Ros Wiggins has cared for her mum since childhood. After being diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder in her 20s, she understood the impact her upbringing had on her wellbeing
When I was nine, I started caring for my mum with special needs. But it wasn’t until I was about 13 that I realised it was causing me severe anxiety. When I first started caring for mum, I was decorating the house, cooking and did the cleaning. One day when I was 11 or 12, my mum asked me to dye her hair for her when there was a knock at the door. It was the police. They said, “We need your mum to come to the station. She hasn’t paid her TV licence.” It wasn’t her fault, but she couldn’t deal with her finances. I used to worry about things like that. It was like I was the adult because mum didn’t know how to look after us. She tried her best, but I brought myself up.
I’ve got two older brothers. My oldest brother was always out with his friends – I think that was his way of dealing with his childhood. My middle brother has special needs as well, and went to boarding school because he was quite disruptive and my mum couldn’t cope with him. He used to come home at holidays and weekends, but I’d feel anxious because he’d take my stuff so I couldn’t really have anything of my own.
I didn’t have a dad growing up, so I missed that nurturing and emotional connection where you can just talk to your parents. I think all the stress and worry of dealing with my mum’s finances and her wellbeing, as well as trying to look after myself emotionally, just became too much and I exploded. I don’t blame my mum, but I just wanted what most children do: your mum, your dad and your family. I didn’t have that emotional need filled as a child.
I didn’t realise the impact it had on me until I got older and started noticing feeling anxious when I went out. I felt worried about everything and had to be one step ahead. It was like being in the fast lane and your mind’s constantly on the go so you never get a moment’s rest.
I kept it to myself as a teenager and didn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling, because I didn’t really understand what was happening to me. My mum’s a bit like a child so I couldn’t talk to her about it. We don’t have a normal mother-daughter relationship where you can talk to each other about most things. I felt quite alone really. It was only when I got older that I started looking for help.
I've missed out on so much because of my anxieties and now I'm getting older I don't want to let them hold me back anymore
When I was in my early 20s, I went back and forth to the doctor saying I was anxious about every little thing, over-worrying when I went out and felt like it was getting out of control. I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and they gave me lots of different antidepressants. Some people are fine on them, but I had some really bad side effects. I thought, “I’ve got to do something else.”
I went to talking therapies on and off for a few years, and I think it’s really good that the NHS provides the service, but it isn’t for everyone. You can only see a counsellor for so long, so you’d just get used to them and start feeling comfortable when they’d say, “You’ve got to refer yourself again if you want to come back for more treatment.” The hardest thing with being a carer is reaching out to other people and asking for help, because you’re so used to helping others. It’s hard to change and say to people, “Can you help me?” In the end, I thought, “I’m going to have to do something myself.” So that’s when I looked for a private counsellor.
Some counsellors do a free consultation, which is really good to get an idea of whether they’re the right person for you. I tried a few but they weren’t quite right, and I gave up for a while because I thought I’d never find someone. Eventually I gave it one last go. I still wasn’t 100% sure for the first couple of sessions, but I persevered. Now I’ve stuck to it, I’ve realised it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
I’m on a low income so I was worried about going private, but I know it’s important. It’s my own me-time to talk about how I’m feeling. It’s really helping me so far, and I’m glad that after all this time I’ve found someone who understands.
I’m still caring for my mum and I’ve taken over her finances, paying all her bills. I do her shopping, and cook for her most days. She’s 83 now, so she’s got a few health problems as well. I love her to bits, but sometimes it sounds like I’m moaning because I can get really stressed with her. That’s when I know I need to take a little space, but it’s hard to break the habit when you’ve trained your mind to visit her so often.
She gets in funny moods a lot, and consciously I know she doesn’t understand how her behaviour’s affecting me, but subconsciously my mind’s taken that in over the years. She’s a very anxious person herself so she needs lots of reassuring, and because I’m saying the same thing over and over again it does bring me down. As soon as I get to the door, I can feel my stress level going up. It can be draining to be a carer, but it’s important to make sure you look after yourself because if you’re not well enough to be able to look after them, then who will?
I know some people can’t leave the person they’re caring for so I do feel fortunate that I’m able to. That doesn’t mean to say I’m not constantly worrying about her. Mum’s recently been diagnosed as partially blind – age-related macular dryness – and it can’t be treated so her eyesight’s going to get worse.
On a positive note, I’m a lot better than I was. I used to get worked up weeks ahead of an event, physically shaking and sat there wondering what’s wrong with me. But now I’m aware of my triggers and understand why I feel that way. I think your mind can only take so much stress and trauma before it thinks, “fight-or -flight”. But I’ve found the more that I go out and try things, the more my anxiety goes down. No matter how hard it is, you’ve got to face it, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
We don't have a normal mother-daughter relationship where you can talk to each other about most things. I felt quite alone really
I’m proud of myself because I’ve done a lot of things in the last couple of years that I never would have a few years ago. I went on an aeroplane for the first time with my son Carl, my daughter Emma, and their partners. The doctor gave me some diazepam just in case, but I felt so proud because I didn’t need it. My family were so supportive and really helped me. I’ve missed out on so much because of my anxieties; now I’m getting older I don’t want to let them hold me back anymore. I saw this as a challenge and thought, “I’m going to do it.”
Throughout everything, my family have been my rock. I’ve brought my two children up on my own. I’m 53 now, but I’ve had so much happen in my life, not just with my mum, but my mental health and other problems. The good thing that’s come out of it is that I think I’m a better, more understanding person for it.
I want people to realise there are people who care, and people out there who can help you. Don’t feel like you’ve got to struggle alone. If I hadn’t pushed myself, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve got a long way to go, but I know that I’m improving and getting there. There is hope.
Fe Robinson, MUKCP (Reg.), MBACP (Reg.) psychotherapist and clinical supervisor, writes: “Ros’s resilience has helped her overcome patterns from her past. She has faced her anxiety so that it doesn’t limit her so much. Finding the right counsellor is important, and trusting your own judgement on that matters.”