Transcribe your podcast

Welcome, Stephanie. Phew.


Hi. Thank you so much for having me.


Oh, my gosh. We've really been looking forward to this conversation. I have learned so much from you and your work, and I'm just really looking forward to the pod squad learning from you. So let's start off by saying that Stephanie Fu is a writer and the author of the New York Times bestseller what my bones know, which I have read more than once and is an absolutely beautiful and extremely helpful book. And it's a memoir of Healing from complex trauma. She is also a radio producer, most recently for this American Life. Her work has aired on SNAP, judgment, reply all, 99% invisible in Radiolab. A noted speaker and instructor, she has taught at Columbia University and has spoken at venues from Sundance Film Festival to the Missouri Department of Mental Health. She lives in New York City. Welcome, Stephanie.


Thank you so much. And it's always the highest compliment when somebody tells me that they read my book more than once. I never read books more than once, so that's quite the investment.


Well, what I do is, at first, I read it as I'm just experiencing the book like it's your story, but then I have to read it to, like, save my own life. And I'm like, all right, now the tips. Now what do I do? So it's a book that needs to be read twice.


It's like a textbook the second time. It's like literature the first time.




Thank you. Yes. Here's how I thought we could start. I'm almost 50, and it feels like most of my people in my life were given some kind of. We call it a puzzle. Like, given some kind of structure or game that they thought they could win at. And so they just spent their life trying to win that game. And then at some point, their lives became so unmanageable in one way or another that they were forced to figure out what the hell was wrong with them. Like, that's the vibe of everyone that I know right now, but it's not like we just look in the mirror and out of the blue say, oh, I need to get help. It's usually because our outer lives become unmanageable, right. Relationships or work or just shit hits the fan on the outside. And then at some point, we realize that we are the common denominator. So can you specifically set the scene for what was going on in your life that made you say, okay, I got to get help, because from the outside, you were crushing it?


Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I always struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, but it didn't really affect my career that deeply for a long time, because work was my favorite form of dissociation. And so, like, after a breakup, I would just go into the office, and then I would just stay in the office until four in the morning and drink four shots of Jamison at my desk and then go home and then come back at 09:00 a.m. And that way, I didn't have to think about the way that my relationships might be failing or think about that my body was shutting down. I just kept working and working and working. And in 2018, the beginning of 2018, end of 2017, I had just been reporting a lot on Trump's first year, and there was so much stressful immigration stuff that I had to report on as an immigrant that was, like, not fun. I remember an interview in which I had to interview some white supremacists who. One of them was saying, like, oh, you seem like a nice person on the phone, but if we were. If the war really came down to it, I wouldn't hesitate to kill you.


Oh, my God.


Yeah. So, you know, to be fair, I was facing some triggering stuff, but it just all got to be too much. And I started having panic attacks every morning on the subway, on the way to work. I couldn't concentrate, and I couldn't access my favorite form of dissociation anymore. It was getting so gnarly. And also, I had just turned 30, and I was like, I have been sad for so long. I've been sad for more than half of my life at this point, I got a change, something. I got to switch something up. And so I asked my therapist, do you think that I'm bipolar? What do you think? And she said, no, you have complex.


PTSD, which she had just not mentioned to you for eight years.


Yeah, I'd seen her. I'd been seeing her for eight years, and she just casually dropped that on me at the end of a session, and then was like, okay, time's up. Bye. So she left me to go google that on my own.


Okay. Now tell everybody, Stephanie, what the difference is between, like, what is trauma? Actually, can you. Can you tell us? The car accident, Krispy Kreme example. This helped me so much. Okay. And then how complex trauma is different, right?


So if you get in a car accident and let's say it's in front of a Krispy Kreme, your brain encodes all of these details around you. Like, maybe the guy who hit you had a blue sweater, and you're in front of this donut place. So it encodes all of this as potential threats because you're going through a traumatic incident. So in the future, your brain isn't trying to be sensible, it's trying to save your life. And so it's encoded all of these things in the back, and so you might see a donut and you might feel panicky, and that doesn't make any sense, of course, but that's how your brain works. This is the adaptation that our brilliant bodies have come up with to try and keep us alive. So, the problem is, you might have a limited number of trigger points in a single car accident, but complex PTSD is like if you got in a car accident every week for three years, so all of a sudden you have a lot of different trigger points, because this is happening over and over and over to you. So it's not specific things like the donut that are frightening.


It's kind of the whole world, other people in general, because with complex PTSD, you're not getting in that weekly car accident, probably, unless somebody really close to you in your life is hurting you over and over again. Mine comes from child abuse. This could also happen from living in a war zone, being in an abusive relationship. So, yeah, that means that healing it, teaching your body that these triggers around you aren't going to kill you, that you are safe, is a little bit more complex than with traditional PTSD, is.


What I hear you saying. In the complex PTSD situation, your trauma is occurring kind of in the ordinary daily course of events, and so therefore, your body reacts appropriately to feel triggered and fearful and have a physiological response to normal everyday events, or what appears to other people to be normal everyday events because they're encoded in that kind of ritualized trauma that you had?


