Tien, 31
Tien, 31

Suddenly, I am pulled  from my deep slumber by a loud flushing noise. I open my eyes, and all I see is a small, dull colored room. The insidious sound vibrates through my body, leaving me in utter shock. I begin to clear my eyes and the lingering fog encompassing my mind. I must have been in a dream because I can remember feeling a cloud-like mattress on my backside. The vivid scene of my family and friends surrounds me and that genuine smile racing across my face. The thunderous sound of the flushing toilet only a feet away from my head shattered that peaceful dream. I feel the cold metal underneath the paper-thin mattress against my back. A teardrop forms at the corner of my eyes as loneliness sets in. The abrupt confusion fades away and the daunting truth seeps into consciousness. I am in prison! And have been for the past six years. I feel the sorrow coming in strong waves, hitting me over and over again. My mind had done its best to create an illusion of momentary joy. But it failed miserably, and I sit here living with the pain of reality.

My cellmate woke up to take a leak. As he slowly climbs back up onto his rack, I glance at my clock and realize it’s time to get ready for the day. I push myself off the old, rust encrusted bunk and take three long steps to the sink. As I wash my face, a part of me still wishes that I was in that dream. Looking ahead, I stare at the reflection before me in a four by six mirror. Like any other day in prison, I begin with my usual routine of positive self affirmation. As I go through my daily mantras, a loud mechanical click rings to my left side as the solid metal cell door slides open. A booming voice roars through the housing unit’s PA system in the early morning: “Nguyen, report to visiting for your family visit.” A joyful reminder of what I was going to experience sent a surge of energy through my body. I am excited at the prospect of seeing my family. But also nervous. The anxiety arose from the list of questions I had for my mother, and the uncertainty of how things will go. Quickly, I put on my blue prison uniform and grab my ID as I exit quietly from the cell. I make an attempt to close the metal door with as much elegance as possible, but as it slides shut it makes that same mechanical sound, stirring my cellmate from his sleep.

I arrive at the visiting room and am waiting to be processed in. It takes about thirty minutes. As I sit there, my mind goes into overdrive, imagining all kinds of horrid things, which robs me of the joy of the moment. With such great discomfort eating away at me, I decide to do a seated meditation to calm the storm that is brewing inside of me. After fifteen minutes I feel the joy that was taken from me returning. The rampaging thoughts of how the visit will be and how my mother would react to the questions drifted away. With empathy, I was ready to accept my mother’s responses as they presented themselves.

My family arrives shortly afterwards, we exchange hugs. But when I approach my mother for an embrace, I sense a hesitancy from her. After six years of incarceration it is still awkward to show affection between us. In that moment I  recall my life before prison. My parents had shown little to no affection to their children. Words such as, “I love you,” were never spoken in the home. Standing before my mother, I am willing to be vulnerable, even if it means rejection. Just as those fears begin to shroud my mind, they disperse in an instant as my mothers warm embrace envelops me. A stream begins to flow freely from each side of my face. My greatest fear has just vanished, with that one embrace my need for love and affection is met in this brief moment. Filled with joy, I blurt out, “I love you mom.” Silence fills the air as my mother struggles to respond. Yet, in this moment she didn’t need to say a word, her warm embrace was enough. This is the first time I said these words to my mother, and it’s the first time I felt a genuine connection to her.

We sit down as a family to eat, which is highly unusual in my family. I wait until our bellies are full and the dishes are done to grab my list of questions. I know this was a great opportunity to get to know my parents better. The questions pertain to my mother’s history as a child growing up in Vietnam and how she met my father. There were a few questions of her experience in the United States and the challenges she faced raising my brothers and I. I have hopes that she will answer my questions honestly and openly. As I present the questions to my mother, she seems quite skeptical at first. My mother asks questions like, “Who’s going to read all this?”, “Are they listening to us right now?” I hear the fear and paranoia in her voice, but quell them by reassuring her the questions are solely for my benefit and that we are not being recorded.

