Journey into social work and God

Sharon Ryan

May 18, 2020

I met Sharon through a mutual friend of ours (who is also interviewed on here). Even though we only hung out a few times, Sharon has this kind, caring and calm energy about her which kind of makes you want to be a better person. She is a passionate social worker and during these crazy COVID19 times Sharon is part of an essential service.

I am very grateful to have Sharon share her stories and journeys on Storyo!

P.S. You are in for one helluva amazing interview 🙌

Sharon, how did you end up in social work? Tell us a bit about your journey into it!

Not an easy question to answer, my journey into social work was the interweaving of the journey of my mind and my heart. Growing up I was fascinated with national and international politics and economics. By age 14 I had memorised every country in the world, in alphabetical order. I could tell you about each prime minister we’d had and how they contributed to the development of New Zealand. By 16 I was captain of the debate team and leading the North Shore youth council. Spending my time meeting with councillors, writing submissions and running community events.

I skipped Year 13 to jump straight into a Law and Politics degree. I was eager to become a career politician. But as much as politics fascinated me, it was also dissatisfying. I hated the games people played in politics. In my first year of uni, I looked around to see all these middle and upper-middle class kids talking about how great their leadership skills were and how they were going to shape the world to help people. Internally I criticised them for thinking they could effectively help people, when they didn’t even know the people they wanted to help or how to help. But I cannot judge others by a standard which I don’t judge myself. I took a hard look at myself and decided that if I really wanted to help others, I needed to learn how to help.

So I rocked up to the student service desk and asked if they had a degree that could teach me how to help people. The attendant raised one eyebrow, looked at me like I was stupid, and said, “um, you mean, social work?” I figured it was the closest thing to what I was looking for, so grabbed the info pack, and did some Googling. I also have a very close relationship with God. I prayed about this decision, and felt very clearly that this was what God wanted me to do. So I switched to a Bachelor of Social Work. If I’m honest, I found social work boring compared to law. If it wasn’t for God telling me to stay, I would’ve changed back to law. I had no actual intention of becoming a social worker. My plan was to bring the social work mindset into the policy and political arena.

On the first day, our lecturers said the degree was designed not only to teach theory, but to peel back our own selves, understand ourselves better and put us back together to be effective social workers – because one cannot help well, if one does not know oneself.  The reflective assignments forced me to engage with a part of myself I had left behind.

Let me backtrack a little….

My mother walked out when I was 8. I used to sit on the staircase by the front door, day after day, waiting for her to come home. I thought she’d gone on a long trip to the grocery store. Eventually I stopped waiting. But in all honesty, a piece of my heart never left that staircase. She had left us to go into prostitution. My siblings and I walked out on our dad when I was 12. By the end of my first year of high school, it hit me that my parents weren’t coming back for a long time. The fact that they both chose to leave shattered my heart. I found myself in a deep depression. I tried counselling but it was no use because I couldn’t tell her I had no parents. I was too afraid my siblings and I would be split if the police found out. We had an unspoken agreement that we pretended to everyone that our mother lived with us, that we were a happy family. To my astonishment, our school and church believed us.

When we left our dad, we moved back into the house my mother had abandoned. My mother often came home, but they weren’t nice visits. She’d tell us we were horrible children who’d ruined her life. She’d tell us she wished we’d never been born. She told us we’d amount to nothing. And she’d use threats of killing us or killing herself to manipulate us. I was secretly deeply depressed, I wanted to end my life but I felt trapped. I knew if I ended my life my younger sister would be largely on her own. So I decided not to die. But just surviving was draining. I figured if I was going to live, I wanted to thrive. But everything felt so hopeless. In my frustration I cried out to God. You see I had grown up in church and remembered them teaching that God was a father to the fatherless. So in my anger, and with very little belief, I shook my fist at God, I said, “You allowed both my parents to leave! Fine! You be my Father then! You take care of me!” I didn’t expect anything to happen, I just said it in anger. But then, little by little God started showing up.

Eventually the 2 older siblings moved away and then our mum decided to stop giving us money. At 16, I was pulling night shifts, if I didn’t work, we didn’t eat. Mum found out I was earning money, and started demanding I send her money. In her words, it was my fault for being born so I needed to pay my way. Mum’s death threats got worse. Some nights I slept with a knife under my pillow. I was so scared. My heart was in so much pain. I cried myself to sleep every night, desperate for an answer to the question constantly with me, “why did they leave me?”

