Thu | Jan 24, 2019

Teenager struggles as the only caregiver for her mentally ill father

Published:Sunday | April 12, 2015 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris
Sasha, the 17-year-old who has to take care of her mentally ill father.
Sasha, the 17-year-old who has to take care of her mentally ill father.

Taking care of her mentally ill father while trying to cope with the death of her mother has proven to be great a burden for 17-year-old Sasha*, who often lashes out by getting into fights and inflicting physical harm on those around her.

"I feel like my life end, because I don't really have anybody to help me out to all that," a dejected Sasha told The Sunday Gleaner last week.

With tears streaming down her face as she sat in the overstuffed sofa in her grandmother's modest living room in Rockfort, east Kingston, the teen documented a life of physical abuse, emotional hurt and disappointments.

Sasha's mother gave her to her paternal grandmother shortly after birth, although her father denied paternity. Sasha did not see her mother again until she was 13 years old, and just as the two started to bond, her mother died from cancer. A year later, her 38-year-old father was diagnosed as being mentally ill. She is his only child.

"I wash him clothes [and] clean the house. Any time him mess up himself, I have to make sure him wash off [and] put on clean clothes. I even have to walk behind him when him say he is going on the road," explained the teenager.

Sasha became her father's caregiver at 15 years old and has to take him to the Bellevue Hospital twice per month for treatment.




In order to better monitor her dad, she has temporarily moved out of her grandmother's house to live with him. Instead of preparing for Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC)exams like her class-mates, the grade 11 student was busy working during the Easter break so she could earn money to purchase toiletries and clothes for her father.

"I really don't have nobody a help me to that, so it affect me bad, because at the end of the day, is me alone have to be [taking care of] him, because my grandmother go work and thing and she can't really stress out on him," said the teen, who explained that her grandmother sometimes prepares meals for her dad, and her uncle-in-law gives her money at times.

"When I am at school and it reach 2 o'clock, I don't want to come home. It's more pressure that for me," she admitted.

Due to her father's illness, Sasha had to miss school for one full month this year as well as all of October and November last year. But even while at school, it is difficult to concentrate on her lessons as her father often damages other people's property and attack other residents within their inner-city community.

As a result, she has to stalk him, especially at nights when he roams the streets. When she failed to follow him one night, she was called by a friend who informed her that he was being badly beaten by residents.

"Any time him do something wrong or him nasty up himself, is me dem call," she said.

"I have to make sure that him eat [and] crush up the pill dem and put it in the food or the juice. But since lately, him find out say mi a do it, so him don't want to eat anything," she said.

According to Sasha, it is difficult for her widowed grandmother to take care of her father on the salary she earns as a domestic helper, and a cousin who used to assist her migrated recently. Her father's siblings have their own struggles and are not in a position to assist him financially, so she has resorted to a life of begging.




The teen is seriously contemplating quitting school to get a full-time job so she can assist her father, but this would mean giving up her dream of completing high school and become one of a few persons in her immediate family to accomplish such a feat. Her goal was to do six CSEC subjects, matriculate into sixth form and then enter the police force, but given her extensive absence from school, this doesn't seem possible.

The relationship between father and daughter has been a tumultuous one. While the community fears him because of his mental illness, Sasha says she feels even safer with him now than any other period in her life.

"Before him did get ill, mi no sleep [near] him because mi never want him torture me, mi never really trust him that time," she said.

"Growing with my father at that time was one piece of hell, because it [was] like him did want to kill me or something. The first beat him beat me was when I was in two grade at basic school and he was teaching me to write 'D' and I wrote 'B' and him lick me with the belt buckle in my eye," she recounted in tears.

"Any time him a beat me, him like thump me in my face and thing; him no really use him belt," she said.




She recalled how in grade six, he used a piece of hose to beat her and then he flung a tile which hit her on her foot. Her foot was so swollen and infected that she was unable to sit her Grade Six Achievement Test. Her grandmother got her enrolled at a nearby high school which has consistently been ranked among the lowest-performing institutions in Jamaica.

After years of abuse, Sasha was given a glimmer of hope when she met her mother and she went to live with her in Spanish Town, St Catherine. She said her mother told her she hadn't come back to look for her because her grandmother had relocated. Sasha was introduced to her three siblings, but two have migrated and so when her mother died, she had no choice but to return to Rockfort.

Angry at the untimely death of her mother, Sasha started getting involved in fights. In the eighth grade, she stabbed a student with a knife, and then a few months later she tried to choke another. In grade 10, she hit one of her classmates with a metal chair across her face and was almost expelled from school, and in 11th grade, she stabbed another student with a knife.

She has stabbed five persons in total, including an uncle, but she feels she is justified because she was provoked.

"If mi tell you before that I don't want to fight you and you still [a try], as long as I have something in my hand to kill you or cut you, I am going to use it and I won't stop," said the teenager, who has been receiving counselling through her school's guidance counsellor.

"I started doing those things from when my mother dead because it did kind of a get to me. As me know her, she dead, so that get me upset," the teen explained.

Sasha said she has made a decision in recent times to stop fighting. On at least one occasion, she was badly beaten with a piece of iron and other implements by a gang of girls in downtown Kingston as retaliation for the stabbing of their friend. She is also unable to walk freely in some sections of her community because she fears retaliation from other girls she has fought in the area. But her father's nomadic nature is making this a difficult task.

Sasha is a bundle of confusion as this point. She would love for her father to be institutionalised so he can stay out of trouble and she can focus on her schooling. However, when her cousin tried to get him admitted at the Bellevue Hospital last month, they were told that the facility did not have any space.

"My life no really sort out the way it was supposed to sort out still. Each time something bother me, I say, 'If my mother was here, this wouldn't happen'," Sasha said.

* Name changed on request.