Trigger Warning: This story contains descriptions of mental and sexual abuse, depression, and attempted suicide.
Almost a year ago, pre-pandemic, I was sitting on a beautiful beach on the island of Koh Rong, Cambodia. I was on a family trip with my mom, uncle, sister, and her husband. This was an important trip for our family, especially my mom. We would be visiting her hometown of Battambang and the Killing Fields, where she spent four years of her life during the genocide, where nearly two million civilians were murdered.
My fascination with my family history and culture was not awoken until after a tumultuous breakup. I was in a narcissistic abusive relationship and traveled down the rabbit hole to what led me to attract this partner. I started studying my family’s history of untreated anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I read books on trauma, epigenetics, codependency, and narcissism. Leading me to seek out stories of my family’s experience during the genocide.
It took me 30 years to become curious about my Cambodian culture. For so long, I assimilated so heavily to American culture, specifically white culture. I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, and I went to an even whiter college in Wisconsin. Most of my friendships and every man I dated was white. I had distanced myself so from my cultural roots, just to blend in with everyone else.
Before my catastrophic breakup, I began to live journal my emotions in an anonymous Instagram account I created, called Sincerely Miss Mary. My writing was an outlet for my spoken truths about the pain I was enduring in my toxic relationship. What started as a few lines of modern poetry eventually turned into prose and full-blown personal essays. My everyday habit of formulating words that can pull your heartstring shifted my passion from designing handbags at Tommy Hilfiger, to become a published memoir author.
I had believed my natural ability to write was a coincidence. Still, it wasn’t until I went to Cambodia did I realize writing was a gift passed down from members of my family who died during the Khmer Rouge Regime. I savor these memories of this trip of hearing my mom tell stories of escaping the genocide in the very place she once called home.
On this island, I learned my great-uncle was a famous writer and a diplomat of Indonesia. He was one of the first to be murdered in the family because of his well-known intellect.
My aunt, my mom’s oldest sister, passed away from starvation, holding my uncle’s hand. She was an incredible storyteller and had she been alive today, we could have listened to her tales. My Grandpa was a community builder in Battambang. He built the first university in Cambodia and sponsored many schools. When he got the news of the Pol Pot regime, he was in America at the time and made the fateful decision to go back to Cambodia to rescue his family, knowing he would risk getting captured and murdered.
He did reunite with my family in Cambodia. It is a beautiful story I will retell someday. However, he, unfortunately, passed away soon after they fully immigrated to America.
I felt a weight lift off my shoulders when I uncovered these stories of my ancestors. My gift of writing, storytelling, and community building was passed down to me by those unable to see their dreams through. None of them died in vain because I carry all of their gifts to continue their legacy.
Looking back on moments in my life when I endured prolonged trauma and abuse, I now know I was never alone.
I was never alone when my ex-boyfriend broke up with me after publicly condemning his best friend for sexually assaulting me.
I was never alone when a female boss at a toxic fashion label was bullying, manipulating, and abusing me.
I was never alone on the corner of 18th and Broadway when I tried to jump in front of traffic to end my life, and a dear friend showed up just in time to stop me.
Life coach, Stephanie Venditto, and a dear friend of mine told me one day: in the darkness, we find our gifts. These words have never been so true in my life as I continue to connect how my ancestors paved the way for me to walk this path of courage and vulnerability.
It was in the darkness they gave me the gift of writing. It was in the darkness they taught me how to tell stories. It was in the darkness where they gave me the strength to share my truths, to be my most authentic self, and lead a life of self-expression. A world that was taken from them too soon now lives inside of me.