I want to start with my favorite quote:
“It is your reaction to adversity, not the adversity itself, that determines how your life’s story will develop”.
I think it describes my story perfectly and gives me the strength to overcome adversity.
Age 2-6: A missing parent, divorce, and an empty home
Mom was working in another city across the country and was never around. Dad was barely around either and often left me with his cousin Lan to take care of me. As a child I desperately wanted mom to come home, but when she did, dad would rarely come home. When they were physically together, they would always fight. Oftentimes I would be woken up by the sound of their fighting, which was then followed by mom telling me how terrible my dad was.
The endless fights eventually led to the dissolution of their marriage. The court gave custody of me to my dad. But dad rarely came home before 2am, so I spent most of my time either being alone or with his cousin Lan, who was my primary caretaker. On most days, the only chance for me to see dad was when I got up in the middle of the night to go the bathroom, when he would be watching TV in the living room.
One evening I had acute gastroenteritis and could not even stand up straight or talk because of the pain. Lan called my dad to ask him to come home and take me to the hospital, but he never did. So Lan called my mom, who was living on the other side of the city. Not having a car, mom had to beg her friend to drive her to come take care of me. I woke up at 2am by the sound of dad coming home and fighting with my mom. Dad kicked mom out, and went to his room, without checking on his sick daughter.
Out of all of my birthdays that I could remember, dad only showed up once: my 4th birthday.
Age 6-10: Cancer, death, bullying, and silent cries.
Dad got liver cancer and was hospitalized for 2.5 years before passing away, three weeks before my 9th birthday. From age 6 till 9 I spent almost all of my weekends, summer, and winter breaks at hospital. I didn’t get to play with other kids during breaks, and Lan was my only companion, who also needed to take care of dad. Eventually Lan had to be at my dad’s side 24/7 as his condition worsened, so I went to live with mom.
Three weeks before my 9th birthday, dad gave me a watch as an early birthday present, telling me that he regretted not celebrating my past birthdays with me, and that he may not be able to for this one either. He said he was so tired and wanted a long rest. He wanted me to come back the next day and told my mom to bring a cake and a photo of me.
That night he passed away in the middle of the night. He was 38. Mom got the phone call from Lan at 2:30am and I was woken up by her crying. We didn’t even get to say goodbye. Just earlier in the day we were planning to bring a cake and make an early celebration of my birthday. But all of sudden I lost a parent.
A couple of kids in my class bullied me and called me a bastard without a dad. I eventually transferred to a different school that was closer to my mom’s place. I was happy to not have to see the bullies again.
Mom told me I needed to be strong for myself and for her. To not disappoint her and not make her sad, I barely cried in front of her or told her how much I was hurt by dad’s death. For lots of nights I just silently wept under the covers. I had many nightmares of seeing my dad’s dead body, but I could not do anything but to watch it rot away. Oftentimes I would wake up crying and could not go back to sleep. Days were not much better than nights. Whenever I saw other kids hanging out happily with their parents, or their parents picking them up from school, I felt a sense of loss and loneliness.
Age 10+: Intruders.
Mom started dating different people. After dating different people on and off, she got married to a man from a different city, who promised her to come live with us but never did. They did long distance, and when he visited, mom would turn into a different person, as if I was either invisible, or just in their way. I could not watch TV because the new husband wanted to watch TV; I had to be out of the house a lot to give them space. And when he and I had conflicts, mom always scolded me, yelling that I was deliberately sabotaging her marriage, and at times would even hit me. I felt like I was a burden to her, an unwanted child that’s in the way of her new family and happiness. I felt like she would be happier if I didn’t exist.
Their marriage soon fell apart after one year and mom would continue to date other people. Whenever a man came over to our house, mom would tell me to spend the night at my friend’s place. I felt like I was in the way again, and home didn’t feel like home anymore. It felt like a temporary shelter from which I could be thrown out at any time when she forms a new family.
In her most vulnerable or angry moments, she would say what I had feared the most - “You make me so tired. You are such a bad child and a burden. I sometimes just want to kick you to death”.
An empty home, silence, and a ticking time bomb.
Mom never found the relationship she wanted, so she spent all her time working and was never home. She was always working even on weekends, and at night after dinner she would go out for a walk for hours.
At the dinner table, she often ate in silence with a tight frown on her face. Oftentimes if I tried to tell her about my day, she would be annoyed and tell me to stop talking because she was not in the mood. Although we didn’t always eat dinner in silence and frowns, and she sometimes listened to me when she was in a good mood, she never seemed to have enough patience for me to finish the story before getting distracted. Luckily, if I was very distressed and crying, she would pay attention to me and try to comfort me. While I appreciated her efforts, I was convinced that the only way she would pay attention to me is if I stayed unhappy.
