Family, School

Growing up through domestic abuse, neglect and the trauma of suicide … this is how I got my fresh start

By Joanne Chua , 23 December 2021

Trigger warning: This article contains mention of self-harm and suicide which some may find distressing.

Children do not know what a healthy family is supposed to look like. That is why Chelsea* thought that “everything was okay”.

But she soon became aware that her family wasn’t like the families of her friends.

“Why are their parents like that? Why are their siblings like that? Why is their house so much nicer than mine?” Chelsea recalled thinking.

“Mine was a battlefield. There was mess everywhere, people writing on the walls, people threatening to call the police.”

“I was tired of being angry”: From broken family to champion of families

Chelsea, now 17, was born into a family with three much older siblings – they are now in their thirties – and parents who were on the brink of  divorce.

She grew up wondering why she was even born.

When she asked her dad why her parents had her, he said that she was an “accident” and wasn’t wanted. Her brother agreed with this cruel admission. 

No food

Both her parents battled with depression, which meant they were often unable to be fully present with their children.

Chelsea’s 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,” she said.

“Then I was down to eating one meal every three days.” 

Growing up, Chelsea was severely malnourished and underweight. Eventually, she couldn’t even stand up without experiencing pain in her head. Her vision and hearing were also affected.

Chelsea learned to memorise the layout of her house, so she could crawl around without having to open her eyes. 

Whenever she stood up, all she could hear was a sharp ringing sound.

Chelsea learned to memorise the layout of her house, so that she could crawl around without having to open her eyes. 

As such, her mental health was not like that of a typical bright-eyed primary school student. Going to school became a real struggle, and Chelsea often skipped school.

“When I was seven, that was the first time I really thought of dying,” she confessed. “Because I thought at least someone would pity me and pay attention to me … if I was dead.” 

No peace

When her parents were not absent, violent fights and trips to the police station were all too common. They fought about all sorts of things, including their different faiths. They fought with Chelsea, too. 

“You’re trying to call the police but you don’t know whether or not you should call the police on your mum.”

Then her mum threatened her with a knife.

“That wasn’t very nice for the first day of school, to have someone pointing a knife at you,” said Chelsea.

“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 then, but made up her mind that day to sever ties with her mother.

Turning to the only other parent in the household, she began relying more on her father.

And so, Chelsea began adopting many of her dad’s worldviews over time, including a deep cynicism towards Christians.

For countless nights, Chelsea would wonder 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?

“When I had a close friend, I punched her because I thought that was what close friends did.”

“Growing up in that kind of environment, you end up lonely, quiet, empty,” she said. 

Looking back on her early years, Chelsea said that she “didn’t know how to be human”. Friends told her she was “like a robot” with her mechanical smile and fake laugh.

Chelsea never knew how to form good deep relationships with others: “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.” 

No mum

At the start of secondary one, life took a tragic turn. 

Unnatural shouting in the house one day alerted Chelsea’s father, sister and herself that something was amiss.

“Dad was already divorced and he didn’t want to see her, my sister was scared, so I had to check.”

As her brothers were not at home, they knew it could only be Mum.

“Dad was already divorced and he didn’t want to see her. My sister was scared, so I had to check,” she recalled. “I was the only one to see her.”

When Chelsea entered the room, she saw that her mother had killed herself. There was a lot of blood in the room – the very room she shared with her mother. 

“It just caused something to explode in me,” Chelsea said.

“I kind of went down the same rabbit hole as her after that, becoming suicidal and self-harming.”

Seen before birth

At her mother’s funeral, Chelsea met people who surprised her. They were from her mum’s church. “They were actually quite nice people,” she said.  They would support her for the storms and years to come.

The undertaker, who was Christian, suggested that they visit church on behalf of their late mum. 

Chelsea, who had a negative impression of Christians, was reluctant to go. But she ultimately attended a service with her siblings.

The people there also surprised her. Chelsea recalled that everyone was kind to her. 

Some shared the Bible verse Psalm 139:13-18 with her: “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 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 said.

Living with my brother’s suicide

This passage helped her look back and see how God has held her in His hands all her life.

God answered the question of her existence that she has asked since childhood.

Knowing that someone cares for her was what Chelsea wanted all her life.

“He made me, He knew me, He cared about me,” said Chelsea. “And He remembers me, He notices me, He acknowledges me.”

Knowing that someone cares for her was what Chelsea 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.

“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.” 

Believing I was a good-for-nothing, I had given up on my future

So moved was Chelsea during that first visit, she memorised the route to church and went back the next week on her own. And the subsequent weeks after that. 

Eventually, she decided to invite Jesus into her life.

But that didn’t mean her troubles magically disappeared.

During that period, Chelsea’s relationship with her father went to bits after she found out he had been “preying on young girls”.

She shared this with her friends at church. Upon hearing it, her church leaders and counsellor advised her that her father’s actions had to be reported.

After they explained what needed to be done and what might result from it, Chelsea agreed to go with her leaders to make an official report. 