Yeah, absolutely. And specifically because of the nature of complex PTSD, because it's probably somebody who is close to you, in many cases, the formative people who you should have been able to depend on the most, relationships in general, people become terrifying. Yeah.


So, Stephanie, can you talk to us about how your form was created by child abuse? Which means if you are constantly being unpredictably hurt by the people in your life, then it would make sense that forever you are concerned that you're going to be unpredictably hurt by the people in your life, right?




So, can you tell us how being afraid of everyone led you to this constant feeling you describe of as the dread? How is the dread related to CP?


The dread, for me, was sort of this underlying current in my whole life that made me believe that I had to be perfect in order to be loved or not even be loved. I had to be perfect in order to be not hurt, to be safe. And so that meant that there was this constant anxiety over, am I saying the right thing? Am I eating the right thing? Am I making the most perfect, wonderful work professionally? And I think that that was such a burden to constantly have on me that I tried to dissociate and disappear a lot of the times in order to not feel that immense pressure. So what was drinking, smoking, working, partying? Probably my favorite drugs of choice.


You were trying to escape the dread. And is the dread just what happens when there are so many freaking triggers that it all just becomes a soup inside of you? It's just everything is a crispy Kreme. And so it just turns into this pit that is the dread, and you don't know what it is.


Everything was a Krispy Kreme, and I couldn't pull out what actually was real, what was scary, what was making me feel bad. At any given moment, I would just feel bad and couldn't pluck anything out.


Yeah. You have this part in the book where you talk about how resilience is so important to all of us. Like, it was okay that you have this diagnosis that you're looking up and nobody has ever healed from it is how the literature is presenting it to you. So that's great. But we don't have to worry because people are resilient. And then you talk about how, why in this country do we hold up as examples of resilience, the people who are, like, most successful? And I just want to stop there and talk to you about that because I think about this all the time. How do I say this about offending everyone we know? Like, when we sit at tables of the most successful, quote, people, the thing that I always notice about all of them and us, all of us, is how unhealed everybody is. It's like, actually we hold up people as examples when the people that are often at the top of the ladder are the people who are the most unhealed because they're still trying to win the puzzle. They're still trying so hard. Nobody works that hard. Who is sane, right?


Yeah. And a lot of the people who are at the top also to get there, you have to climb on a lot of people. Right. In order to be, like, very successful capitalistically, you kind of have to use and abuse maybe people, yourself and others. I don't know if that's necessarily, quote, unquote, sane behavior.




Which requires you to dissociate.




In order to treat people the way you need to treat. To get to the top, or in order to mistreat your body and your soul the way you need to do to get to the top, you have to be a very skilled dissociator.


And success is a good way to avoid yourself.


Yes. Success is not even success to being.


On a mission or a path or climbing the ladder. That's a good way to not have to think about or deal or work through any of your own stuff.


Right. And so are these people really so resilient and successful, or did they just choose better tools of dissociation? Or were they lucky to have at hand more privileged tools of dissociation?


Yes. That's good.


Somebody who is addicted to crack, let's say, you know, or. Yeah. Or alcohol. It's all the same thing.


Sure is.


And it doesn't make you a better person necessarily.


That's right.


No, but you said, like a good Protestant American, I saved myself through work. But when something is held up as the pinnacle of achievement and success in our country, it is near impossible to be like, actually, I abdicate that throne and I'm going to work on myself. Like, how and why? And what was the moment that you were like? Because you stopped working for a while. You had just saved up enough to squeak by for a few months and you were like, you read a book that said, you have to get help, so take us to why it seemed so critical.


So basically I was reading when I was googling complex PTSD. Everything seemed to say, you're a terrible person. You can't self regulate, you can't self soothe. You struggle in relationships, you have anger issues. And just all of the symptoms just sounded like a very difficult person. And some of the literature that I was reading would just stop short of saying that we were horrible people, actually, because a lot of the literature was written for clinicians and not real people, real survivors. And so it was pretty disrespectful of us. A lot of the time. It didn't seem to acknowledge the fact that I might be reading about myself. And so I think that really freaked me out. And it just made me think, oh, if I'm a horrible person, nobody's ever going to love me. Like, I'm never going to be able to maintain any of these relationships. I'm going to be sad my whole life, I'm going to sabotage my own career. Like, this is the most important thing I have to fix this before I can go on living. And so I left my job at this american life. And, yeah, I just dedicated my time, full time, to reading books and articles about trauma and just trying different therapies and going to yoga and meditation classes and trying to fix my brain.


Yeah. And trying to figure out who you were, because you kept saying, and I know how this goes, when you read a list of symptoms and you thought that was your personality.


Mm hmm. Yeah. I was saying, what parts of me are my trauma? What parts of me are this diagnosis, and what parts of me are me? And I couldn't differentiate between the two. Yeah.


So you find this doctor, because I think the reading and the. You did EMDR, the yoga, the meditation, did you find all those things helpful but maybe not cures for this, or how would you categorize all of those things?