In my desire to win my parents back and build some sense of self-worth, I became one of the top students. While working night shifts I also captained the debating team and co-chaired the North Shore youth council. I was an excellent grade student. Obviously this level of performance was unsustainable. In Year 12 I began randomly collapsing. I became extremely fatigued. My workplace gave me easier tasks and shorter shifts, but it soon became clear I could no longer work. I would wake up dry-wrenching from the stress of how I would earn enough to feed my sister and I. Some weeks, having two pieces of bread to take for lunch was a good day. I went to bed, and waited to die. But death didn’t come, only crippling fatigue, dizziness, and black outs.

Not long after, on a Sunday night as I lay in bed, God told me to get up and go to church. I argued back at Him. I hadn’t been to church in months. I was so angry with Him and so weak, there was no way I was going. But His commands became so forceful that I went. Midway through the sermon, the speaker, a visitor from overseas, stopped and said, “Now I know this has nothing to do with my sermon, but you know, the whole time I’ve been speaking I’ve felt the Holy Spirit telling me that there are some young women in this church who are seriously struggling with fatigue and dizziness, and that I need to just stop my sermon for a moment and pray for these women, because God wants to heal them”. My jaw could’ve hit the floor in shock. No one in the church knew my condition. I went to the front, he prayed for me, I was instantly healed. A few days later at work I was thanking God for the return of my strength. I was so excited to be able to finish school. But God showed up again and told me it was not my responsibility to provide for myself and my sister. He told me to cancel my extra shifts and pray that He would provide. A few days later my older brother called up. I knew he was wealthy but hadn’t told him what was happening because mum threatened to kill me if I did. Turns out he’d just found out. He was furious with my mother. He arranged to take financial responsibility for me and my sister. He put thousands of dollars into my bank account and even lent my mother money to get her to leave us alone.

My brother took a load from my shoulders that I couldn’t carry. I began to focus on my studies as exams were fast approaching. But so was my 17th birthday. Becoming an adult, without any parent was terrifying. I couldn’t even remember what it felt like to be hugged by a mother. I just wanted one hug before I became an adult.  I went to sleep crying, I woke up crying, I ate crying, I brushed my teeth crying. I couldn’t get the tears to stop no matter how hard I tried.

So one night I prayed and asked God why I couldn’t stop crying. This was when He did the most beautiful miracle. He taught me how to grieve. My only concept of grief was wearing black and attending a funeral. He told me, “No, no one has died, but you’ve lost your parents. You need to grieve that loss. Whenever the thoughts have come about your parents, you’ve always tried to stuff them down, you’ve always tried to force yourself to stop crying. But this doesn’t actually help. You’ve lost your parents. You need to grieve that loss, by allowing these thoughts to come, letting yourself cry over them, over everything you’ve lost, everything that could’ve been, and then hand them to me and let them go”. So I curled up under my blanket and allowed the grief to come.

It was a painful but beautiful time. For two weeks, I’d come straight home from school and lie in bed with God and cry out all my grief for the parents I so wish I’d had, for the life I wish I’d had. After that, I was able to focus on studies. I passed Year 12 with an excellence endorsement, topped economics and history and achieved discretionary entrance to Auckland University. 3 years later, in social work, we studied a paper on grief and loss. Turns out God had taught me to grieve using the most evidenced based technique. Even as I write this, I close my eyes and smile. A tear runs down my cheek. As I marvel at how God, the creator of the whole world, took the time, to whisper in my ear how to grieve.

I assumed I had left all this pain behind when I entered university. I came to university confident and ready to take on the world. But as the social work degree went on, I was confronted again and again with my past. I learned that my childhood pain had a name, “severe and chronic neglect”, and that I had, at present or at some point growing up, displayed almost every outcome expected from this experience. Avoidant attachment, food insecurity, counter dependence, poor social skills, inability to understand humour, disassociation, I could go on.

And as we learned to write out our family genograms, I saw the context within which I sat. Almost every person in my family had either abandoned a family member or been abandoned by a family member. To put it bluntly, I was fucked. My family was fucked. Statistics aren’t good for kids like me.

Eventually, the trauma I had suppressed overcame me. I was diagnosed with severe and complex PTSD. In the space of 2 months I went from being the A+, scholarship winning student, to dropping out. I could barely read and often forgot how to dress myself. The panic attacks were sometimes so severe, they left me bedridden with fatigue for hours afterwards. Two independent diagnoses were sought, both professionals reached the same conclusions – I had permanent brain damage from the trauma. I was too young when the neglect began, and it, along with the emotional abuse, went on too long. I was told it was a mere fluke that I had made it to university. That I should take medication, get some therapy and accept that I’d probably never do more than work part time for the rest of my life. Basically, kids with stories like mine didn’t make it.