With my mother at ease we converse about her childhood. As a child she never had to lift a finger because her family was quite wealthy. All of that luxury came to an end when the Vietnamese government stripped away the wealth from her family. The following years were filled with hardship and she struggled to adapt. This illuminated why my mother had been so leery of authority figures. My mother met my father in her early teen years. She described him as an alcoholic and player. My father had experienced the same displacement trauma as my mother. Their homes had been ransacked and the people dwelling in them were left with the bare necessities. As the years passed, my parents’ relationship became more dysfunctional because each lacked trust and built up resentments toward each other. Despite my mother’s feelings, their relationship continued and my older brother was born. Her parents disapproved of my father, but with a grandson on the way they simply gave in.

Since my father’s eldest sister had married an American, his family was offered an opportunity to live in the United States. My parents took this opportunity immediately. My mother made the choice to leave her parents’ side of the family behind with the hopes that one day she could offer them a better life. Bombarded with hopes and dreams of success in the land of opportunities, my parents failed to think of the challenges they would face. They arrived in this new foreign country in 1989 and quickly realized the magnitude of their decision. The language and cultural differences were way beyond their wildest imagination. Faced with a choice to stay or go back home, my parents chose to stay in hopes of improving conditions for our family. In Vietnamese culture there is a tendency to sacrifice the individual for the good of the family. My mother’s insecurities and trauma made her defensive, and resistant to change. Her past resentment carried over to the new government, magnifying her sense of entitlement. She believed the government should support her for all they had taken away from her, even though hers was a displaced anger towards the United States. Behind her words I sense some guilt of her leaving her family behind and being the only one to have a better chance at life. In talking with my mother I discover that both my parents have their own unresolved traumas that continue to affect their lives today, and I choose to commend my mother in her moment of vulnerability.

My story helps create new connections with people and offers understanding to myself and those I have harmed. In every instance that I share my story I end with a quote that has a great impact on my life, “There is only one thing permanent in life, and that is change.” What a fickle thing life is. Pain and joy has become interdependent to me as I view the world through new lenses.

In those two days I had discovered more about my parents than in the twenty-nine years I had been on this Earth. I was grateful for the presence of my brothers and sister, who helped me to translate and interpret when there was a lack of understanding. What was most impactful was the bond we shared as a family and how we all had a chance to express ourselves. My younger sister had the opportunity to express herself to my mother. This became an open and safe environment now for her to do so. I sat with my sister as she cried out in pain, cried out how much it had hurt when my mother placed moral judgments on her. My mother’s expectations of her seemed impossible to fulfill, and the shame that developed from rejection and failure, diminished my sister’s confidence. I was present with her as I acknowledged the pain and shame of her experience

In return, my mother expressed her concern and the stress she had about my sister’s recent behavior. I continued to mediate between the two as my brothers assisted me. It was a painful experience, but at the same time beautiful, a true healing for us all. Like my sister, I carried a similar pain and resentment towards my mother. Mine was so great that I refused to embrace the native language that would have made communication with my mother so much easier. It was a way for me to disconnect from my parents. Yet, on those two days, as my mother shared her life story, I felt my long time resentment and pain fade away.

With insight into my parents lives, I cultivated an everlasting love for them. From my mother’s stories, I began to see and understand them both through a more compassionate lens. There was a strong stirring of remorse in me for how I treated my parents. This visit was a pivotal event in my life and set me off to do some introspection of my own.

Over the next few months in the cell, and with support from various treatment groups, I began dissecting my life. Taking pen to paper, I begin to map out a timeline of my life. It would be the blueprint I needed to start putting things in perspective. Starting with my childhood, from my first memory to about the age of 12, I began to write. But I could feel the resistance in me pulling me away from those traumatic times, telling me  I was not ready. The tremendous pain I had anticipated reared its ugly face. How many times did I ask myself, “How much do I want to examine my past?,” “Do I want to face it?,” “Am I going to give up?” All the pain and suffering that I longed to forget. However, with encouragement and patience from my peers and counselors, a strong stirring of courage came forth as I prepared to examine my life.