Yeah, I think that everything that I tried was helpful in some way, shape, or form. I think there were three real key elements to my healing. I think the first was the body piece. So when you are triggered, when you do feel that fear, it's a whole body thing. You have adrenaline, you have cortisol rushing through you. And the first step to being able to calm yourself and recognize that you're safe is to calm that whole full body response. And so I think the yoga, the breathing, the meditation was really helpful for teaching my body that I was safe, if not quite my mind. And then the second was processing trauma. So being able to look back at my past and recognizing that what happened to me was not okay, it was completely fucked up. It was not my fault. And then grieving that, being able to sit there and cry and feel the injustice of it. And so Emdr was really great for that. Mushrooms were really great for that. And the last part, and that's the part I think a lot of people don't put as much emphasis on, is the relational aspect.


Oh, I hate that part, Stephanie.


It is the hardest part.


I just want all the healing things that we can do by ourselves.




Important to me about your book is, like, actually, if the trauma is relational, healing has to be relational, right?


Mm hmm. Right.


Damn it to hell. So what this doctor that was so wonderful for you, talk to us about how that treatment went and what you learned about listening and all of that with this doctor. What was his name?


Doctor Hamm.


Doctor Hamm. Okay, tell us about that situation.


So, doctor Jacob Hamm at Mount Sinai, he agreed to treat me. And I remember one of the first sessions that we had, I was talking about this fight that I had with my aunt, and she was saying some triggering stuff about my family, saying, like, oh, you really need to, like, go make up with your dad, and your. Your husband's family's never gonna really love you. And just all kinds of nonsense. And I was getting so angry and triggered and sad about it, and I counted colors, and I did some deep breathing, and I calmed myself. I did all the stuff that I learned about and yoga and all of these self soothing classes, and then I was like, okay, let it go. And I told him about it, and I really expected him to come back and say, congratulations. Good job. You're really doing it. You're healing.


A plus, t plus, Stephanie.


Yeah, good job, little asian girl. And he was like, and then I. Cause, you know, he always makes fun of me for wanting to be a tiger child, and I seek so much validation from him. And then he was like, uh, no, that's not good. Not good enough. You did a bad job. And I was like, what? Why? And he's like, well, you didn't repair with your aunt, did you? You didn't ask for what you really needed from her. You didn't make your needs known. You didn't actually say how you wanted to be treated. You just calmed yourself, and then you went inside and you disappeared. You weren't healing. You weren't reengaging, reentering the world around you. And I was like, oh, no, how do I do that? And one thing that we did that was really awesome was, I don't know, for training in sports or anything, if you've ever recorded yourself and rewatched it.


Oh, yeah.


Oh, yeah.


Lots of replays.


Yes. And how is that helpful?




Cause you get to witness from a different perspective and new technology, you get even more perspective with multiple camera views, et cetera. And so I think the new perspective is important because it gives you a different sense of the moment, because you.


Might not have total bodily awareness of what's happening in the moment.


That's right. That's right.


Yeah. So we did a similar thing with Google Docs. We recorded all of our sessions, and then I immediately imported all of that into a transcription software and then put it in a Google Doc. And then I started commenting on it, saying, like, oh, what's going on here? I think I'm triggered, or what's going on here? Why am I, like, rambling on and on forever? And he started commenting on it, too, and we just absolutely took apart all of our therapy sessions. And I struggle with criticism, like many of us, but one realm in which I probably feel most comfortable with is on the page, because I've been a journalist for so long. And so this really worked for me because he was able to point out a lot of things that I wasn't doing. He was like, here, you missed a cue here. You didn't respond to what I asked you. You went on your own other rant. Here, you're clearly dissociating. And he was able to show me the ways that I was disappearing in conversation. And from me, I got that new perspective and I was able to say, oh, I get it, you know, this is how you engage with other people.


This is how you ask for your needs to be met. This is how you show up without fear. I realized in a lot of these early sessions that I didn't understand what he was talking about a lot of the time because he got really jargony sometimes with psychological talk. And I would just pretend to understand and I'd be like, uh huh, okay. And then maybe hurt later on because he said something that I misinterpreted or I would get confused and then change the subject because I was insecure and I wanted to go back to something that I did understand. And he called me out on it and I realized that I needed to be able to ask questions of people. Just like, what did you mean? What are you feeling? Hey, that expression on your face, that was judgmental or whatever it is. Uh, wait, hold on. Sorry, 1 second. Like, what was that? What was that rupture that we had in this conversation? And so, yeah, he taught me about ruptures and he taught me about repairs, how to really investigate how other people. I just. I had been living life guessing that everyone was mad at me all the time.


Yeah. Yes.


And I needed to actually probe into that and learn how to find out if it was true and it was.