But God had other ideas. He told me that I would be unwell for a long time, but that I would heal completely, and that my healing would enable healing through my family and that I would be able to heal others – the binding of broken hearts, the liberty to those who are bound (by emotional pain) and the repairing of the devastations of many generations.

Not long before the PTSD hit, I moved in with my best friend and her family. Pretty soon her mum started acting all motherly to me. I prayed about it, telling God how weird and uncomfortable I found it, and God said to me so sweetly, “Oh my girl, do you think I didn’t hear you when you cried out to me for a mother? I heard every cry and I saw every tear. I was always going to give you a mother. This woman wants to be a mother to you. Let her in''. I thought, this isn’t possible, I’m just making this up. No one wants to take a 21yr old abandoned kid as their own child. So I ignored it. The next day, as I was walking up the staircase, this mother was walking down. She stopped me in the middle of the staircase and said, “Shazza, you aren’t a boarder in my house, you are a daughter in my house. I want to love you as my own daughter, is that OK with you?” Only God knew that, in my high school years, this was the woman I used to tearfully ask God to become a mother to me. And only God knew what it meant for her to come to me on a staircase. God lovingly brought me a mother.

Another key moment in my recovery was when, still bedridden, I became angry with God. I said,  “You already allowed my parents to leave, and now I’ve lost my mind too! I can’t read, I can barely remember what day of the week it is! Of everything you could’ve taken from me, why did you take my mind! It was the one thing that enabled me to do really well in life! Take my arm, take my leg, but please don’t take my mind!” I expected Him to be angry at my defiance, but He wasn’t. He said, “Sharon, I took your mind because of how much you had come to rely on your own intelligence. Your intelligence has become so essential to your identity that you don’t feel good enough unless you’re being a high achiever. Don’t you know how precious you are to me? Don’t you know that you are enough just as you are? Do you not know that if all you could ever do was lie in this bed for the rest of your life, barely able to move, that you’d still be enough? You will not be able to properly get up from this bed, until you know that you are enough, just as you are”.

So I asked God to come and heal my heart from this. Words are not enough to describe how much this process changed my life. I remember the day I knew I was free from the feeling of “not good enough”. This massive weight lifted off me. Never since then have I struggled with anxiety about achievements or being enough. This healing has changed the way I do life. And it is so good!

Within 5 months I had already recovered more than the doctors expected, I could read teenage chapter books and work part time. But something was missing. I took this to God, to ask Him what the next step in my recovery was, and He said, “Sweetheart, it’s time to forgive your parents”. I passionately hated my parents for what they had done. But God showed me that refusing to forgive my parents was like constantly demanding from them a debt they could never repay. He helped me accept that they’d never be able to give me back the childhood I had lost. He showed me that we have all done wrong things, even I had. And that He died on the cross to take the debt for our wrong things, because He knew we could never repay those. Eventually, painfully I surrendered to God. I let Him have full control of my life and I made a commitment to begin the journey of forgiveness, because forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. Every day, whenever an angry thought came about my parents, I wouldn’t allow myself to dwell on it, I simply handed it to Him and asked Him to take my anger. It took 8 months, but I finally was able to be completely free of bitterness and anger toward my parents. More than that, I had love in my heart for them.

I recovered very quickly after making this decision. I went back to university and graduated, first class honours, senior scholar. I even founded the student social work association and ran a conference on social enterprise that year. The brain damage was well and truly repaired. The funny thing is though, these achievements didn’t change my perception of my worth, I was so content with who I was. I did these things, not to feel significant, but simply because I felt like it. But even better, I completely forgave my parents. There is not an ounce of pain or bitterness left in me. And long story short, God had also been working on my dad during that time. My dad and I have an amazing relationship now. My siblings and I also continued to work through the trauma dynamics between us and we are now super close. We are committed to not passing on the legacy of neglect to our children. And my mum is in a much better headspace now. God was true to His word, He bound my broken heart, set me free, and is rebuilding the devastations of my family.

A few years after my recovery I found some more beautiful verses in the Bible

“Do not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry”.  Exodus 22:22-23

“Even if my father and my mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close”. Psalm 27:10

“You keep track of all my sorrows, You have collected all my tears in your bottle” Psalm 56:8

Sometimes I wondered if I had somehow made up God’s kindness to me. I knew I hadn’t but my experience with Him was just so much more wonderful than what I hear about Him in the secular world. But when I found these verses, I knew that my experiences with God were His real character, and that He is true to His word. The Lord heard my cries and held me close.

