strangely, as Waheed vividly recalls: “He had a schizophrenic episode and thought he was Superman. He would suddenly run out of the house and try and jump off high places believing he could fly, hallucinating massively. He would leave home for days on end and no one knew where he was. For me, a child living in a close-knit Asian community, it was deeply traumatic. In my culture, you look up to your older brother, but I was ashamed of mine.”
Siddal School language teacher, Isabel Wood-Ayub, was quick to spot her pupil’s early grasp of English and academic potential.
Already he was displaying a level of maturity beyond his years.
She says: “A child arriving aged 12 would normally have been expected to stay in a Language Centre for three to four years, but I was determined that Waheed should go to a normal school. So after one year I bullied and threatened the LEA until they moved him to Calder High School.”
The two developed a special bond over evenings huddled around a leaky gas-fire in the family’s cellar kitchen, poring over homework. Looking back, Isabel was a very important figure says Waheed, “she was someone you could go to, almost part of the family.”
The teacher was there in the background as Masood’s unpredictable behaviour descended into violence.
“He was hallucinating and we were trying to calm him down” explains Waheed. “Out of the blue, he picked up an object and hit my mother on the forehead. That was when the police became involved and he was escorted to hospital.”
It was around this time that Isabel abandoned Halifax for London, a move which stripped away a support they’d come to rely on, plunging the family into chaos.
The stress of having to cope alone with two mentally-ill family members pulled his mother into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. That was when Waheed had to forget all about childhood and take on the role of head of the household. He was 14 years-old.
Medical teams came to assist with Masood’s health, but there was never any outside help for the teenager traumatised by his family’s mental illnesses, burdened with heavy emotional and financial responsibilities, house-cleaning and cooking duties for seven people. Not even his school teachers knew.
“In my culture, you just do it,” says Waheed matter-of-factly. “We look after each other. In Asian cultures you’re expected to help each other.”
His father proved a hindrance though. He was against anything that would improve the family’s life, and used to hide the benefit cheque in his suitcase when it arrived, leading to fights with Waheed.
Perhaps if he hadn’t been bullied at school or contracted TB, Waheed would have left with more than a handful of CSEs.
Determined to better his life, he jumped at the chance of staying with Isabel in Southall to continue his studies in London.
His dad tried to block the front door, but Waheed had escaped 10 minutes earlier through the back to a car waiting on Gibbet Street.
The break from home meant he could take on part-time jobs while studying for O-levels, and then a Higher National Diploma in Biological Sciences.
For the first time, Waheed had the chance to enjoy himself, go out and have a social life.
“I met someone and tried to hide that [carer] side of my life”, he says. “It played on my mind and I started drinking. I was trying to lead a double life and it made me ill. I lost myself when I had my first anxiety attack.
“I was in a family setting surrounded by lots of people. Someone confronted me about girls I had been seen with. That day was the fall of my ability to stand up and address a group.”
Life spiralled downwards and he stayed in a lot, unable to face people. Panic attacks happened constantly.
Somewhere between the ages of 16 and 17, he ended up in A&E at Ealing Hospital. It was the first breakdown he’d had, and Isabel was there at his side.
“The doctor gave me diazepam but it made me lose it, so I dropped it,” he recalls. “One day, I was with my brother in a consultation with his psychiatrist. I said: ‘I’m going through a bit of anxiety’, and he suggested a new drug they were trialling called Prozac.
“He described how it works and I went for it. It was a turning point of returning to some sort of normality.”
Sheer determination got him through a degree in biological sciences, he says, paving the way to a career in health. In 2000, with money saved up from taxi work, Waheed bought struggling health food store, Pumpernickel, in Bedford and turned its fortunes around. For the married father-of-three the story has a happy ending, but Yorkshire and Humber remains home to 41,074 under 25s providing unpaid care every week.
Waheed said: “Don’t suffer in silence, talk to people. You are a human being and we all have limitations. You can’t do it all on your own. There are people out there who can tell you where to get help.”
Caring in the UK: Statistics and help
One in eight adults (around 6.5m people) are carers.
By 2037, it’s anticipated that the number of carers will increase to 9m.
Every day another 6,000 people take on a caring responsibility – that equals over two million people each year.
58 per cent of carers are women and 42 per cent are men.
Find out about services for young carers in your area:
Carers Direct: www.nhs.uk/CarersDirect, 0300 123 1053
Support for young carers aged 18 and under is also available at www.youngcarers.net, 0844 800 4361.
For general help contact the national charity Childline, www.childline.org.uk, 0800 1111.