Growing up through domestic abuse, neglect and the trauma of suicide… This is how I got my fresh start
All images courtesy of Shirlene Ng.
Trigger warning: This article contains mention of self-harm and suicide.
Sitting across from her, it was hard to imagine that she had lived through a nightmarish childhood.
After all, this 17-year-old girl spoke so confidently and smiled with such sincere joy.
But the truth is, she has already sailed through many storms in life that many adults will never have to.
Children do not know what a healthy family is supposed to look like. That is why Shirlene Ng thought that “everything was okay” early on.
But she soon became aware that her family wasn’t like her friends’ families.
“Why are their parents like that? Why are their siblings like that? Why is their house so much nicer than mine?” she recalled thinking. “Mine was a battlefield, there was mess everywhere, people writing on the walls, people threatening to call the police.”
Born into a family with three much older siblings — who are in their thirties now — and parents who were already on the brink of a divorce, Shirlene grew up constantly wondering why she was even born.
She even asked her dad why her parents had her. He told her he didn’t know and that she was an “accident” and wasn’t wanted. Her brother agreed with this cruel admission.
Both her parents battled with depression, rendering them often unable to be fully present with their children.
For Shirlene, this meant that even her most basic needs were neglected: “I ate all the food in the house until there was none left. Then I ate all the expired food in the house until there was none left.
“Then I was down to eating one meal every three days.”
Growing up well underweight, Shirlene was severely malnourished. Eventually she couldn’t even stand up without experiencing pain in her head as well as a lack of vision and hearing.
Shirlene learned to memorise the layout of her house, so she could crawl around without having to open her eyes.
Whenever she did so, all she could hear was this sharp ringing sound.
To survive, Shirlene learned to memorise the layout of her house, so she could crawl around without having to open her eyes.
Consequently, from an early age, her mental health was not like that of a typical wide-eyed primary school student. Going to school became a real struggle for Shirlene, who would often skip school.
“When I was seven, that was the first time I really thought of dying,” she revealed. “Because I thought at least someone would pity me and pay attention to me… If I was dead.”
When her parents were not absent, violent fights and trips to the police station would be commonplace.
Conflicts between her parents were frequent because of their different faiths.
Relentless fights with her parents also deteriorated Shirlene’s relationships with them. Her own relationship with her mother had been broken after her mother began threatening her with a knife.
“That wasn’t very nice for the first day of school, to have someone pointing a knife at you,” recalled Shirlene. “You’re trying to call the police but you don’t know whether or not you should call the police on your mum.”
She was only ten years old at the time, but had made up her mind that day to cut off ties with her mother.
Turning to the only other parent in the household, she began relying on her father more.
As such, Shirlene began adopting a lot of her father’s worldviews over time, including a deep cynicism towards Christians.
For all her thoughts about life, there was always one question that couldn’t be resolved. For countless nights, Shirlene would wonder to herself why she had been born.
My family doesn’t want me, and I’m an accident. Why was I born? Why am I on this earth?
“Growing up in that kind of environment, you end up lonely, quiet, empty,” she said. “And not knowing much about proper relationships.”
Looking back on her younger years, Shirlene reflected that she “didn’t know how to be human”. Indeed, her friends told her she was “like a robot” with her mechanical smile and fake laugh.
Shirlene simply never knew how to form good deep relationships with people: “When I had a close friend, I punched her because I thought that was what close friends did.
“But that’s because my siblings punched me.”
At the start of secondary one, life took a tragic turn and got even worse.
Unnatural shouting in the house one day prompted Shirlene’s father, sister and herself that something was amiss.
With her brothers both being out of the house, they knew it could only be mum.
“I was the only one to see her. Dad was already divorced and he didn’t want to see her, my sister was scared, so I had to check,” she recalled.
When she entered the room, she saw that her mother had committed suicide. There was a lot of blood in the room, she recalled. In the very room she shared with her mother.
“It just caused something to explode in me,” Shirlene reflected. “I kind of went down the same rabbit hole as her after that, becoming suicidal and self-harming.”
A TURNING POINT
At her mother’s funeral, however, was also where Shirlene met the people who would support her for the storms and years to come.
They were from her mother’s church and to her surprise, “were actually quite nice people”. The undertaker, who was also Christian, suggested that they visit church just once on behalf of the deceased.
The negative impression she had of Christians meant Shirlene was reluctant to go, but she ultimately decided to attend a service together with her siblings.