So you see, social work is just natural for me. I have a deep understanding of pain and can relate to so many people because I know poverty, I know loss, I know child abuse, I know what it’s like to live with trauma, and I also know hope, I know love, I know how to work hard to change my own thought and behaviour patterns, I know healing. Social Work enables me to bring all these elements together to walk with people on their journey through pain or distress towards wellbeing. The best part is, I’m able to love people unconditionally and just keep loving them even when it’s hard. The reason is, I can love well, because I’ve been loved well. God has never stopped pouring His love out to me, this gives me an incredible well to love others from.

In saying that, I’ve had to learn a lot on the job as well. One thing I wasn’t expecting was the importance of having a strong backbone. Often people enter helping professions with much compassion and empathy. However I learnt that too much of this results in ineffective helping. You can end up failing to assist someone to help themselves which is actually a very empowering experience; and/or you can enable people to remain in unhelpful patterns of behaviour. At first setting strong boundaries with clients felt like I was being mean, that was hard to work through, but I learnt that it encourages clients to develop their ability to help themselves and importantly, models good boundary setting – a life skill I find many clients are lacking in their own lives.

Sharon with her fellow friends from Youth Advisory Panel - all wearing red T-shirts that say “Youth Speak”
Sharon with her fellow friends from Youth Advisory Panel - all wearing red T-shirts that say “Youth Speak”

I know you love your job! You do work in a field where you see the side of our societal problems that most don’t even want to acknowledge. What have been some of your personal and professional challenges and how do you deal with them?

I think the biggest challenge I face is how to maintain my own peace of mind when everyday I work with people in distress. Honestly, some days I feel like I can’t cope hearing one more sad story. Mostly I can leave work at work, but those close to me have seen how a difficult day affects me at home, I can feel low, stressed or just really need to be alone to recover. These days are not frequent, but they certainly occur. Being able to joke with colleagues or take a break by going for a walk are nice ways to cope at work. I also asked for a prayer room at work. I love being able to find peace and rest in God and give Him all my struggles. I also find it useful to consider my self-care from the standpoint of ‘what’s my diet’? Or what am I taking in mentally and emotionally? If I’m taking in a lot of negatives, I need to also balance that with lots of positives. Candles, cups of good tea, faith, friends and lots of laughs help a lot.

Another challenge is that many social work organisations place huge caseloads on social workers. This causes burnout. It amazes me that most organisations don’t enforce caseload limits as we all know overworked social workers aren’t that effective, and in some cases make dangerous decisions. I think though, it shows the psyche of many social workers – we are often very sacrificial people by nature and willing to burn ourselves out to help others. I think this is a reflection of the fact that many social workers are wounded healers, who may have not yet fully cared for themselves. I think this is where as a profession we need to mature. We need to ensure our workforce is healed and healthy and able to stand strong in our personal values and say ‘no’ to high caseloads.

Fortunately our management recently changed and a caseload limit has now been set. However, to ensure the health of our social workers and for best practice, the government needs to get serious about ensuring organisations are protecting us from high caseloads. I also think social workers and similar professions could do well with extra mental health days, some days in our job are traumatic, and knowing you can take a day off to recover is a real relief.

Could you share some of your values or mission that you have in life?

More than anything I want people to know the father heart of God. A lot of people have encountered religion – rules and regulations. But they haven’t encountered God. Few have encountered God intimately as Father. Most people have experienced suffering in life. Many distrust God, because they can’t comprehend that God’s promise was never that we wouldn’t have suffering – until Jesus returns we will have suffering. But God promises to love and care for us in our suffering. Few realise how lovingly God walks with us in our pain because few have wrestled with God in their pain. It amazes me that people don’t realise that they can take their pain, their anger, their hurt, their sadness, their anxieties to God. God never asked for our perfection. He asks us simply to come to Him, just as we are, and allow Him to heal and perfect us.

A key part of this mission for me is to weave together God and psychology. Good counselling is very healing and aligns well with Biblical principles. My mission is to learn both Godly wisdom and counselling skills to be an incredibly effective counsellor.

What I enjoy most is having the Holy Spirit direct me to help others. For example, one night I was driving home and saw a girl sitting at a bus stop. I felt God tell me to turn around and offer her a ride home. I thought it was a strange request, but I’ve learned to obey God so I did. We got chatting as I drove, turns out she was in an emotionally abusive relationship and didn’t know what to do. I helped her understand how such relationships work and how to get out of them. At the end of the conversation she told me she’d recently become a Christian but was struggling to feel God’s love, she wondered if God even cared. As she was sitting waiting for the bus she was asking God to show her He loved her, she felt like He’d answered her prayer. I smiled at this and told her that I too was a Christian and told her how God had directed me to her and of His great love for her. Tears filled her eyes, she couldn’t believe just how well God had answered her prayer. It was a beautiful moment, one of many I have had in allowing the Holy Spirit to lead me in sharing His Love with others.