Perhaps typical for an Asian mom, she was always very critical of me. “You are bow-legged and have thick legs, you need to cover them up.” “You walk like a man.” “Your personality is awful and if you don’t change your personality, you will have no friends and will never be able to find a husband.” It was hard not to internalize those criticisms when that’s all you hear every day, and I started to have deep convictions that everyone will eventually dislike me and leave me like the way my parents had turned their backs on me.
Mom’s mood seemed to be bad on most days whenever she was around me. Even very small things like asking where the water pitcher was when she was doing something else could set her off and result in her yelling. And if I misbehaved or got bad grades in school, hitting awaited where she would throw objects at me, hit and kick me, or grab my hair as if she would bang it on the wall. (Hitting children is common and viewed as normal disciplining by her generation in my country). The hitting stopped after 9th grade. But the unpredictable yelling never did.
Age 14-19: Depression and hopelessness.
I was diagnosed with severe depression and the doctor told my mom that I might commit suicide. I was put on heavy sedatives and had to be watched 24 hours. Eventually I had to take a year off of high school. I never made any suicide plans. But I always fantasized about what a relief it would be for both myself and my mom if I could just die. Life was full of pain and not worth living.
Mom would be nice to me and not yell at me when I was depressed. She tried to get me to talk to her. But it felt too little and too late. I had already given up reaching out to her. Her sudden attention felt overwhelming and even made me feel angry. I was afraid that if I opened up to her, I would be let down again. And it was true. On days that I was feeling better and smiling again, she went back to her usual unpredictable time-bomb yelling mode. I felt like I could only be safe if I stayed depressed.
When I went back to school and made new friends, one of my best friends’ dad called my mom on the phone saying that he didn’t want his daughter hanging out with someone with a mental illness. No one around me had ever heard of depression before and the mental illnesses were highly stigmatized in my culture. Many students gossiped about me behind my back, and I found out that someone I considered as a close friend was doing the same. I wanted to escape. I felt like there was no place for me in this world.
Age 15-19: Domestic violence.
Mom met someone who seemed to be so caring and had such a good temper. On top of everything, he listened to me talk about what happened in school each day at dinner. That was what I had always dreamed of, that someone would actually be willing to listen to me talk about my day. I felt like I finally found a second dad. I was so happy to have a real family again.
After a year of living with us, one day, he suddenly lost his temper over something trivial. He had turned into a monster, yelling at my mom, throwing objects at her, and hitting her. My cousin Rui tried to stop him from getting to my mom, who went hiding in the bedroom, so he kicked Rui so hard that left a huge bruise on her leg. After that, he would often lose his temper and yell and throw things at my mom for the smallest things. He never hit me, but the unpredictable temper outbursts and the hitting of my mom never stopped. And one day when he was drunk, he unhooked my bra.
Mom tried to separate with him, but I felt and still feel ashamed to admit that even though I was so angry at him for everything he did and for betraying our trust, the thought of him leaving felt like I was reliving the pain of my parents separating when I was four again, so I slipped into depression. Sensing that it was hurting me, mom put up with him for a little longer. I still feel guilty till this day for unintentionally making my mom stay with a monster because I was not able to regulate my emotions.
My mom eventually had enough of him and kicked him out of our house after I came to the US for college. A year later he started harassing me on social media, sending me long messages calling my mom a bitch, all because she got a new boyfriend. Mom said that he also came banging and kicking on our door at night when she was home alone. It was only then that she finally told me the real reason she became so determined to leave him - he beat her up so badly he almost killed her.
Today mom is married to someone else who also yells a lot, but it saddens me that she would say “at least he’s not physically violent”. That’s such a low bar.
Age 19: Freedom.
The life in America was everything I had wanted. I wanted to escape my country because I felt suffocated by the toxic culture in my hometown. I was able to pursue my dreams and felt like I could finally be myself. I found my passions and made many good friends. People didn’t seem nearly as judgmental here compared to Asia. I felt like I was finally able to breathe.
Age 20: Sexual assault.
During the second semester of my sophomore year in college, I was sexually assaulted by another student who I did not know. It happened when I was walking back to my dorm from my neuroscience class. When I passed another dorm building, someone asked me to be a participant for his class project. Remembering that I had been asking people to participate in my experiments just a semester ago, I agreed to help him. Instead of giving me the survey right there, he led me into his dorm building. I started feeling uncomfortable, but luckily, he led me to the common lounge area which I thought was safe.
There was no one in the lounge and I later realized that the lounge door was locked from the inside. He said his project was for a physically therapy class and that he needed to perform a massage and get feedback. He started to touch me and slowly proceeded to put his hands under my clothes and my bra. I was confused and could not comprehend what was going on, so I froze. He then got on top of me and started groping me. I started screaming “Let me go! Let me go!” But he said “shush, let me finish” and refused to get up. I eventually managed to get him off of me and ran out of the room.
