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Breaking Good: From crystal meth to God’s miracle

Graduation Day for Masters Degree in Nursing Psychiatric Mental Health Practitioner, 2016.

“I never realized how it was gonna unfold, but my world then came down to nothing,” said Shelly Lynn Peters. “I thought, If I could go back and do life over again, I would take my kids to church, and I would go back to school. So, I started realizing that the downfall or destruction of my old self was God’s answer to my prayer of being able to start over.”

At that point in 1997, Shelly was living in Nevada, had broken off a 10–year  relationship, and had two children. She had 15 years’ worth of drug misuse, had experienced instances of domestic violence, and had two abortions. “I was what I call a ‘crystal meth size 5,’ ” she remembers. “I also had a few broken molars. I thought I was at the point of no return. I met my match with trying everything I could in my own strength. That was the end of it. It looked like my life was ruined.” She had also filed for bankruptcy and totaled her uninsured car.

“I can remember writing in a journal back then; ‘It’s like being on an airplane that’s on fire. You have a choice: you can stay on it and go down or you can jump and see what happens.’ So, in my understanding then, I jumped.”


 A Valentine’s Day to remember

On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1998, after three and a half years in Nevada, Shelly returned home to Syracuse, N.Y. “I came back on the airplane with a bag of clothes and my two kids,” she remembers. “My parents went out to a Buffalo, N.Y., airport in the middle of the night to pick us up.” Her return triggered mixed feelings and family memories.

Shelly’s dad had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was about 27. So, when he went off his meds, the family experienced his angry, psychotic episodes. “He would suspect mom didn’t love him anymore and he slammed things,” she recalls. “Growing up, I hated it when he yelled at my mother.”


A new heart takes shape

Shelly began attending a small church. “I had been clean maybe two weeks, so my mind was still ruined and racing and severely depressed.

“But we got into that church and on the floor,  there were little construction paper hearts like the ones Sunday school kids make and play with. I picked up one of the hearts and in that heart, it  just read, ‘Jesus loves me.’ ” While in tears, Shelly further recalls, “I held on to that little heart for about 20 years because—it was for me.”

In August 2001, Shelly’s relationship with The Salvation Army began when her mother dropped her off at an emergency shelter for women in Syracuse. Shelly had a bag of clothes and a bag of books. It was a Saturday, so after she received her bunk for the night, she walked around downtown. She prayed, “God you’ve got to show me what church you want me to go to.” At that point, Shelly was ready to attend any church whose minister would preach that day.

As a seeker, Shelly walked down South Street and then down Main Street and into area churches until she grew tired. Upon her return to the Salvation Army shelter, she met then–Captains Dennis and Sharon Young, leaders of the Syracuse Citadel Corps. “I met them, and I knew I was gonna start going to the Citadel right there next to the shelter. I was living there during the attacks of 9/11, which makes it such a symbolic anniversary for me.”


Christopher Peters, the Salvation Army computer guy, and Shelly were married in 2003.

A hunger for God’s word

During the Red Kettle season that year, then–Captain Sharon Young asked Shelly if she was interested in doing a temporary data entry job for the bellringers. For the next four years, Shelly studied Scripture, and as she lovingly says, “Learned how to get up in the morning!”

The Youngs, who today are retired officers, remembers Shelly’s work ethic and hunger for God’s word. “One thing I will always remember,” says Major Dennis Young, “Is that she was always receptive to the word of God. From the time we met her, she started coming down to the corps and got involved in things. She wanted to hear the Word, she listened, and she took good advice.”

“She did well in getting back on her feet,” remembers Major Sharon Young. “She met her husband Chris as a result of coming to the corps.” Shelly also sang in the choir.

At the time, Chris Peters was an information technology specialist at the corps. “I really had been praying at the time for a husband,” said Shelly, “But it didn’t happen. Yet, when I changed my prayer life, my life changed.

“A few months passed before we really got together. But I knew who he was, and we would talk a lot and that’s how I met him. That’s how I got more involved with the church at the Salvation Army corps and with the Youngs.”