Slowed it down. Right. Your Google Doc, when you're in that moment and everything's a Krispy Kreme, including being in the therapy session, you said that you would leave and be like, none of that made any sense. It was all disjointed and not connected. But when you can slow it down and see on the page, you're not dissociated when you're watching it, when you're reading it on the page and you can say, like, here's where I left myself. I can see it where I can't feel myself leaving myself in the moment because I'm just surviving it. That's just a survival instinct. What does it do if you're ready for the world to disappoint you, and in fact, in the case of your family members, you were logical to assume that the outcome would be disappointing and not fulfilling of your needs. What does it do then to say, well, actually, auntie, this is what I need from you. This is how that disappointed me. Like, if going back to that moment to try to say what you needed is that healing, regardless of whether they can meet you there.


Yeah, what's the point? What's the point of not dissociating, Stephanie? You're gonna have to make a good case. Yeah, exactly.


I'm really.


I wonder sometimes. Yeah, well, I do think that, like, it's very appropriate to dissociate, actually, a lot of the time. The very fact that I am sitting here talking to you about my complex trauma means that I'm dissociated. Right? I mean, and that's a skill, because I sit on these interviews all the time and talk about the most horrible things that ever happened to me, that I say to the world, hey, my parents tortured me, and I'm laughing about it. And it can be really protective. And I think that I, you know, dissociation can often be pathologized a lot as a bad thing. Like, I literally saw some TikTok this morning that was like, oh, I just found out that reading is a form of dissociation. And I read so many books every year, and that means that I guess I'm, like, hiding from my trauma, and I'm like, maybe you just like to read. Read. It's fine, whatever. Yeah, so it's a form of dissociation. Sounds like you're having a good time. Doesn't matter. I still work to dissociate, and I like working. I made this book while half dissociated. That's fine. It seems like it has benefited the world, but in terms of why ask for your needs to be met?


It sounds so weird when you say.


It like that, Stephanie. But it's my awesome question, because I'm.


Like, if the world has shown over and over, it's not gonna do it. What's the fucking point?


Yeah, I think because otherwise you live in a state of sadness and rage and resentment.


That checks.




And because then you end up with this sense of too. Right. Because it's like, it's two different things if everybody's going to let you down and abandon you. Okay, I don't think that's true, but at least you cannot abandon yourself.




And also doesn't fucked up things happen when we dissociate too often. Like, for me, what I'm learning is if I dissociate too much, I will end up back in eating disorders. I can't exactly explain, explain how we get there, but bad stuff happens when we abandon ourselves.


It builds. It builds and builds inside you. Like, I had a conflict with a friend recently where she wasn't showing up. And that's hard when you just had a kid. And I just had this resentment building and building and building. But I was also like, you know, she's busy, she's got her own thing, she's got her life. But then it built so much that then when I did speak to her, I just lashed out. I was like, why haven't you been here? Because it just has to come out at some point eventually. And that's not a healthy way to communicate with people. And she couldn't meet me and provide me with what I needed if she didn't know what I needed, if I wasn't telling her that. So that's really unfair to her, right? Because we all mess up in our lives, and if you're not going to tell people how they're affecting you, then you're missing out on all these chances for repair.


And don't we just use the assumption that somebody can't meet us somewhere to just not step into it to begin with? Because it's like, conflict is fearful, conflict is. Rupture is hard, and to not know if it will repair or not. I think sometimes I do this where I'm like, oh, no, they'll never be able to understand what the problem is anyway, so let's just leave it. And I think we use that as an excuse not to actually go into the ruptures.


Right? And then I think, what do we do? Like, and I've disappeared in relationships.




And I've ghosted people. And that's unkind as well. When you are like, well, this person isn't going to understand, so what's the point? I'm not going to talk to them anymore. You're not giving them a chance to be there for you, to be in relationship with you, and that's cruel.


And you're actually never existing. Like, you're never existing outside yourself if you don't. I'm just upset. 70. It blows my mind, this idea that we can be in conversations in relationships, and the minute we feel something which is a rupture, or that we can kindly express that feeling. That sounds very simple, but it's mind blowing.


It's radical. Yeah.


Like that sort of embodiment, that sort of like, oh, wait, where did you go? Oh, wait, I'm feeling this. That's the only way to actually know anyone or be known, right, right.


And it was terrifying. When doctor Hamm started doing it to me, he would always be like, what happened? He would be reading these little micro things in my eyes, or, I mean, and sometimes he messed up and he'd be like, you teared up? And I'd be like, I yawned. It's not that deep. But a lot of times he'd be spot on and he'd be like, what just happened? And I'm not used to people calling me out and interrogating me, but, I mean, I feel so close to him. I feel so safe with him and I feel like I can call him out, too, when he was vulnerable enough to do that and just be like, wait, how are you feeling? Did you just get mad to really plumb my debts? I felt safe enough, too, to constantly ask him for help and ask him in these Google Docs. I came around to asking him, what did you mean here? Or, you hurt me here. And that's hard for me, but I was able to go in there and say, like, hey, what you said here, you're phrasing about complex PTSD survivors, I feel like, is kind of mean.


And then he'd be like, you're right, that was a really shitty way of putting it. And that was also really great. It's great to hear from anyone that's a repair, but it's also really nice to hear from, like, a fancy, smart therapist. Yes, like, a fancy, fancy doctor. To be like, I'm not the expert in the room here. I fuck up just as much as you. You're not especially broken because you have complex PTSD. We're all a little fucked up. We all don't know how to read other people. We're all just floundering around in these conversations, and that was really destigmatizing.


