In a longer piece, Lois Gallagher reflects on His Dark Materials and her work with young adult carers through Move on Up.
As another dark British winter descended in the midst of a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of us began to spend Sunday evenings taking comfort in the adventures of two young people called Lyra and Will, portrayed sensitively and sumptuously by the BBC in its second series of His Dark Materials (2020), based on Philip Pullman’s best-selling book trilogy (1995 - 2000).
Watching the series, I was particularly interested to see how the BBC would deal with the storyline of Will, a young carer, because I work with young adult carers aged 18-25 in QSA's supportive housing project, Move on Up.
Will is a young man in his early teens, living in Oxford with his mother, who has mental health problems including anxiety, obsessive thoughts and psychotic symptoms. Pullman makes it clear that Will is deeply devoted to his mother and she to him. However, his life is limited by the need to care for her and protect her. Pullman picks up an important theme of how those with chronic mental health issues should not be dismissed as mad, but are often genuinely at risk of exploitation and disadvantage from others. This is a real danger for Will’s Mum, whose paranoia provides a useful smokescreen for the villains of the story to get the secrets they want from her without being held accountable for their crimes.
Will’s father is nowhere to be seen, not, as Will believes, because he is dead, but because he has left the family to go on an expedition and has found an opening into a different world. Will becomes determined to find his father, for personal reasons but also, it transpires, because the future of the whole world depends on it. An epic battle between spiritual forces is underway and both Will and his father are caught up in it.
So much for the big themes. In many ways Will leads a rather mundane life, but his becoming caught up in the epic battle could be seen as a metaphor for what many young carers go through in their struggle to establish an independent sense of self in the midst of their caring role. This is an adventure beset with barriers with which our tenants at Move on Up are very familiar, and something we are constantly exploring in the support relationship I build with them. It is a challenging enough task for any young person to separate from their family of origin and work out an identity of their own as an adult. Being a young carer often makes this process more complicated.
Take Yvonne (not her real name). She is 21 and has been living in one of our shared flats for a year. Her mother has mental health problems and a history of substance misuse. Her father has diabetes and is in very poor health. Yvonne has cared for her father since she was 12. She has also been a key figure in the care of her two youngest siblings. Her parents are separated.
Yvonne comes in to see me on a grey November afternoon. Since March, like many of the population I have been mostly working from home and have had to keep in contact with our tenants by phone, but I go into the almost-deserted office once a week in order to provide face-to-face support for our most vulnerable young adults. I use the world vulnerable as if it is a problem, but actually one of Yvonne’s strengths is an emerging ability to be vulnerable and make connections with people who can help her. It’s a new feeling for her and she likes it, but it’s like flexing an underused muscle to receive help rather than giving it.
We sit two metres apart near an open window, and Yvonne keeps her coat on. We look out of the window at the drizzle. “Apparently there’s an Arctic blast coming!” Yvonne tells me, her eyes widening theatrically. We commiserate rather cheerfully with each other about the stamina required to get through a British winter, especially this one.
Yvonne tells me how things are going. She spends a few days at a time at her dad’s, helping to do his shopping, pick up his medication, cook for him and support him emotionally. He has huge swellings in his feet and is in a lot of pain. She has to watch how much pain medication he takes, as he can sometimes overdose and go into a heavy sleep from which she cannot wake him for hours. He is very thin and struggles to walk. She hates to see him declining in health and having to wait for hospital appointments which are put back because of Covid. A nurse comes for an hour or so once a week, but because of lockdown, there isn’t much professional care available.
When Yvonne comes back to the Move on Up flat, she exhales. She sleeps, takes long showers, does yoga, cooks for herself and chats to her flatmate. We explore her feelings of being strongly pulled in two different directions: “I want so badly to be by myself,” she says, “and I want so badly to help my dad. I worry all the time about whether he is OK. Then when I’m with him for a while I get so fed up and feel I’m at breaking point.” It can feel like an internal battle of epic proportions.
Yvonne doesn’t really speak to her mum at the moment. They fell out when her mum’s stress levels rocketed during the first lockdown and she started drinking again and became violent during an argument. Yvonne calls her Mum just to check in and make sure the kids are okay.
We think together about how much you can take on other people’s problems. There has to be a space between you being you and other people being other people. Young carers can often get merged, in their minds, with the person or people they care for and find it hard to establish an autonomous self. You can be responsible for some things and not others, I say. Yvonne tells me her dad is stubborn, and can’t talk about how he feels, and gets depressed, and this frustrates her. But she knows that she can’t make everything better for him. You can’t take on the task of saving the whole world, though at times, as the eldest of five siblings, she feels the whole world is on her shoulders. She knows she has a tendency to hold it all in and not ask for help when she needs it. It’s not surprising that this is how she learned to navigate her life.