Sharon with her 3 siblings and a niece
Sharon with her 3 siblings and a niece

Tell us a bit about your current role. What do you do there? What are some of the highlights?

Currently I’m a mental health clinician for the DHB’s youth mental health team. Basically I provide short term therapy for young people in distress. Highlights are helping young people process sad experiences and develop skills to improve their mental health; and my colleagues, I really enjoy my colleagues!

How are you feeling in the midst of COVID-19 crisis? You are considered an essential service so how has your work changed during these times?

Well we’ve gone from face to face appointments to Zoom sessions. We thought young people wouldn’t like this, but turns out many of them find it even better and open up more over Zoom, especially those with social anxiety. I think it shows just how comfortable young people are with technology being an intimate part of their lives. However we are looking forward to face to face appointments again as most young people do better when you can sit with them and draw things out with them on paper.

We faced a new challenge though, setting boundaries for clients to properly engage with our sessions has meant asking them to show up online sitting up and dressed. As many were Zooming in from their pyjamas whilst still in bed. We felt this was not helpful for their mental health and didn’t honour the therapeutic process. A real positive has been hearing how many families have actually found the lockdown good for them as a family, with a sense of peacefulness and real quality time. We were worried many would be tearing their hair out!

What brings you joy in a day to day life?

There are lots of little ways to find joy in day to day life. For me I find it in having meaningful relationships with people, good laughs, rock climbing, reminiscing on good times, adventures and beautiful cups of tea. But what I’ve really desired was a lasting joy that didn’t end soon after the moment ended.

Last year I read in the Bible that God inhabits the praises of His people and that in His presence is fullness of joy. Practically this means that if we spend time worshipping God we will have full joy. To be honest, I enjoyed spending time with God but I didn’t quite believe this. When I ended a long term relationship a few months later I decided to test it. After work I’d spend an hour worshipping God in the prayer room. Honestly the first few nights didn’t feel like much but I persisted. In the Bible God says, when you seek me with ALL your heart you will find me. Soon I felt a real change. I was genuinely happy all the time. I had a spring in my step. I still felt the sadness of losing my boyfriend and being single, but I had a joy and peacefulness alongside that. Then my family and friends started noticing. They told me how surprised they were that I just seemed so happy and peacefully content, they expected I’d be a bit down. And that’s when I knew it worked. Nothing is more wonderful than the presence of God.

Sharon giving a speech at her brother’s wedding
Sharon giving a speech at her brother’s wedding

Did you ever have an outrageous dream that maybe you didn’t think was possible but you secretly wanted it anyways?

When I was a teenager I really wanted to be prime minister by my early twenties. Hahaha glad that didn’t happen! Oh and I also dreamed of stopping Colombia’s civil war by using peaceful methods of negotiation. How I wish the world wasn’t so complex!

Giving back to the community, making an impact - a lot of people, especially during this COVID19 crisis, are thinking about these things. What’s your take on it? What would your advice be to someone who wants to do better for others in this world?

Firstly, I’d say it’s wonderful you want to help. This is a good desire. But then I’d ask, where does this desire come from? What need are you trying to fill? Who’s need are you trying to fill? Many people help to feel a sense of worth, fulfilment, or significance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s natural. But make sure you’ve found your security first. I find many millennials are driven to help others but underneath this is a need for significance, for greater meaning to life. This has led to some great initiatives, but it’s also led to a lot of ineffective helping. Remember, you are enough. Find love for yourself first. Real, genuine love. Then love out of that. So that your help isn’t dependent on your feelings. This leaves you more free to help effectively. Which would be my next question – what’s the most effective way for you to help? The answer to this is a combination of learning (a) what people actually need in terms of help, (b) what is the most effective way to provide this help, and (c) (because you can’t do everything) what skills, talents and passions do you have? What area does this make you most effective in? – help in that area.

Also, I think a lot of people want to help big. I mean like, they want to do something big and amazing. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But remember, humans flourish in meaningful relationships. Sometimes the best thing you can do is be a committed and loving neighbour, a committed and loving friend, a committed and loving mentor, a committed and loving family member. Notice I said committed and loving – people don’t need random acts of kindness, or help when they ask for it, they need consistent, genuine relationships. Most kids wouldn’t walk through my door if they just had this.

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here?

I’d love to read the story of Dave Tims. He and his wife intentionally moved into Mangere to build the community from the bottom up. Their work involves community work, social enterprises etc. Their organisation is called Urban Neighbours of Hope. I think you’d love their work ;)

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