I love thinking of you two as, now that you brought in the sports thing, I'm just thinking of you two as, like, coaches, like, examining every play, and that's just so awesome. Tell us you both watched something that helped you understand why you needed to stop self flagellating. Talk to us about that. I felt like that was so important for all of us to hear about how ineffective that strategy is.


Yeah, I watched this video, and now I see this all the time, where this woman was telling her dad how he had hurt her and he was just like, I'm the worst dad. I'm, you know, I never knew how to take care of you, blah, blah, blah. Just saying all these horrible things about himself. And she just got so angry because she's like, that's not what I want. I don't want you to stand in front of me and hurt yourself. I just want you to do better. And I think too. Then when you stand there and you're like, I'm the worst. I'm terrible. Then the onus is on the other person to now comfort you. Instead of reaching out and comforting them, they're like, oh, no. You seem not okay. Let me just comfort you. And that's not great for repair, either. And so I saw then that when I got into my sort of fawning state and when somebody called me out on something and I just prostrated myself on the ground, and I was just like, I'm the worst person, you know, that worked for me to keep me alive and to keep me safe.


When I was a little girl who was being abused with, like, narcissist parents, that's what you do, and that works. But in regular relationships, that was not going to keep me safe. It was actually going to make my ruptures worse. And so what was going to work was not going into that shame spiral and instead saying, how can I make this right? Or, I understand. I see how much this hurts. So I fail at that, like, every day. But I know now what I'm supposed to do, and I try to make the right choices sometimes.


It's a survival technique that is kind of a form of manipulation, in a way. And I say this because I think that I had a tendency early on in our marriage to do this. Hopefully, I don't do it as much anymore.


Yeah. No, I mean, Stephanie, I'd be like, can you put the stuff in the dryer? And she'd be like, oh, my God. I'm such an asshole. I never put the stuff in the dryer. And I'd be like, okay, now I guess we're gonna talk about like that.


Yeah, right?


Yeah, we've done better.


Oh, good.


Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Yay. Positive feedback.


So, really together, you were learning how to be in relationship as a full person.


Yeah, because I never got taught how to be in relationship because I had crazy psycho parents who, you know, when there was a conflict, they would just beat the shit out of me. And that is not how you should live life if you want to stay out of jail. So, yeah, I had to learn a different way.


And when you're talking about this, it's interesting, the rupture and repair and the language of getting called out because it does feel like that when you're leaving the room mentally or when you're kind of taking bait and going after somebody, there is that dynamic. But there's also this whole other way of looking at it, which is not letting you disappear. That's really like, when you're talking about that with Doctor Hahn, it makes me teary because that's the ultimate intimacy. And that's what you and Joey have now. That is the thing. I've always been able to disappear in every moment. To be like, wait, no, no, no. I see you so closely, I'm so paying attention to you that I saw that one degree of a step you took there, and I'm bringing you back. So less of a call out and more of a, don't go away from me. Come closer, come closer, come closer. I'm not letting you disappear.


And it's so scary to be seen in that way when you're so used to disappearing, especially as women, when somebody wants you to take up so much space and be a full person with all of your sadness and all of your fear and they want to witness all of it, all your ugly things. It's a beautiful thing and it's such a healing thing. So, yeah, I mean, I tease him a lot about how mean he is to me, but no, I mean, it was a very loving thing.


How is Joey? This is your partner the opposite of the dread that I underlined it, like, 17 times. So what does that mean?


Joey's not always the opposite of the dread.


Thank you.


Sometimes Joey is the dread.


God, sometimes Joey is the dread.


Sometimes he's just dreadish, you know?


Joey drops a pot in the other room and I'm still like, ah. Oh, God. But he is willing to love me despite my myriad flaws and imperfections. And I had never experienced unconditional love. And so, well, I don't even want. I don't necessarily want to say that I've never experienced unconditional love. I have some very, very long lasting friendships that are really beautiful, but certainly in the everyday sort of intensity of a romantic relationship, never experienced unconditional love. And, yeah, it allowed me to have the space to fuck up.


And when you're triggered, God, that's good. Just the space to fuck up. It's just. That's enough. But, like, when you have a Krispy Kreme moment, how does Joey respond? That is helpful to you? I'm just thinking of all the people that are loving, people with PTSD or complex PTSD. What is helpful that Joey does that makes you feel not shamed?


Yeah, I think he affirms what I'm going through, and if something is scary, he's like, yeah, I know that's scary and doesn't shame me for it or isn't. Like, you know, oh, you got scared at this tiny thing that's so petty. You're a coward, whatever it is. And he's like, no, that makes total sense. And he talks trash on my parents all the time. And I appreciate that.


Yeah, your inner child appreciates that.


Defending protective from my inner child, for sure. He listens a lot, and I think different people like to receive comfort differently, but I do like that he gives me a lot of advice. I feel safe coming to him to ask him, am I crazy about this? What should I do about that? And he always drops everything, and he's like, all right, yeah, let's work through this together. We're going to dissect it. We'll figure it out. He just makes it clear that me and my happiness and my safety is a priority.