With the timeline structure, which consisted of significant life events, I began to write. The majestic pen flowed fluidly onto those sheets of paper as I began to go in-depth about my childhood. My face grew cold with streaks pouring down as those floodgates burst open. All the suppressed emotions bottled up inside of me erupted into existence. As I wrote about certain events, my mind created vivid films that flooded from it’s memory bank, putting me in a trance-like state, reliving what once was…

It’s been a long day and here I am playing cops and robbers with my brothers and cousins. As the bright sun goes to sleep and darkness approaches, we all run inside the house. It’s crowded inside with adults conversing loudly. Karaoke music is blaring in the background. Us kids know to go to our rooms and not be seen. I take off my shoes and make my way through the litter of shoes on the floor. I walk past my father and hear him call out, “Meo come here!” With excitement and joy I go to my father. I have never sat with the grown-ups before. I sit on my fathers lap and he tells me to open my mouth. At that moment I could not be happier. I comply with his demand as he picks up a shot glass and begins pouring alcohol into my mouth. With great disgust I begin to spit it out and cough. A rise of laughter explodes in the room as I am still struggling to comprehend what is happening. I glance at my father and all I see is disappointment and contempt written on his face. My stomach drops as my chest tightens up. It hurts to see that expression on his face. All I want is his love and approval. My father says in a quiet, menacing tone, “Go in the room and do not come out.”     His anger is fire to my ears as it burns up any hopes of me pleasing him. I walk away with my head held low,  in shame and guilt.

That night, I tell myself the next opportunity that presents itself to please my father, I will do it without any dissatisfaction.

Over the next few weeks opportunities present themselves again and again. Each time I go to where the adults are and pick up a shot glass and drink the shot without making a face. My father smiles and pats me on the head. And those moments I feel valued and loved. I even brag about it to my brothers and cousins, until one day my mother sees me drinking from a shot glass and scolds and beats me. My father did not come to my aid; instead, he laughs like everyone else did. Overwhelmed with shame, humiliation, and confusion, I do not understand what I did wrong, I do not know how to please both my parents. Between my father and mother, I receive mixed messages. However, one thing is certain, there are things I can do with my father, only to keep it secret from my mother.

My childhood continued on like this for some time. But the traumas I experienced as a child were exacerbated by the constant moving to different homes and new schools. Almost every year I was the new kid at school. Having made friends only to let them go as soon as I made them left me feeling unstable and disoriented. I was a child surrounded by people, and, yet, on the inside, I felt so lonely. Those “Good-byes” hurt deeply and had me questioning, “Why?” I blamed this pain on my parents and thought they were the sole cause of my suffering. This pain was compounded by the physical and emotional abuse I experienced at home. I felt there was no safe haven in my life, nowhere that I truly belonged.

My parents disciplined me with a broomstick. The more I cried, the more punishment I received. This helped to affirm my belief that expressing my emotions was dangerous. When I spoke my mind to my parents it resulted in a quick slap to my face. Yes, the physical abuse I experienced was painful, but the real scars existed in the emotional realm. During my elementary school years I asked my parents to attend school events, such as talent shows, science fairs, parent-teacher conferences, and graduations. Every time the response was, “Why would we go?,” What for?,” or, “We don’t have time for that.” Those words cut deeper than any physical pain could have. It instilled insecurity and created a negative self image. I wondered what was wrong with me. I attended those events alone, watching other kids laugh and smile with their parents. I often asked myself, “Why couldn’t I have had different parents?,” or, “Why are my parents not like theirs?” After elementary school I stopped asking those questions that resulted in painful rejection.

The year is 1998 and I am nine years old. At this point in my life I was about to experience a most terrifying event. The day begins as usual, but as the sun sets I hear my parents arguing on the other side of the door. Curious about the insidious uproar, my brothers and I open the door to see what’s going on. I hear my father accuse my mother of cheating and of desiring to leave. She responds by agreeing that she is leaving him. Those few words that I hear put me in a state of shock. As their quarrel continued, the fury in my father’s eyes grew stronger. My mother sits there firm in her stance. I had seen them argue before, but never like this. I barely make sense of their words as the fear inside me grows. My father suddenly darts to the kitchen drawer and pulls out a knife. Time slows down before my eyes as I watch my father lunge toward my mother like a hungry predator. My mother reaches for his arm to stop him as my father spews evil words through clenched teeth. Struck with terror I am frozen in my tracks.

My entire life was shattered in that single moment.

I wanted to help my mother and plead for my father to stop. Yet, my legs wouldn’t move and sound evaded my lips. As I stand there petrified, my older brother rushes to our mother’s aid, grabbing our father’s arm, begging him to stop. My brother had done what I had wanted. But I was too afraid. My brother was a hero to me. This chaotic scenery plays out before me through a veil of watery curtains. My legs finally move, but in the opposite direction, as I retreat into the closet nearby. I sit there crying into my lap and hoping that all this is simply a nightmare. I tell myself that I am a coward, that I could have helped. The fear inside anchors me down and paralyzes all my motor functions. In the time I fall asleep and when I wake up, the nightmare seems to have ended.