The next day I had dinner with three of my friends and told them about the incident for emotional support, but their reaction was “Why did you even go into the building with him? Why did you not fight back and leave immediately? What happened to your Taekwondo training?” I didn’t have an answer. After all, I had a black belt in Taekwondo and could have at least tried to fight back even if he was forceful. All I knew was that I was confused and didn’t know what to do so I froze. “It was my fault for putting myself in that situation. I was stupid and weak.” was the message I walked away with after talking to them. I didn’t tell my mom about the incident because I knew she would have said the same thing. The following days and weeks were marked by confusion, self-doubt, and self-disgust.
I reported him to the school and spent the remaining semester recounting the incident to different officials and going to multiple hearings. They put a restraining order on him, but I still saw him on campus multiple times because his dorm building was next to mine. Every time I saw him at the food court, I felt like throwing up.
After a whole semester of hearings and investigations, the school eventually decided to expel him. He made an appeal during finals week when I was drowned by tests and papers, but he didn’t even show up to that final hearing. I don’t know if he did that just to mess with me.
Even though I was severely depressed because of the incident, I still studied very hard and finished the semester with As and A+s in all my classes. I didn’t want to let him mess up my transcript like he messed up my mind.
When I think about the event now, how I handled it was such a marker of strength and empowerment. Today, I am very proud of my past self for reporting him and getting him expelled, especially in light of the #Metoo movement. But back then, I had felt guilty for getting him expelled and ruining his life, while simultaneously feeling guilty to myself for thinking that everything was my fault. It took me a couple years to truly feel that the whole event was not my fault.
Age 21-28: Growth.
Because of those painful memories, I have depressive episodes once in a while and have been taking antidepressants every single day for the past 15 years of my life so I could reduce the risk of having a relapse.
At first I blamed myself for being weak every time I had a relapse and often wondered why I have to take medications just to be normal. But I noticed that over the years each relapse was getting shorter and shorter, and after each relapse I grew a little stronger, and less afraid of a future relapse. Those relapses then became badges of the battles I had won, reminding me how strong of a person I have become. Then the relapses became less and less frequent, to the point I rarely got them anymore. It’s as if it realized that it cannot beat me anymore.
My friends often say that I am a ball of energy that lights up their day with my positivity, and many were surprised to hear that I had depression and still have to take antidepressants on a daily basis.
I went on to get my PhD in psychology, showing myself that I am not easily shattered by my painful past and can stay strong no matter what life throws at me. In the end, I am grateful for my depression and the traumatic experiences that made me the strong and resilient person I am today. Because of these experiences, I found the passion of my life (research in psychology), developed a lot of empathy and compassion for those around me because I know how it feels to be in pain, and learned how to stand tall in the face of adversity.
Age 29: Reconciliation
2020 was a year of stress for everyone and for me because of the pandemic. Completely isolated, with family being half a world away and friends socially distancing, I had to get over a breakup, go through my dad’s 20th death anniversary, and mourn the sudden death of my uncle all by myself in my 500ft studio apartment. Not surprisingly, depression visited. And as usual, I fought it off.
Despite the world being turned upside down, in a sense 2020 was also the most meaningful year of my life, because my mom and I finally were able to reconcile and talk about what had happened in those early years. To my surprise, she listened to me so patiently and attentively, and apologized to me for not being emotionally available and not being able to regulate her own emotions.
She told me how the divorce, my dad’s death, and raising me by herself had nearly shattered her and that she was so emotionally worn out by raising me as a single mom in a sexist society that she didn’t have any loving energy to spare. She had desperately wished that someone could save us from the hopelessness she had felt, but realizing that there was no one to rely on, she had to work hard and stay strong. She didn’t know how to contain all the anger and despair, yet she had to be a smiling and pleasant employee at work, so she dumped all her negativity on me and became angry when she perceived I was deliberately sabotaging her only chance of finding shelter for us. She said she really did love me and tried her best to provide for me so I wouldn’t experience hunger and poverty or feel inferior to the richer kids. She just didn’t realize that taking care of a child also means taking care of her emotional world as well.
She said her biggest regret in her life was the way she treated me and that if she could start all over again, she would give all her love to me and make me feel loved and protected. I started to understand how miserable and hopeless she must have felt too and lament that back then we had to each grieve those painful experiences emotionally alone instead of together. We cried, and we got closer.
My mom has since become my best friend. We have been talking on the phone catching up about life several times a week. I am amazed by how attentive and loving she is now. Even though we could only chat through video, I could feel her loving warmth behind the screen. She has grown a lot over the years too. Our conversations became very deep and each time we bonded even more.
Today I am very happy with where I am in life. I am so grateful for my experiences, and for the loving people that have come into my life. My heart that was once filled with fear and self-loathe in the past is now filled by self-love, courage, and compassion. That scared little child crying in the dark alone, hoping someone would see and hear her, is no longer surrounded by darkness and silence, but by love, warmth, and strength. And she knows - no matter what happens, she has the strength to overcome it and come out even stronger.