Can you tell us the story about your auntie and being the favorite and how your perspective on that changed? Because that is so touching.


Yeah. So when I was a little girl, I went back to Malaysia a lot. I was born in Malaysia, and my whole family still lives there. And I loved going back so much because the food and the heat and most of all, that I was so loved there. My family always spoiled me when I was there. And I remember everyone in my family being hawkwai. Hawkwai. Like, they were always saying that I was such a good little girl, and that was not messaging that I got at home. They were always rewarding me, too, for how good I was. Like, I would help my auntie snap off the tops of a bunch of green beans, and she would just give me this big dessert because I was just the best girl, the best helper. And then what was hard was, after my parents got divorced, my family sort of distanced themselves from me because I became very rageful. And they only heard my dad's side of the story. They didn't really understand that both of my parents had abandoned me, and I was living by myself in high school, and so they were just like, why are you so mad at your dad?


We don't get it. Why did you throw his car keys in a bush? And I was like, well, because I'm hungry and alone. But they didn't quite understand that they thought I was exaggerating. And so when I went back, they were just like, ugh, this american girl, she's so disrespectful to her parents. And then years and years later, when I was in my twenties, I was talking about all of this with auntie, and she gave an inkling that the whole family did kind of understand at a very young age what I went through. She was like, actually, you know why everyone treat you so well? Because your mom hit you. And I was like, wait, what? I thought I was just the favorite on my own merits of being awesome, the best girl ever. And she was like, no. It was clear that your mom was physically and verbally abusing you throughout your whole childhood. And so when you were here, we all went through the motions of trying to show you how you deserve to be loved. So I wasn't the favorite, but I was loved a kind of way.


And was that a reverse gaslighting, ungaslighting of you? Because.




Because when I first read it, I was like, oh, she's gonna be pissed. These people knew the whole time. And then you were like, no, that was healing to you. And I just wondered. We interview siblings all the time, and one of the things they say is most helpful is just having a witness to the ship, like a corroborator of your story. And so was that part of the healing, just having a corroborator?


Yes, I think it was. It was definitely healing to hear that, and it's always healing to hear from anyone in my family, because I've tried to have some of these conversations going forward that what happened to me was not okay. And I think Auntie had a really difficult life. She lived through two wars. She starved as a child. She and her sisters had to shave their heads during the japanese occupation to keep from being sexually assaulted by japanese soldiers. You know, she never married. And my aunt, who was the closest thing she ever had to a daughter, died of leukemia. She had a very challenging life. And so for her to say that what happened to me was not okay, that a mother should not have treated me like I was treated, was so validating and made me realize that my pain was valid, that it. That I was entitled to my hurt, I will say that, like, in years after that, I've definitely also felt anger in terms of wanting to be protected, wishing that I had been protected more, wishing that people were reaching out to protect me or take care of me more.


Now, again, like, having a young child, you want family to show up you want somebody to show up, and that's really difficult. And so I feel a lot of different feelings about that moment that feels.


Very healthy of you. So this story usually ends for people. When you read people's trauma and memoirs or they my own life or my friends, we usually figure out how our parents fucked up and then try to heal from that. But rarely have I seen it go wider and deeper. And can you talk to us about how when you went back to your hometown, what you learned about from the teachers and the counselors, about the whole community and how that helped you or hurt you?


Yeah, no, I think really helped. So I remember a lot of other kids being abused in the same way that I was when I was a kid, to the point where I think it sort of made it harder for me to recognize that I was abused, because it was like, well, everybody's getting hit at home, right? Like, whatever, big deal. And then when I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, so much of the literature was like, you're a freak. You're not like anybody else. You're different. You're worse than anybody else at regulating it, at being a normal person. I didn't know anybody else with complex PTSD either, because it's not a super frequently diagnosed condition. But then I thought about my childhood and how many of us were going through abuse like this, and I was like, but I can't be the only one, right? And so I wanted to know if my trauma was personal or communal. And that's why I went back to San Jose, California, which is a majority minority community. And my high school was, like, 60% asian and 30% latino, and there are a lot of kids of color there. And I went back and I asked myself, teachers, is there a lot of trauma?


Is there a lot of abuse here? What did you see? And they said, no, these are privileged asian kids. They have their MacBooks, and all they care about is doing really well in their AP classes. And one of them said they had a student who was suicidal because she couldn't add enough flair or pizazz or shine or something to her essay. And I was like, that doesn't sound right. And I was like, but why? Why was she suicidal? And they were like, oh, because Asians, you know, they have this really academic culture, and it's a cultural thing. And again, I was like, that sounds like an exoticized, oversimplified version of the truth. And then I talked to the guidance counselor at the school, and she said, oh, no. Hundreds and hundreds of these kids are still being physically abused. And that's why we're so afraid of not getting those, as there's a much deeper narrative to this whole asian perfection, good grades story. And we don't get the care or the services that we need, and our parents are not getting the care and the services that they need in order to be good parents to us because it's all invisible, because whatever.