Again, they surprised her. Shirlene recalled that everyone was kind to her; some even shared a Bible verse with her, Psalm 139:13-18.
Shirlene recited the verse to me: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
The verse was important to her because it challenged how she didn’t value herself as a person. “For a child who has always had low self-esteem and hated her entire existence, that made me cry,” she revealed.
From this passage, Shirlene shared that she can look back and see how God has held her in His hands all her life.
He has answered the question of her existence that Shirlene has asked from childhood.
“He made me, He knew me, He cared about me,” affirmed Shirlene. “And He remembers me, He notices me, He acknowledges me.”
Knowing that someone cares for her was what Shirlene wanted all her life: “What mattered the most to me at that time was that I meant something, that I wasn’t just a little nobody no one cares about or someone whom nobody wants.
“I’m in God’s mind, I’m in His heart and He genuinely cares.”
That is why Psalm 139 is so precious to Shirlene: “I found that there was a God who saw me as someone. An actual person. Not a burden, a mistake, an idiot… I wasn’t that.
“I am a child He loves.”
Indeed, so moved was Shirlene during that first visit, that she memorised the route to church and went back the next week on her own.
And the week after that. And the week after that.
Eventually a week came, when she decided she wanted to invite Jesus into her life.
But that didn’t mean Shirlene’s troubles magically went away.
In the same period, Shirlene’s relationship with her father went to pieces after she found out he had been “preying on young girls”.
She opened up to her friends at church about what was happening at home. Upon hearing it, her church leaders and counsellor advised Shirlene that her father’s actions had to be reported.
After explaining to her what needed to be done and what might result from it, Shirlene understood the situation and agreed to go with her leaders to make an official report.
Eventually, she was taken out of her father’s custody by Child Protection Services (CPS) and brought to different care placements like children homes and foster homes.
CARDS OF BLESSING
Despite this latest storm, Shirlene had a newfound joy and hope in God. It was also around this time that she came up with a life motto: “To love and be loved”.
Taking a break from school, Shirlene rested and recovered for more than a year. Aside from attending weekly counselling, psychologist appointments and Bible study gatherings with her church friends, she also started an initiative.
“For Christmas, I decided I wanted to give thanks to the people who were serving at church,” recalled Shirlene.
Seeing how the family of God had become her family, Shirlene channelled her passion for art into making Christmas cards to bless anyone she encountered in church.
She began with 30 to 40 Christmas cards, but when people began encouraging her and telling her that they had been blessed by her cards, Shirlene realised that this could be a simple way for her to bless many others.
Slowly, the number of cards grew to 60. Then 80. Finally, Shirlene was creating over 100 cards on average.
Every morning, she would dedicate herself to making cards. The front, she would decorate with Bible verses or quotes that inspired faith. The back would often feature a devotional.
“I’d just give them out every week and that was the happiest part of my week,” she reminisced. There was also an additional upside, since having to make so many cards meant she had to read a lot of Scripture and devotions.
This simple act of blessing others through cards wound up becoming something that helped Shirlene to grow in faith and to find purpose in life.
“My life’s goal became to bless people, to let them know they are loved and noticed,” she added.
A FRESH START AT DAYSPRING RTC
From 2017 to 2019, Shirlene went through various placements with the help of CPS. Having to move so often made for a “painful and annoying” process.
Thankfully, Shirlene was eventually placed in HCSA Dayspring Residential Treatment Centre (RTC) in September 2019, which would be her home for the next year.
The Dayspring programme meant Shirlene had to attend school, something she had not done for a considerable amount of time prior to joining Dayspring.
Shirlene recalled the strict schedule she and the other girls had to follow, which included waking up at 5:50am to reach school on time, a routine she was not used to.
God continued to provide for Shirlene, sending her two sponsors who gave her financial aid to finish her secondary education.
Shirlene shared she is very thankful for this provision and generosity because she had been planning her future without a return to school in mind until the sponsorships came up.
As such, Shirlene was able to continue her secondary education at a private Christian school that followed the American high school system and focused on self-studying.
Over the next two years, Shirlene’s grasp of and foundation in the Word also grew strong because the school system followed an accelerated Christian education system.
Besides morning devotion and worship, they even had exams on the Bible. “Old and New Testaments,” said Shirlene with a smile.
Shirlene delved deep into the Word, studying things like the different kings in the Old Testament, the length of their reigns, when they ascended the throne and whether they were faithful to God!
Shirlene would return home to Dayspring after school, but unlike most teenagers who can do whatever they want after school, she had various programmes lined up.
