It’s 9.52pm and the clock ticks towards tomorrow’s deadline. I turn to my laptop, but then my phone buzzes and my younger sister’s name flashes across the screen. Other people would ignore it, but for me this is not an option. My sister has myalgic encephalopathy (ME) and was recently hospitalised for the second time in a year – the day after I returned to university. With one hand, I answer the phone. With the other, I start drafting an email to my tutor asking for an extension.
I’m a student – but I’m also a carer.
My life straddles two worlds: the bubble of student life and another one of hospital appointments, physiotherapy, feeding, lifting, showering and more. It is one of meticulous balance that often descends into conflict: during term time I am consumed with guilt at not being there for my sister, then I worry about exams and neglecting revision when I’m finally home.
The NUS estimates that between 3% and 6% of students in the UK combine study with caring responsibilities. In reality, it’s probably more. I didn’t realise I counted as a “carer” until four years into my sister’s illness, as I applied to university and wondered how I could possibly talk about this extra responsibility which my friends didn’t seem to have.
Even once you do recognise that you are a carer, it’s another challenge asking for support. I found multiple barriers, from the emotional difficulties and shame I felt about struggling to the fact that I didn’t even know what kind of support I could ask for.
When I met my personal tutor in freshers’ week, we chatted about the usual practicalities of the course before the classic: “any questions?” I stumbled over the rage of concerns in my head: my little sister at home, how I didn’t know if it would impact me here, how I didn’t know if my family would cope without me. I thought that if I started trying to explain everything I would cry, which was not the first impression I had in mind. And if I’m honest, part of me even worried that the university might not want me if they knew what was happening at home. “No, not at all,” came my reply, a smile fixed to my face. “Everything is fine.”