On December 6, 2003, the Northeast was in the grip of a winter storm. High winds blew and deep snow blanketed much of the area.  But for Shelly Lynn and Christopher Peters, the computer guy, it was the “loveliest” of days as family and friends gathered at the Citadel to witness Majors John and Juanita Morrison, the new corps officers, ceremoniously  join Shelly and Chris in marriage.


An education commences

Chris’ loving support helped open the next chapter of Shelly’s miraculous makeover. “I had no real idea I was going into psychiatry at that time,” she recalls, “but I went to OCC Community College part time, starting with math and English. So, at age 37, I had to learn how to write a paragraph!

“I didn’t know what a thesis sentence was or any of that stuff.  Chris was very helpful in teaching me and helping me understand. So, I worked part time it as a lunch lady in an elementary school and went to school myself part time.”

That same year, Shelly’s grandmother suffered a heart attack in the hospital. While visiting her, Shelly became aware of God’s presence and the possibility of transitioning to a home health aide job.  “In the spring of 2004, my grandmother left the hospital via her ‘promotion to glory.’  I had not yet become a certified home health aide, but it was among the good that came from adversity,” Shelly remembers.

“I did not have a car, but I thought, if God wants me to be a home health aide, He’ll provide whatever I need.” Although she had a driver’s license, Chris did most of the driving.

While in training, a teacher who was also a nurse, asked the students if any of them had plans to also become nurses. “I looked at my hand go up and I’m like, Really? I’m going into nursing?”  Shelly thought. She was still in the throes of much emotional pain and suffering regarding her kids, of whom she had joint custody.


A makeover continues

For the next five years, Shelly continued in school and transitioned to nursing in which she earned an associate degree.  After graduation, she took a job on the trauma surgery floor at Upstate Hospital. She and Chris began attending a United Methodist Church.

Nine months later, Shelly enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program and was accepted into the College of Nursing at Upstate University. An injury she sustained on the job ironically open the door for her to attend college full time while receiving workers compensation. “So, God used a negative for good,” she says.

In 2011, Shelly earned her bachelor’s degree from Upstate University Hospital SUNY Upstate Medical University. She later attended Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (CRCDS). She became a certified candidate for ordained ministry with the United Methodist Church. She attended CRCDS during the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.

That spring, Shelly went back to work as a nurse, “because I really needed the money,” she remembers. “ I did night shift. I thought I could work three nights and then go to seminary full time.”

But the load was too much. “I tried to do that for the semester, but I couldn’t. I made peace with nursing, then I withdrew from seminary. I transferred those credits into the master’s program at University Hospital and began the family nurse practitioner program for my master’s in nursing.”

I was doing my coursework and I was working, but I wanted a day job.  I went to Hutchings Psychiatric Center. During the orientation, I realized I was gonna go into psychiatry. I changed my matriculation to psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.”


A priceless gift

Today, Shelly has a private, independent practice in psychiatry. She cares for a diverse patient population from children, to adults in their 80s. “A lot of trauma, a lot of substance misuse, depression, anxiety, and dementia,” she says.

Majors John and Anita Stewart, now retired, work with Shelly at the office. They do group therapy, including a “Celebrate Recovery” program and individual counseling with Shelly’s clients.  Ella Gunn, secretary to the Stewarts for ten years, is a vital member of the team. Shelly says, “Our patients know they are loved by God because the very Spirit of Jesus flows through each of us.

“We love those who have been called ‘the unlovable.’  We love them dearly.  They are not sick—they are human beings made in the image of God. When they realize that our office is a safe space,  I  can nurture them, I can care for them, and I can educate them on some of the mental health academic studies that I’ve done.

“If there’s anything that’s my greatest gift, it’s that I walk with them. I understand their struggles. That’s where the empathy comes in. If God can do this with my life, He can do it with anybody’s.”

A most powerful scripture for Shelly comes from Proverbs 3:6. “In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight, (NASB).” She says, “It’s not straight according to a ruler, is straight according to God’s purpose for our lives.”

by Warren L. Maye