The 10th anniversary of Our Time holds a special meaning for me. As a nine-year-old girl struggling to process her mother’s illness, absence, and a new baby sister, I attended one of the first KidsTime groups in Camden. A family-centred group where we could create movies and eat pizza was the kids’ idea of a dream. Little did I know, at that point, how much Our Time would help me through the next years of my life.
To be honest, I’m not even sure that I knew, when I first joined the KidsTime sessions, why my family had been chosen to attend. Trying to explain the concept of a mental illness to a child was a difficult feat that few of the adults around me dared to attempt. I remember being told that my mum was in hospital, and that it wasn’t her fault. I didn’t understand why it ever would be her fault that she was in hospital, or mine, which I was also reminded of daily. The topic of mental illness was, and remains to this day, a taboo subject for the adult world. But kids don’t understand taboo, so I was left wondering about the weird behaviour and sudden absence of my mum. Why had she spent all day in her room? Why, when I came in to give her a hug and turn the light on, did she shout and throw things at me? Why, one afternoon on the drive back from school, did my dad tell me she had been taken away in an ambulance, that she wasn’t well? And why was I not able to visit her?
KidsTime was the first place where my questions were actually answered. There was none of the awkwardness that the adults around me radiated when I brought up the topic of my mum at the KidsTime sessions. It was the first time where my mum’s illness was finally given a name – bipolar disorder – and where my role was labelled as a young carer. Finally, the experiences that I had been struggling with internally, holding a confusing sense of shame that I didn’t properly understand, were normalised and shared by the children and families around me. I wasn’t the odd one out anymore. I fit in.
I was already an extremely curious child, with a passion for acting and performing, so discovering these topics through theatre allowed me to engage with my experiences in a different way. Through the process of brainstorming, filming, and then casting our homemade movies to the adults, I was able to express the thoughts and emotions I didn’t feel able to tell my parents directly. I can’t speak for their experiences, but from conversations I’ve had with both my mum and dad, it seems like the adult discussion sessions held in the other room were just as therapeutic.
I don’t think I ever realised how lucky I was to have that support system at the time, and how much it meant to me. I have always put a guard up when it comes to discussing my mum’s illness and the effect it’s had on me. To an extent, I’ve always had to. The stigma surrounding the topic of mental illness makes it that much harder to have open conversations about it. Unfortunately, the responsibility of its awkward nature is too often directed back onto the person struggling. From a young age, I trained myself to make light of my situation, to not make the other person feel uncomfortable, to not engage too emotionally with my experiences, for fear of scaring people off. For me, KidsTime was a place of refuge, away from the judgement and awkwardness of the outside world.
I’m now 19 years old, in my first year at the University of Edinburgh, somewhere I’m not sure I would be had it not been for the support that Our Time gave me as a child. But there are so many other children in this country who deserve to have been given the same opportunities that I have – to be listened to, and to have a place that is just for them, where they get a break from the responsibility of having a parent struggling with a mental illness. A place where they can be a kid again.