These programmes are structured to help the girls holistically and included Emotional Regulation (ER) drills and behavioural education.
Shirlene and the girls at Dayspring were supported emotionally as well; they would have an hour each with their psychologist, values coach and caseworker.
Shirlene further revealed that punctuality was a key value instilled in the girls. She jokingly compared their lives to those of the children in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
“You know how they have to carry clocks because they have to be on time for everything? That was us!” said Shirlene with a laugh.
Indeed, if the girls were late to any session, they would learn the consequences by having their “free time” cut down.
“Without God, I wouldn’t be able to tell myself this: ‘No matter what happens — no matter what — everything will be well with my soul.'”
Shirlene listed off the many different programmes the girls got to participate in. There was jewellery-making, soap-making, cooking classes and cycling — just to name a few.
“We also had a super good cook,” Shirlene made sure to emphasise.
The most significant part of Shirlene’s time at Dayspring? The relationships she formed there. She had the opportunity to meet many different girls and form strong friendships with some of them.
One of her closest friends is her roommate and best friend with whom she is doing an internship now.
“Where do you find teachers who really genuinely care for every single one of the students?” she asked. “Our director prays for all the students in the school. She knows all of us by name, invites us to her office to have tea and talk with her so she can pray with us.”
I could also tell that Shirlene was especially proud of her teacher.
“She took note of our issues, and checked in with us privately,” recounted Shirlene. “And with our permission, she would call the class to join in and pray for us together.”
“It was a special thing, knowing that the children’s home you were a part of was a real home, and not just any other placement or shelter,” she added.
Recalling fondly how the girls would cry and hug each other whenever one of them graduated from the home, Shirlene affirmed how much she cherishes her time at Dayspring.
A HOPE AND A FUTURE
Shirlene also made sure I knew that it was God who sustained her and got her through the storms of life.
Through it all, said Shirlene, God has been providing for her. Indeed, she is now staying with her foster family with whom she has been forming strong relationships.
“Without God, I wouldn’t be able to tell myself this: ‘No matter what happens — no matter what — everything will be well with my soul‘,” she affirmed.
“You can’t really feel Him holding your hand or hugging you, but you can feel His presence,” added Shirlene. “And His presence comes in the form of peace and comfort.”
To Shirlene, God is her Heavenly Father who cares for her, loves her and the one who gives her purpose in life and the strength needed to face each day.
As someone who was “suicidal and self-harming”, Shirlene now also recognises that her life is in God’s hands and that she shouldn’t be the one to take it away.
The 17-year-old shared that because of what God has done for her, she has the strength to face life and be a helper and friend in the world.
Sharing her story is also something Shirlene believes is only possible through God, something she does for the sole reason of “glorifying His name” and “being able to support and give hope to the people He loves”.
Shirlene was also proud to share how God has also been working in her biological family; she is slowly reconnecting with her siblings over the occasional meal together and even things as simple as “Happy Birthday” text messages.
Certainly, the healing process will take time. Speaking about her father, Shirlene conceded that God is still teaching her how to love him.
“As much as I dislike him, I still have to love him,” she acknowledged. “Because that is what God told us to do, to love our neighbour as ourselves. I still pray for him and hope that things will be better.”
No matter what happens, it is well with my soul. God gives me enough that I need each day to be happy and to lead a purposeful, meaningful life.
As Shirlene waits to enrol into Polytechnic next year, she remains hopeful that God will continue to use her life as a testimony of His amazing grace and restorative power.
Inspired by her teachers and the staff at Dayspring, she also hopes to work with children and youth from similar family backgrounds in the future.
“I want to give back to the people who have raised me and shaped me so well,” said Shirlene. “I also want to be the kind of person that the kids need; the kind of person that the staff in Dayspring were to me. People who were my safe space and will listen to me.”
For all she has been through so far, Shirlene now has a solid conviction in her heart that she will never be shaken, with God in her life.
“No matter what happens, it is well with my soul,” she affirmed. “He gives me enough that I need each day to be happy and to lead a purposeful, meaningful life!”
For its 25th anniversary, HCSA is running #Gift25ive — a donation drive for their work of rehabilitation and care for the socially vulnerable among us. If you feel led to support their work, give the gift of hope this season. Donations are eligible for 250% tax deduction.
THINK + TALK
- What about Shirlene’s story inspired you the most? Why?
- How can you better face life’s challenges based on the article’s insights?
- Consider your skills and gifts. What is one practical thing you can do to assist and lift up people just like Shirlene?