In His Dark Materials, Will discovers a magical tool called the Subtle Knife, which he is destined to inherit and which opens the door into other worlds. But in gaining possession of the knife he sustains an injury which takes a long time to heal. Pullman has shared in interviews that much of his work is deliberately metaphorical. He seems particularly interested in what it means for young people to grow up, what the psychological tasks are and the risks you have to take to achieve them.
It can be hard for young adult carers to find the tools they need to grow into their potential and make an independent life for themselves. Separating psychologically and physically from their family of origin can be very painful. The roles have often been confused during the years of caring: who is playing the parental role, and who is the child? Where should the young adult place their boundaries? How do they combine a continuing relationship with the family with a sense of moving forward into their own independent living, learning, working, making adult relationships and perhaps starting a family of their own? This task is fraught with risks. Perhaps their parent will become more ill without so much care from them. Perhaps the burden will fall more heavily on a younger sibling. Perhaps everyone will feel the emotional pain of things having to change, with words said in both directions that can cause hurt. Will has to leave his beloved mother behind for a while in order to find himself and his destiny, and in some ways our tenants have to do the same.
Yvonne has just started an apprenticeship, which has been somewhat halted by the pandemic, but is partially continuing in the form of online classes three mornings a week. She manages to carve out time to dial into Zoom and do some learning for her future. She is really enjoying it. There have been some negotiations between herself and her sister, who is at sixth-form college, and cares for their Dad while Yvonne is studying. She has her own classes and coursework to complete. They are just about managing to juggle it between themselves. It’s really important that their teachers understand what their caring responsibilities are and how caring is not just time-consuming but emotionally demanding, and that this can affect their studies. Without understanding and support, many young carers drop out of education and struggle to establish a professional life. An important part of Move on Up is helping the tenant explore their learning and work identity, get to know their strengths and build their confidence to push through into personal, professional and financial achievements. There are big ups and downs on this journey, especially this year, with multiple furloughing, redundancies and rising unemployment for the young.
The psychotherapist Margot Waddell, in her book Inside Lives (2001), describes late adolescence as a time of “separation…of having to be independent as never before. It is a time of hope and expectation, but for many, also of extreme sadness and distress, and even of breakdown for the few who find themselves unequal to the task.”
She goes on to say that this process is “deeply affected by the extent to which the parent…can bear to relinquish their children and to help them on their way.”
As a parent of a 12-year old myself, I am already seeing glimmers of how this will be difficult over the next few years. I suspect no parent finds this process easy, but it is especially hard in the families of the young adults we work with where there is so much need. Our tenants’ parents often struggled with their own transition to adulthood, and inherited difficulties from their parents as well as facing a cascade of disadvantages from society. It’s not about apportioning blame, but about compassionately recognising the extra challenges that some young people face as part of what is a universal, painful, and hopefully exciting stage in development.
Pullman captures this struggle in the character of Will. The BBC adaptation has come at a salient point in our global and local experience. Growing up in 2020 has been made harder than any of us could have predicted. We have faced a crisis different from that of the bears, witches and scholars of Pullman’s story, but no less frightening and destabilising. At least we have brilliant creative people who can tell the stories that help us make meaning of it all. As we pull wearily into 2021, we must protect the artistic and compassionate parts of our society found in writers, actors, creatives, charity projects and public services so that young people like Yvonne have the chances they deserve and the opportunities to make sense of it all.
Yvonne and I talk about how important it is that young carers get their stories told and their voices heard. She says she would like to tell her story more widely. Perhaps we’ll write something together, I suggest. She nods. Perhaps.
Yvonne and I finish our meeting. “I’m not even sure if it’s helpful for you to hear this,” I say, “but I do think you’re amazing. I think of you as one of those swans on the canal, gliding along gracefully but under the water, furiously paddling for dear life. I think you are going to look back in 20 years and have so much understanding and empathy for others going through what you went through.”
She looks at me thoughtfully. “Yes,” she says, “I think I am amazing. I am a strong young woman.” She manages to escape both false modesty and grandiosity, stating it simply, as fact.
I smile. “I’m glad you think so,” I say.
His Dark Materials. (2020). BBC One. Cardiff: Bad Wolf.
Pullman, P. (1995 - 2000) His Dark Materials. New York: Scholastic Corporation.
Wadall, M. (2001) Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Growth of the Personality. London: Karnac Books.