Portrait of a Survivor
by Chansoda Roeun
This is my mother.
Growing up, no one explains to you that your parents are living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That what caused their PTSD, was, for a period of their life, having to live through some of the most atrocious events in human history, where policies were set up to disregard human life and produce repression and massacres on a massive scale. That the beautiful country they grew up in and loved was suddenly turned in to a living hell, a mass graveyard for 2 million of their fellow Khmers, buried among them are several of their loved ones. No one explains to you how they risked their lives to escape what was once their home, and that we, the children of our parents, ended up in America for that very reason, and how the repercussions of their suffering will weave it’s way in to the fabric of our being. We are left to put these pieces together, to try to understand just how the haunting ghosts of their past have shaped them, and essentially, have come to shape us.
In May of 2010, my father went out to run an errand but never returned, a few miles away he suffered a fatal brain aneurysm at the age of 58, leaving us in shock from the news of his unexpected death. As unprepared as we were to suddenly have to say good-bye to him, nothing prepared us for how this loss would affect my mother. Witnessing her helplessly fall apart, exposing all her grief, pain, and misery. I saw just how deep her scars went, how much of her damaged past she still carries with her, how amazingly true my parent’s love for each other was, and absolutely, how strong, funny, and resilient this frail woman is.
It was heartbreaking. Extremely. Gut-wrenchingly. Heartbreaking.
To see her like this, that we couldn’t fix this for her, that no one really can… She was not suffering only from the loss of my father, but re-experiencing every loss, every traumatic event, every deep fear that she had faced in her life, and it hit her like a tsunami. The pain flooding in beyond her emotional and physical capacity to carry this, drowning without her usual rock to cling to. The person who helped shoulder the pains of experiencing the worst in humanity, and put forth the light to find joy and hope to continue on despite it all was now gone. He knew her life before it was forever changed by the Khmer Rouge, he was the reminder of the happy carefree days of their youth in a country they no longer recognized. Who can she reminisce about that with now? He was one half of a loving pair that rebuilt this new life with her from nothing, for their children so they would not be subjected to the horrors they went through. He was a devoted partner in this tumultuous journey that she completely bonded with, the truest definition of soul mates. In this foreign land, when they couldn’t understand their americanized children, at least they understood each other, standing together in isolation as this culture takes them further away from their children. When she slipped in to one of her episodes from what I now recognize as a symptom of PTSD, my father would leave his work to pacify her from this edge, because he understood what we never could, he was there, and always promised to be there. Then he passed away, suddenly, leaving her to try to make sense of all this alone.
She had to let it all bleed out. She couldn’t handle it, she did not want to. She broke down and spiraled in to mental and emotional instability because it was all too much. I really feared that she was never going to be able to pull out of it, but somehow she managed, and we managed, to carry on… for better or worse, she endures, that’s the survivor in her, and that’s what she instilled in me.
Her strength and resilience is truly an inspiration.
I started bringing my camera with me on my visits to my mom’s house. Now, three years removed from when he died, these portraits of my mother are from this past year, documenting the moments on how she continues to carry on, as a survivor.