Occasionally in life you meet someone who truly inspires you. Someone with a caring attitude who exhibits strength with humility. Elise is one of those people. Her shy and unassuming demeanour hides a toughness that has seen her through the most difficult of times.
Growing up, Elise didn’t realise anything was amiss. She assumed that taking on a parental role for her younger siblings before she was a teenager was perfectly normal. Even caring for her mother, who suffered with undiagnosed mental issues, was not considered unusual. She recalls her mother joking that Elise was the responsible parent while her mother was the wild teenage daughter.
Even when her grandmother arranged for her and her siblings to attend a school holiday program run by HelpingMinds (then Arafmi) for children of parents with a mental illness, Elise saw nothing untoward. She enjoyed the friendships made there. She found it refreshing to be amongst others who had similar issues. “It was great because we didn’t need to talk about it. We just accepted each other.”
It was three years later that Elise finally realised something was amiss. She overheard her grandmother talking about her mother’s problems and a light came on. “This explains everything.”
As a carer for a schizophrenic son, Elise’s grandmother possessed more than average insight into mental illness. She was able to help Elise realise that she had been undertaking the primary carer role and assisted in finding the support she needed through the HelpingMinds organisation, something that Elise considers has been a real asset. “It’s been the weekly meetings that have helped keep me sane.”
But Elise’s resolve and good nature were to be tested further as she began anticipating her move from high school to university. Unbeknown to her, she was about to face her biggest challenge.
Before she turned seventeen her mother announced she was pregnant. With her mother realising she couldn’t manage to look after a new baby a plan was formulated for the baby to be adopted out. Elise’s caring nature came to the fore and she offered to take on the guardianship role of the baby with a view to eventual adoption. They agreed the plan.
Baby Sarah arrived with severe health problems. Sarah was born with Down syndrome and also suffered abnormal holes in her heart. Expected surgery was delayed because of bronchial trouble. Elise found herself desperate to stay with her new sister but schoolwork and preparation for university stood in the way. A carer was arranged through the HelpingMinds respite team. This allowed Elise to attend school and still sit with Sarah during the night and before and after school.
As Elise commenced her university studies Sarah’s health deteriorated. They found further brain damage combined with increasing respiratory problems. Having to deal with repeated admissions to hospital caused Elise to struggle with her work. University was put on hold.
To avoid tensions at home Elise had moved from her mother’s house to a caravan in her grandmother’s back yard. This she had decked out like a mini hospital room to allow for the care of her baby sister. It had all seemed to be going well when Sarah’s health took a dive. The caravan was traded for another lengthy stay in hospital.
In the midst of all this Elise received a nomination for a Young Carer award – part of the Young People who Care Awards – the submission being arranged by the HelpingMinds team. She was excited and even arranged an outfit for Sarah to wear to the ceremony. However, before the announcement was made, Sarah died.
Elise’s resilience was proved during this time. Despite the stresses of Sarah’s funeral and supporting her upset mother, she determined she would attend the ceremony. And in the midst of all this turmoil, she won the award.
Elise still lives in the caravan she had set up for her and her sister. She continues to study and hopes to switch to a nursing degree where she would like to concentrate on paediatrics, ultimately working with special needs kids.
She attends a ‘sixteen- plus’ group at HelpingMinds, saying that Courtney, who has walked alongside her through the journey, has been a real backstop. She speaks highly of the help she has received: “The whole atmosphere at HelpingMinds is, like, very helpful for guiding kids.”
Elise’s outlook on life is positive. To listen to her is truly inspirational.
She maintains that she is not strong. “I had to do it all because mum wasn’t able.” — “Being brought up the way I was, a caring role is all I know what to do.”
She confesses that it feels strange not having anyone to directly look after following Sarah’s death. She still lends a hand with her younger brothers and sisters, and takes time to watch out for her mother’s interests.
But for the first time Elise is allowing herself to engage in a few things for herself. She has managed to find time to paint, being described as ‘quite the artist’ by friends. She has also taken up swimming, and enjoys reading and having the time for a proper study schedule.
Her true passion, though, is caring for others. “It’s therapeutic, having someone to look after.”
Her main tip for anyone else who may be in a similar situation – “Don’t give up – and eat lots of chocolate.”
The economic value of informal mental health caring in Australia
Debbie Childs CEO of HelpingMinds, explains who informal mental health carers are and highlights the key findings from the recent report 'The economic value of informal mental health caring in Australia'. Read more at helpingminds.org.au/the-real-value-of-informal-mental-health-carers/ ... See MoreSee Less
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Individuals pictured are models and are used for illustrative purposes only.