We have high gpas, and, you know, I was beaten severely if I got a b, and I know lots of other kids who were, too. And that is a reality that we have to contend with. If you have some kid who is really, really overperforming in your class, what is driving them to do that? Is it them and their own desire, or is it fear? And also, I mean, even our parents hitting us, that was also driven from fear and trauma. San Jose has the biggest concentration of vietnamese people outside of actual Vietnam. And, you know, there's a lot of vietnamese refugees in that community. There's a lot of korean war survivors. There's a lot of chinese survivors of the cultural revolution. There's a big cambodian population there who are survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Our parents went through a lot of really tough stuff, and they came here and they were like, the way that you're gonna survive is you're gonna get good grades and make money and become a doctor in this world, and then you'll be safe. They're terrified, too. So I think what's important about understanding that I was part of a community of trauma, I think, is that it allows you to take some of that self loathing away, that part of, like, I'm a freak.


I'm the worst. That feeling that you get when you read the diagnosis and realize I'm kind of a product of war and capitalism and big global socioeconomic factors that are a lot larger than me. All of these things tried to teach my brain to be safe and all of these other kids brains and all of these other parents brains to be safe, and it went completely the wrong direction. Maybe, but I'm not a freak. My brain was doing its best to keep me safe. One thing that doctor Hamm told me is that complex PTSD is not a mental illness in war. It's a normal reaction. It's going to keep you safe. If somebody was exhibiting all the same behaviors that I exhibit at my worst in Palestine right now, that would be completely normal and healthy and good.


That's right.


It's only a disorder in this comfy, soft american culture.


So my last question is this. I think that so many people are trying to answer the question, can I give what I've never gotten? Can I be a friend if I've never really had a true friend? Can I be a good partner in a relationship if I have no model for that? Can I be a mother when I have nothing but trauma behind me? In terms of the word mother, your story is so beautiful and so hopeful and so honest. You have a baby now. You are a mother.


Mm hmm.


How is that going? Do you feel like you're able to give what you didn't get?


In short, yes. I didn't think that I would be a good mother. I never thought that I would be able to love my baby, even, like, a couple weeks into having the baby. I never held a baby before. They took it out of me and then put it on me, and I was like, what? What do I do with this thing? But, no, I mean, he's the absolute best. I love him to absolute bits, and I never get mad at him. Cause I'm always empathizing with him, and I'm always thinking about his well being and how he's gonna process things. And I'm trying to constantly attune to him. I'm trying to learn to attune to his. His positivity as well as his negativity. Like, anytime he needs something, I'm always just like, I'm here. It's all good. But sometimes when he's happy go lucky, I'm like, how can this be? There's got to be something wrong, right? And doctor Hammond's like, no, just, like, read him, and he'll let you know. And if he's sitting there smiling, he's probably not traumatized. I spend all this time freaking out about how potentially I've traumatized him because I'm probably the worst person in the world, and he's the happiest, chillest baby.


I don't know how two anxious people made such a confident, chill baby, but maybe it's cause of, like, my decent parenting. I don't know. I was reading about the still face experiment. Doctor home was telling me about it, and he was saying that, like, if you do the still face experiment and the baby has x reaction, if they try to get your attention with smiles and then slowly devolve from there and then are able to repair when you come back, that that is a great predictor for them being a securely attached child.


Wait, tell us what the still face experiment is.


So the still face experiment was this experiment that edtronic, this scientist came up with in the seventies. And basically, a mother would engage with her kid and then go still and just blank face for two minutes, and the baby would freak out because they're trying to attune with you. And there's, like, a million attunements that happen between you and your child all day, every day. They're reading you and figuring out how they should feel. And so if you're totally still and you're not feeling anything and they reach out to you, they put all these bids forward, like smiling and then crying. Or maybe they go inside and they try to self soothe. They throw things at the wall trying to get you to react, and if you don't, it's upsetting. And apparently some more securely attached kids will reach out by trying to smile and engage with you, and then they will devolve, and that's fine. And apparently, some anxious and avoidant children, they might be upset from the beginning, and then they might not be able to repair when you come back. They might be inconsolable, even when your expressions come back and you try to attune with them.


Or they might not even notice that you've gone still. And these are probably the avoidant babies where they're used to. Perhaps you disappearing because maybe you suffered from PPD, or you've just had a lot going on. Maybe you're impoverished and you can't give your full attention to your baby, and so they're really, they're not used to you attuning anyway. And so they go inside and they self soothe, and they don't notice that you're not there. So I don't know. Basically, my baby looks like he's probably gonna be a secure baby. I guess that means that I showed up. I guess that means I tried to attune with him. I guess that means that I've loved him appropriately so far. It's only been seven months. I don't know. There's still a lot of time to mess up. That stresses me out a lot still. But, you know, we have a really good relationship, me and him, and he feels really safe around me, and he loves me very much, and he feels safe around other people too. I can just give him to anyone, and he's just like, ah. And I don't know. I don't know how this happened.