The next day no one spoke of what happened the night before. I watch as my father packs his things and walks right out the door never saying a word. There is a sense of relief, confusion, and sadness. All I hear from my mother is that my no good father is leaving me and that he isn’t coming back.

In the following years, my family moved twice and I was left wondering what man my mother happened to be dating would become my step father. I watched as my mother had relationships with multiple men, and how each one tried to bribe me for my acceptance. I saw the power of the manipulative attitude I had come to embrace. It rewarded me with money and gifts. In the next couple of years I would rarely see my father and his side of the family. My small world consisted of only a handful of people. They were my two brothers, my mother, her boyfriend (s), and I. This small world grew when I moved to San Lorenzo.

I remember that first day at Bohannon Middle School as any other day, I had been the new kid so many times that the fear was familiar. It definitely wasn’t my first time feeling awkward and shy. A year went by and I started to feel stable at this new home. For once in my life I would stay in a home for more than four years. It was in this town that I would make life-long friends and make a connection with others that I never had before. It was here that I took the reins on my life. I spent more time with my friends than anyone else. With them I felt loved and valued. I felt like I belonged. The time I spent with my friends was an escape for me from what was really going on in my family. I was embarrassed to bring my friends over because, on occasion, my mother would be right there giving me the death stare. My friends feared my mother, but they would never know the fear and pain I kept deep inside. I was scared to let them know. I was scared to lose them. I was scared to be vulnerable. I wore a mask that was only visible to myself. No one else knew when it was on, or off.

The life I chose to live has been a mystery to many. For I was living a double life. One moment I was the morally upright person, playing out all the positive characteristics my role models had taught me. People around me admired and adored me for my positive acts. On paper I excelled in academics and it seemed that my parents’ dream for me would come true. What my parents were unaware of was the darker side of me. A more rebellious side that was only being compliant so that I could get what I wanted. Because of the lack of communication between us, my mother could never tell what was on my mind. All she saw were the grades I brought home. Grades were merely a tool for me to escape my mother’s ridicule. Only those closest to me saw glimpses of this darker being.

My right hand seems to be possessed by an unknown entity as I tried to write the next few lines. There is a voice inside me that tells me to stop. A most sinister voice that wants to prevent me from healing and accepting the truth. I struggle to continue writing about the birth of such darkness. There is a clear connection between my traumas and the choices I make. The inner demon deep in my internal inferno cries out in pain every time I express emotions. The two sides of me that have been battling for years lead to constant conflict in my values, goals, and beliefs. I stop the writing process and sit in meditation. With eyes closed, I watch as thoughts and feelings arise and fade away. A light of clarity shines through my mind as the demon inside me reveals it’s true form.

There is a young boy no older than nine years old cowering in a closet. The closer I approach the boy the more I notice an aura of anger, fear, and pain emanating in this empty space. Standing before the boy, he glares at me like a hungry wolf, I kneel down to meet his gaze. I see all the struggles he’s been through in those eyes, all the pain. This poor child has been with me for decades, and in moments of stress he lashes out at the world. Words flow from my mouth as I whisper, “What happened in your life was not okay, but you’re going to make it and know that I love you.” With open arms I embrace the pain ridden child with compassion. The last thing I hear are his soft cries and the touch of warm tears on my shoulder. All that hostile aura dissipates in an instant. Bringing my consciousness back to the present moment I notice the tears flowing, and my entire being radiates with peace. With a most invigorating life energy the pen begins to flow again.

In high school I did anything to gain my friends’ acceptance and love. At times it came at the expense of hurting others, whether it was physical fights that I justified my way through or hurtful words that I inflicted upon others. All I was concerned with was how to get others to notice me. My academics were satisfactory and because of that I gave myself permission to act out. I manipulated people to do what I wanted them to do, I used violence as a way to show my friends that I would do anything for them. In my mind I was their protector, not that cowardly kid hiding in a closet. I told myself this was my time to be the hero. Over time, my aggressive behavior became a habit. I became a bully. My aggression gave me the control I always desired, so I latched onto it as a primary tool to assert myself in uncomfortable situations. I had become what I believed I hated the most. Drunk with power and delusion, I lost my rationale. My ego was inflated by praises and affection that others heaped upon me. Unable to contain my selfish ego, I allowed it to run rampant. By the time I became a senior I thought I was the shit and did anything to prove it.

