Being on both sides of the youth worker table

Carly Laughton

December 3, 2020

I met Carly from a recommendation of her gym buddy and gosh, her story is raw and honest and vulnerable! Carly shares her journey with addiction, rough childhood, violence and mental health and using all of these experiences to bring to her work with youth at Lifewise. She is also a shoe-enthusiast, mumma and proud member of the rainbow community.

Watch it or read it below - whichever fills your cup today ☕❤️

Kia ora, my name's Carly and I work for an organisation called Lifewise in the youth housing team. We work with young people who are experiencing homelessness between the ages of 16 and 25. Generally they've been under the care of Oranga Tamariki, a care and protection agency here in New Zealand. We're talking about young people that are couch surfing, sleeping rough on Queen Street, or in some really dangerous kind of family situation.

How long have you been doing this and how did you get into this line of work?

I was born an addict to two parents who struggle with those sorts of issues and that led me to have some pretty severe behavioral problems and then I was put into that care system myself. I was never under Oranga Tamariki but I was put into group home situations with other young people and in those sorts of situations there's not a lot of healing going on. You get a lot of kids in a space where there's some really hard things going on and it's really hard for there to be any healing. So it took a long time for me to be able to get to a space where I was ready to stop using the things that I was using to cope with the trauma and really start doing some work on myself.

I sat on the other sides of desks from people who told me that they knew how I felt for the majority of my childhood and then into my early adulthood as well and so my driving force to do what I've been doing now is always to be that person. But to be a person that can sit there and say - I don't know how you feel but I've got similar experiences. Because I knew that the workers that I had, had no real context in that situation… It's been a long time coming. I've done some training recently but this role that I'm in now inside NGO, and for the organization Lifewise, because of the mahi that they're doing; it’s my dream job and I feel really lucky to be in this role. You could say that how I came into this role is that it's been a lifetime of training. The only thing that's kind of sadder than me as a young person having to experience all of those things; is me having to experience those things and it being for no reason. Now I get to use them on a daily basis to be able to relate and to be able to heal and it doesn't mean that it makes my job any easier but I do know that the connection that comes with it is really beautiful.

Working with the young people, is it part of your own healing? I can imagine it can be quite challenging to work and help and give to others every day. How do you take care of yourself?

When you constantly have to give... burnout in the social sector is a real thing and I think it needs to be recognised. I know that we're moving towards it, especially in the AOD sector around peer support and having the realization in the social sector that people with lived experience like myself, that we maybe aren't going to be able to work as long and as hard as other other people because of the challenges that we've faced and that our level of self-care needs to be a little bit higher. But the work that we're going to be able to do in that space is going to be of greater value.

On your journey, any particular people or moments that really stood out to you and were sort of turning points?

I had a really terrible experience in 2013 where I was trying really desperately to get into treatment and it wasn't being received. I was desperate and I was suicidal. I couldn't stop using to save my life. I could not stop using and the treatment providers within my area were saying “Get a couple of weeks, clean up and then we'll be able to admit you to treatment.” and I was like “Man, if I knew how to stop using for two weeks then I wouldn't need rehab.” I don't know what this expectation is and I kind of woke up one morning and I was like “This is the day. I'm gonna end it.”

In 2007 I'd had a really beautiful daughter and by the grace of god I had her with a man who's a really amazing father and so when these times in my life were coming about; she was with him and I was walking to go, to go and do it... and then I saw a young girl and I was like, “I can't do this anymore” but I just knew that I was gonna die if I didn't do something. So I ended up committing a violent crime and then waiting around the corner and handing myself into the police so that I could go back to prison because it was like the pattern that I'd learned as a young person. To keep myself safe, I needed to be safe from myself.

