Chanel was only five when her life started to unravel. Right before her eyes, her uncle stabbed her father to death in a heated dispute. After that, her mother’s life also spiraled, leaving Chanel alone and neglected. When Chanel was nine, her mother was arrested for drug-related offences and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. Chanel was left in the care of her aunt, but was abused by her instead.
When it became too much to bear, she left home to stay on her own when she was 13. “I ran away from home to stop all the pain,” she said.
Life on the edge
Chanel lived at the homes of her friends and boyfriends, moving when she outstayed her welcome. It was at a friend’s house that Chanel, then 15, started her dark journey with drugs.
“My friends offered me and I wanted to try. My mum went to prison because of drugs. I’ve also seen her taking drugs a few times before, so I wanted to know what it actually feels like,” she said.
Before long, she was an addict, needing a fix every day.
To support herself and her escalating drug habit, she worked odd jobs. When a friend introduced her to work for a loanshark, she took it up because it was “easy money”. All she had to do was deposit and withdraw money as instructed.
“I thought of just working for just a while until I found a proper job,” she said.
But she did not get the chance to quit. Six months in, one of the loanshark’s runners gave her up and she was arrested.
Chanel had regular sessions with her officer at MWS Girls’ Residence where they would work through issues she faced.
A second chance
Instead of going to prison, Chanel was sentenced to serve her probation at MWS Girls’ Residence, a hostel for delinquent girls.
“I was given a second chance, which everyone hopes for but not everyone gets,” she said.
The road to recovery, however, was not easy. She was often very angry and had a strong distrust of people.
“The memories of my dad being stabbed in front of me and being abused by my aunt still haunt me, building up this anger inside me. I can be really happy at one moment, and my mood will swing the next moment. There is this strong sense of helplessness. It just hurts to see others with their families and I don’t have anyone,” she said.
“Chanel had trust issues when she first came,” said her liaison officer at MWS Girls’ Residence, Ms Xie Lixin. “She would question everyone, ‘how long will you stay in my life?’. She didn’t let anyone into her life.”
Chanel would not attend sessions with her assigned mentor, and would stay away from the other girls at the hostel.
“I shut them out,” Chanel said. “It’s not that I don’t like them or I can’t get along with the girls. But throughout the years, my dad left me, my mum left me, I don’t want anyone else to be leaving me.”
“Because I grew up alone, I fight alone, I live alone. When the problems come, I have to face them alone. All this while, my mum has always told me, ‘if you don’t want others to leave you, learn how to leave others first’,” she said.
Chanel learnt to open up and care for other residents. She would stay up to talk to them when they are feeling down, even after a long day at work
Rebuilding her life
At MWS Girls’ Residence, Chanel learnt to care for others and allow others into her life. And she credits Ms Xie and her pro-bono lawyer Mr Josephus Tan for it.
“I have this close relationship with Ms Lixin who took this journey with me. She has been there since day one. I always feel and think that without her, this journey would not have been so smooth,” she said.
At MWS Girls’ Residence, the girls grow in confidence and self-esteem through character building programmes, reflective exercises and sessions with a counsellor.
Mr Josephus Tan, who saw that Chanel had no one around her, would visit her weekly when she was first admitted to the Residence. He kept in touch with her, and would meet her for lunch every now and then.
Her lawyer-turned-guardian helped her to care for others by exemplifying it. “He taught me how to love people. He doesn’t verbally tell me that he loves me. But through his actions, it does wonders. He’s really there all the time, like a father.”
“It took a lot of counselling sessions and therapy. Eventually things got better. It’s still not very good, but it’s better,” she said.
The change in her life was evident. She began caring for the other residents at the Residence, staying up to talk to them when they are feeling down, even after a long day at work as an assistant producer at a motion design company.
She even talked a fellow resident, who ran away from the hostel, into returning.
“Chanel is more understanding and shows more care and concern for the girls. She saw what Josephus has done for her, and how we have helped her at the Residence. She wants to help people now,” said Ms Xie.
Chanel proudly displays all the motivational notes on her wardrobe, secretly left by the staff and other residents.
Ready to face the future
After her probation, she has to live on her own, as both her mother and brother are in prison for drug-related offences
But she is ready for it.
“I don’t see her going back to drugs. She has matured enough to know not to. There were a few occasions when she was offered drugs, but she thought of the consequences. And she said no. She thinks of the consequences now,” said Ms Xie.
Chanel’s highest educational level is PSLE. She plans to pursue an education in business management or marketing in a private school, supported by a sponsor whom she met while at the Residence.
It has been a fruitful 18 months at the MWS Girls’ Residence for her.
“I have a job which is stable. I’m looking forward to studying. I have finally learnt how to open up and accept myself,” she said.