In 2007, I left home to go to college and lived in a home filled with friends. I was genuinely happy at this time in my life. I used every celebratory event as an excuse to drink and go wild. It got to the point where drinking became a norm every weekend. My problem was that I wanted to stand out in everything I did. So I chose to drink the most and to be the loudest. Yes, even in my college years, the child in me from years past was still making the decisions.

So I continued harming those around me with little or no awareness of their feelings. Alcohol gave me the confidence I lacked. It was another tool I used to gain what I desired. Alcohol and my aggression went hand in hand. It was easy to blame my belligerent acts on the booze. In college, I saw alcohol and drugs as a way to gain people’s acceptance. In times of alcohol-induced delusions, I felt invincible, like I was on top of the world. Anyone who challenged me or those I loved would be met with violence. In college I was involved in several fights. Fights in which I used the justification that I was only protecting my friends. My view became even more distorted when I was drunk. I perceived threats where there were done.

In 2009, my little cousin was beaten to death at a party that I told him I would not attend the night before this event. I told him I had work early in the morning. Before college our relationship was as tight as brothers, but it deteriorated over time due to my actions and a resulting lack of communication. I blamed myself for not being there, as the pain, guilt, and shame surrounded my life. I could not protect my own cousin in his time of need. What was more disheartening was the fact I never got to tell him how much I loved him, and how sorry I was for disappointing him. I was a coward, just like so many years ago. I hated this feeling and dove deeper into my addiction. I spoke little about my cousin and did not want to be around his family. I felt intense shame and guilt around them. The more I used substances the less I felt these unpleasant feelings. I could not picture enjoying life as much as I did without substances. My addiction was at an all-time high after graduating college. My success in life once again was a justification for my behaviors. Behaviors that would lead to a lifetime of suffering for so many people, and ultimately a tragic loss of life.

December 20th 2012 was a day for celebration and joy. It was my girlfriend’s and friends’ graduation. We all lived under one roof. The twelve of us were preparing for a celebratory day. I woke up that morning with excitement and anticipation. This day was also the day I was to again meet with my girlfriend’s parents. To deal with my anxiety I took a xanax pill and watered it down with a couple of beers. Filled with a false sense of confidence and bravado, I put on that mask with the belief that the intoxicants would somehow help me impress her parents.

As the day progressed, I drank more and more. The joy was everlasting for me and I did not want it to end. I had gone from partying at home, to going downtown bar hopping. At the after party, things got out of control. My friend and a fellow party goer got into an argument and had to be separated. In this moment I was triggered to do what I had done before to protect my friends, at least that’s what I told myself. All the emotions I was running from as a child came to mind. In response to such unpleasantness in a now-hostile environment, I chose to take control of the situation by using violence. Being inebriated only helped fuel the anger that masked my discomfort. My mind concocted a threat, as thoughts of hostility ran rampant. Compelled by those thoughts and the brewing, unpleasant emotions, I decided to take it upon myself to physically assault two people and murder another.

Suddenly, the pen in my hand stops. My mind starts recalibrating and evaluating all the suffering I have created. I asked myself, “How many more must continue to suffer because of my selfish and impulsive decisions?” My body and its entire existence trembles as I am overcome with remorse. I recall the sorrows of others during my murder trial. All their pain that was expressed before my very eyes and ears. I close my eyes to sit with all that suffering. An endless stream of water flows from my eyes as I drown myself in the pain of those I have hurt.

A mother who lost her son cries out in pain. The sound of her voice still vibrates within me as I sit here. One by one, those I hurt take center stage and express their pain. In that moment I see myself in the courtroom hanging my head down, filled with guilt and shame. I can still hear the words of those I hurt as their pain and sorrow lingers in my mind. I am aware of what is alive in me and I try to connect with the needs of those I have hurt. With a deep intake of breath, I feel the cold air enter my nostril gates as I take in all the suffering. A long extended exhale follows as compassion radiates for all those whom I have hurt, including myself. This was part of the healing process for me and, although there was a tremendous amount of distress, it was a process that I needed.

