In a recent interview with Marie Claire for the magazine's September 2019 cover, model, singer, and actor Cara Delevingne got real about the complexities of her childhood. She described how her work became her refuge when she didn’t have other coping skills to deal with the the situations she was put into as a child. Delevingne said that growing up around substance use influenced her sense of self, even though she also said that she she hopes “people never think I’m complaining.”
She told Marie Claire that she had “an incredible upbringing,” despite its nuances and hardships. Because her mother struggled with heroin misuse, Delevingne said, she became a caregiver to her mom at a young age. “I was a nurturing child and wanted to make sure everyone was OK,” she said. “It didn’t feel wrong. But looking back, I’m like, Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have been put in that position.”
Because her family lacked the language to talk about either her mother’s struggles or Delevingne’s queerness, she says she tried to deny her attraction to women for years. “I didn’t want to feel different,” she told Marie Claire, “even though from an early age I always felt I didn’t belong.” The pressures of being a child caregiver and denying her sexuality boiled over when she was 15. “I had no coping skills,” she said. “Instead of being able to breathe or take a moment, I tried to smash my head into a tree to knock myself out.”
Learning these coping skills has been a journey for Delevingne. While the medications she tried made her feel numb, she wound up throwing herself into work as a form of managing her emotions. She dealt with her feelings through this form of escapism until she realized that “I don’t like using it that way anymore. I want to use it as a platform, where I’m not just running from my problems.”
And this platform is shining light on the ways that growing up with substance use can impact young people’s sense of identity. A 2013 study published in the journal Social Work in Public Health concluded that when children become caretakers for their parents at a young age, it often “creates a lack of self-awareness and sometimes an over awareness of others' needs.” This lack of self-awareness while having a heightened awareness of others’ needs can lead to exactly what Delevingne experienced: a denial of and hesitation to come out as queer because of how it might affect one’s social status with others.
In homes with parental substance use, children’s sense of belonging and security greatly impacts many LGBTQ youths’ processes of coming out, according to a 2017 article published in the journal Pediatric Clinics of North America. This study concluded that especially in the case of LGBTQ children with insecure attachments to their parents— when they are raised in situations where they become caregivers, for example — youths’ own identity development and coping skills will often take a backseat to their caregiving responsibilities.
Of course, young people from homes with parental substance use cope in a variety of ways. However, a 2018 study in the journal Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs reported that a commonality across many different coping strategies is a “fragmented and confused sense of self” which could easily result in young people denying their sexuality to increase their chances of belonging somewhere.
That’s why stories like Delevingne’s are so important for young people — especially LGBTQ young people — who grew up around parental substance use and similar forms of home instability. Many people downplay the psychological impacts of becoming a caretaker at such a young age. By talking about how the experience eroded her coping skills and brought on a mental breakdown, Delevingne reminds people with similar experiences that they are never, ever alone.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.