Chelsea was taken out of her father’s custody by Child Protection Services (CPS) and placed in children’s homes and foster homes. 

Cards of blessing

Despite this storm, Chelsea had a newfound joy and hope in God. Around this time, she came up with her life’s motto: “To love and be loved”.

Taking a break from school for over a year, Chelsea rested and recovered.

She attended weekly counselling, psychologist appointments, as well as Bible study gatherings with her church friends. She also started an initiative over Christmas. 

Seeing how the people serving at church had become her family, Chelsea, who has a passion for art, started making Christmas cards to bless anyone she encountered in church.

Photos courtesy of Chelsea*.

She began with 30 to 40 Christmas cards. Encouraged by people telling her that they had been blessed by her cards, Chelsea realised that this was a way for her to bless many others. 

Soon Chelsea was creating over 100 cards on average.

She dedicated her mornings to making cards. The front, she decorated with Bible verses or quotes. The back often featured a devotional. 

 “I’d just give them out every week and that was the happiest part of my week,” she recalled.

There was another upside: Coming up with the devotionals meant she had to read a lot of Scripture and devotions. 

And so the simple act of blessing others became something that helped Chelsea 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 said.

A fresh start 

From 2017 to 2019, Chelsea went through various placements with the help of CPS. Having to move so often was “painful and annoying”.

Chelsea was eventually placed in HCSA Dayspring Residential Treatment Centre (RTC) in September 2019. It would be her home for the next year.  

Under the Dayspring programme, Chelsea had to attend school – something she had not done for a long time.

The strict schedule the girls had to follow included waking up at 5.50am to reach school on time – something she was not used to. 

Terrorised by spirits at night, she was at the end of her tether – until an encounter in a club

Chelsea had not planned to return to school. Then two sponsors gave her financial aid to finish her secondary education.

With their generosity, she attended a private Christian school that followed the American high school system, with a focus on self-studying. It also followed an accelerated Christian education system, and over two years, this strengthened Chelsea’s foundation in the Bible.

I was marked absent for all my O’Level subjects … I was that deeply involved in drugs

Chelsea would return home to Dayspring after school. But unlike most teenagers who can do whatever they want after school, she had to participate in various programmes designed to help her and the other girls. They included Emotional Regulation (ER) drills and behavioural education.

Chelsea and the girls at Dayspring were also given emotional support, with an hour each with their psychologist, values coach and caseworker. 

Punctuality was a key value instilled in the girls. Chelsea 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 Chelsea with a laugh.

If the girls were late for any session, they would learn the consequences by having their “free time” cut down. 

The girls got to participate in in many other programmes: Jewellery-making, soap-making, cooking classes and cycling, just to name a few.

“We also had a super good cook,” Chelsea said enthusiastically.  

The most significant part of Chelsea’s time at Dayspring? Forming strong friendships with some of the many different girls she met. Her roommate is one of her best friends, with whom she is doing an internship now. 

“Where do you find teachers who really genuinely care for every single one of the students?” Chelsea 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.”

Chelsea was also especially proud of her teacher.

“She took note of our issues, and checked in with us privately,” Chelsea said. “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.” 

Fondly recalling how the girls would cry and hug each other whenever one of them graduated from the home, Chelsea affirmed how much she cherishes her time at Dayspring.

A hope and a future

Chelsea said she knows it was God who sustained her and got her through the storms of life. 

She has seen how He has been providing for her – like the foster family she is currently living and bonding with.  

“You can’t really feel Him holding your hand or hugging you, but you can feel His presence,” she said. “And His presence comes in the form of peace and comfort.” 

“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 said.

To Chelsea, God is her Heavenly Father who cares for her and loves her. He is the One who gives her purpose in life and the strength she needs to face each day.

From someone who was “suicidal and self-harming”, Chelsea now recognises that her life is in God’s hands and she shouldn’t be the one to take it away. 

Her young life stalled after a horrific accident, yet “God made sure I lacked no good thing”

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 Chelsea believes is only possible through God. She does it for the sole reason of “glorifying His name” and “being able to support and give hope to the people He loves”.

God has also been working in Chelsea’s biological family: The siblings are slowly reconnecting over the occasional meal together and even simple things such as “Happy Birthday” text messages.

The healing process will take time, though. Chelsea said that God is still teaching her how to love her earthly father.

“As much as I dislike him, I still have to love him. 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,” she said.  

No matter what happens, it is well with my soul.

As Chelsea waits to start Polytechnic next year, she is 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 hopes in future to work with children and youth from similar family backgrounds. 

“I want to give back to the people who have raised me and shaped me so well,” said Chelsea. “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.” 

Chelsea now has a solid conviction in her heart that with God in her life, she will never be shaken.

“No matter what happens, it is well with my soul,” she said. “He gives me enough that I need each day to be happy and to lead a purposeful, meaningful life.”

* Interviewee’s name has been changed for confidentiality. 

Illustrations by Nicole Chan.

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 festive season. Donations are eligible for 250% tax deduction.

Related articles
Tell Me More
Feeling lost in life?
This is default text for notification bar