As I finish writing my story I feel completely depleted. A sense of relief is draped over my relaxed shoulders. All the reluctance and fear of writing about my childhood or harm I’ve caused others is being resolved. I feel an openness and sense of renewed strength in being vulnerable. The guilt and shame I felt in regards to dishonoring my family by writing is exiled. This journey of writing was a rollercoaster for me. I was finally letting go of all the suffering I held inside. I found a peaceful acceptance of my past. The web connecting my past with the strategies I chose in life to meet my needs were all prevalent. All of my pain was displayed on those sheets of paper. I knew at that moment that my next task would be to share my story with someone who supported my new lifestyle.

Who would have thought I would find the support I needed within these prison walls. In 2015, I was convicted of second degree murder. At that moment I thought I had lost everything and would spend the rest of my life in prison. The feeling of hopelessness was adamant concerning the prospect of perpetual imprisonment. To diminish that feeling I sought help from others who could show me how to change my distorted thinking. Looking back, prison has helped me change into a better person. I did not lose everything as I imagined, but gained more than I could have ever dreamed of. Sure, there were difficult times where I thought it would not be able to come out of it, but time and again these instances have proven themselves to be an opportunity for growth. As the layers used to disguise myself fall away, I begin connecting even more with my true self. The process of change was slow and arduous, but with faith I persevered. I saw who I really was and no longer live that double life. Day by day the dark side of me fades away as I embrace that inner child with love. I found happiness within myself and I steer clear of the egocentric lifestyle.

There was clarity in my life and understanding of the interconnectivity of all things. With such insight into my own life I no longer shunned that scared child from within. He was a part of me and we would work together. This allowed me to express myself in a healthy manner. In doing so, I received positive feedback from my peers. The fear of speaking up for myself became a distant memory. The child without a voice was now given one. I felt powerful and courageous in being vulnerable. My shift in perception happened gradually with every experience compounding the next. What I told myself and what I now believed in created that shift. Compassionate self-expression gave me the control I had always desired but without harming others. My life was finally changing for the better and in such an unpredictable environment. Surrounded by hardened men and violence, I found peace and support.

At times I can still hear my mother’s voice, telling me how failure was not an option. She ingrained in me that success and a purposeful life meant making a lot of money and having status. Everyone I grew up with thought the same for me, so I thought. I felt the pressure to be something I didn’t even know how to be. Recognizing the pain and suffering that this ideal brought me, I had to let it go. I have never not given up on my dreams, but they have changed. Success and purpose to me is no longer equated with monetary value or status. Failure to me was now an opportunity to adventure beyond what I knew and to explore regions of the unknown. After years of contemplation and meditation there was clarity for me. I asked myself, “What is more purposeful in life than making connections with others?,” “Could it be that the younger me from years ago was simply lacking connection?” The more I dove deeper into my own self the more answers revealed themselves. My lack of empathy, compassion, security, peace and balance had led to a tornado of feelings twisting inside me that expressed itself with destruction on the outside.

Living that double life was a delusion in which I myself created in hopes of achieving my parents dreams and to reside in my own desire of pleasure. All that was short-lived because it was a mask to cover up the pain. As the spiral of feelings erupted inside of me, that double life came crashing down. My life history and lifestyle foreshadowed what was to come in the future, but I refused to look at my own problems. Entrenched in my own denial I saw the world in a shaded veil. Prison allotted me the time and freedom to look at what I had avoided. My past was no longer a mystery, as the process of exposure was under way. Recognizing my denial and coming to peaceful acceptance of all the suffering I have experienced and created was the journey that shed light on my dark side.

I am finally ready to share these sheets of paper. I know it is the next step in progress for me. I share my experiences and insights with a group of fourteen. This proved to heighten my own sense of wellbeing and was an inspiration to others. Over time the people who heard my story multiplied in numbers as I became more confident in speaking about my life. My story helps create new connections with people and offers understanding to myself and those I have harmed. In every instance that I share my story I end with a quote that has a great impact on my life, “There is only one thing permanent in life, and that is change.” What a fickle thing life is. Pain and joy has become interdependent to me as I view the world through new lenses.

The dilapidated bridge that separated my mother and I for decades is now taking on a new and beautiful form.