During that prison sentence, things were really different and I really tried to work on myself. After I came out, I was provided a social worker for a programme called Out Of Gate; a woman called Jody Ryan who worked for Presbyterian Family Works and she was the first person that had ever really believed in me. I think my mindset was slightly different and she was just incredible. We sat down and wrote out a list of all of the things that I wanted to do, and within six months we did them all. She was the first person that really motivated me but never disempowered me. She always just quietly gave me enough encouragement to do things on my own and I was so broken previously; the labels and the things that I told myself that I was - that I was a drug dealer, I was a criminal, I was useless and I was never going to be anything but ADHD, Dyslexic, an addict; all of these things. She started to change my internal script for me through that time.

While I was with her, I managed to open a youth center and do some really incredible things. The young people that I was working with then nominated me for New Zealander Of The Year; a local hero award and we got this medal. But I was still running… My boundaries were crap; I had 50 kids with 50 problems and no time for myself. I was working and I learned a really hard lesson, which is that boundaries are so important within that sector, otherwise you just burn out and I burnt out. I picked up again, but it took me a while to come back from that.

What do you do for yourself now? What helps you with caring for yourself?

Self-care for me looks like the groups that I go to on a weekly basis, and I talk about my sobriety. I have beautiful people within my life that I'm able to share that stuff with and the connections that you make in those sorts of circles are with other women who work within the sector and work within the field. Muay Thai is also a really big part of my self-care. As a woman who experienced domestic violence from birth right through life, it's incredibly empowering. I’m really lucky to be at a gym with some amazing women. When I'm at the gym... I'm just Carly. I'm not Carly the youth worker, or Carly the addict, or Carly the student. I'm just myself and I'm able to go there and just be me. It's a really important part of my life.

When I was doing my research, I was surprised about how much more the rainbow community is affected by violence. Would love to hear your thoughts around this?

Yeah, completely over-represented!. You got gender diverse young people who are excluded and they're just less likely to engage in services in general because of the way that they're treated; with things like pronouns, and it can be really disempowering for a young woman who identifies as a young man to be continually called by her female name or vice versa. It's black and white in the statistics; the likelihood that there's going to be violence within that space is just increased because the pressure is greater and they have more to deal with than other people.

Is there a different approach for these communities to ensure that best possible support is provided?

We're really lucky that we have rainbow people within our team (like me) and just like Tangata Whenua have the Maori worldview lens that they look through; rainbow people have a rainbow lens that they look through too. The way that we treat our rainbow rangatahi and empower them in that space can only add towards the solution. RainbowYouth are amazing. They do a lot of really good work; also within that space there's a collective called Manaaki Rangatahi which is Lifewise, RainbowYouth and Vision West that are working towards ending youth homelessness.

At the moment there's a petition out for us to be able to take that to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. To be able to end youth homelessness, it's about making it visible. Right now it's a catch-22 situation; kids or young people can't engage in adult services to be able to access the things that they need and so the statistics don't show what youth homelessness really looks like at all. Only through our service are we able to kind of give a little bit of a lens but I can tell you that our gender diverse youth are completely over-represented within our space and 80 to 90 percent of our youth are Māori.

What would alternative universe Carly be doing?

For a long time I thought I'd probably open up a professional shoe cleaning business. I really love sneakers, like a lot. So that was going to be my vibe.

What brings you joy in life?

My relationship with my daughter. I had to move away from my parents who are both still heavy within that addiction space and so it was really important for me to move up to Auckland to be able to work on myself and to gain some separation. Because I tried a lot to stay clean and sober down there but it just was never gonna happen. So a part of moving up here means being away from my daughter, but I get to video chat her every day. She just spent a week here. My daughter brings great joy into my life and also my friendships now. I was so lonely growing up and even within the drug scene; I was always surrounded by people but just felt completely alone. Johan Hari talks about the opposite of addiction being connection and so the community that I've been able to build for myself and the friends that I have in my life now, who want nothing for me other than to see me succeed; it's been incredibly healing. I still have moments where I'm kind of driving along and I'm like “Far out! I can't believe this is my life now.” I never thought any of this was possible a few years ago. I was so close to dying, so many times. It's just incredible that I've been afforded the opportunity to be able to be here and do this.

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