It's great. It's possible. There's hope.


Sounds perfect.


Can I ask you one more question, Stephanie?




Does any part of this, having this baby and looking at him, knowing you love him so completely and that he is so deserving of that just from his being born. What does that make you feel about baby Stephanie?


It's so sad. It's really, really sad. I also just don't understand how you invest so much. Kids are so much work. It's 24/7 it's nonstop. It's physically arduous. It's emotionally mentally arduous. I don't understand how you put that much into a child and then just abandon them. I feel really sad about the fact that when my mom left, she didn't take any of my baby pictures. And I think that my dad might have just thrown away all my baby pictures, too. I don't know where they are, if they still exist in the world, but I don't have very many of them. And I take so many pictures of this baby every day, and I love him so much. How do you. Even if you have conflicts with your adult child, how do you not want to look at that sweet face anymore? How do you hate a baby? How do you want to forget a baby? I'm constantly like, I want to remember all of this forever. I want to remember how you laugh, and I'm writing it all down. Like, today is when you got your first tooth, and today is when you discover that you really love the fan.


And I drew, like, a picture of our light fixture on our ceiling because he loved the light fixture so much, and I just want to show it to him one day. This was once your favorite thing in the world? Yeah. I don't know. It's heartbreaking.


Pod squad, if you have ever asked yourself, is it worth it to do this work? I think we all have our answer. Are you working on anything else? I'm just asking for personal reasons.


Yeah, I'm working on a book about parenting with complex PTSD.


Perfect. Will you come back when that's ready?


I mean, it'll be a while.




That's seven months in. But I'm doing a lot of research and talking to a bunch of scientists and psychologists, and, yeah, I think that a lot of people feel the same way as I did about being really terrified about becoming a mom because we didn't think that we'd be good enough, maybe because we didn't feel like we would deserve this kind of love. I don't know. So I want to destigmatize, de pathologize that a little bit.


What could be a more perfect example? Like, if the ultimate thing, when you went to go in that trauma session, visit baby Stephanie and say, this is not your fault. This is not your fault. And then to have this baby come from you and see that it is utterly incapable of that fault. Perfect and loving and a total pain in the ass.


But, like, perfect.


And then to be like, there is no greater proof that it was never baby Stephanie's fault than for baby Stephanie to have a baby and say, oh, my God, it was never about me. So if it was never about me, then it's not going to be my thing. I'm going to repeat for this baby, because it wasn't me the whole time.


Yeah, absolutely. You see that baby crying all night long, and you keep going in over and over and over, and I'm never like, why are you doing this?




I'm like, wow, you must be really struggling right now. And I don't remember my parents ever saying, wow, you must be really struggling right now. So I think there was something missing there. Yeah. Dissociation.


Dissociation is like individual dissociation, familial dissociation, cultural dissociation. There's a reason to stay. There's a real reason to stay.


Yeah. There's a reason to look at your kid and constantly attune and be like, what is going on with you? Tell me. Let me in. I want to see all of you.


Not let them disappear. That's love.


I'm not letting them. Yeah. And in order to say I love you, there has to be that eye. Like, there has to be an eye if there's not an eye. Okay. Obviously, we can talk to you for 40 years. Thank you, Stephanie. Fu. Everybody, go get this beautiful book. What my bones know it'll help you. That's all I can say. Pod Squad, we love you. We will see you next time.




If this podcast means something to you, it would mean so much to us if you'd be willing to take 30 seconds to do these three things. First, can you please follow or subscribe to? We can do hard things. Following the pod helps you because you'll never miss an episode, and it helps us because you'll never miss an episode. To do this, just go to the we can do hard things show page on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, odyssey, or wherever you listen to podcasts, and then just tap the plus sign in the upper right hand corner or click on follow. This is the most important thing for the pod. While you're there, if you'd be willing to give us a five star rating and review and share an episode you loved with a friend, we would be so grateful. We appreciate you very much. We can do hard things is created and hosted by Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach and Amanda Doyle in partnership with Odyssey. Our executive producer is Jenna Wise Berman, and the show is produced by Lauren Lagrasso, Alison Schott, Deena Kleiner and Bill Schultz. I give you Tish Melton and Brandi Carlisle.


I walked through fire I came out the other side I chased his ire I made sure I got what's mine and I continue to believe that I'm the one for me and because I'm mine I walk the line cause we're adventurers and heartbreaks on the final destination we stopped asking directions some places they've never been and to be loved we need to be known we'll finally find our way back home and through the joy and pain that our lives bring we can do hard I hit rock bottom it felt like a brand new star I'm not the problem sometimes things fall apart and I continue to believe the best people are free and it took some time but I'm finally fine cause we're adventurous and heartbreaks are met a final destination we stopped asking directions some places they've never been and to be loved we need to be known we'll finally find our way back home and through the joy and pain that our light spring we can do a hard day adventurers and heartbreaks are mad we might get lost but we okay that we stopped asking directions some places they've never been and to be loved we need to be known we'll finally find our way back home and through the joy and pain that our lives bring we can do hard things yeah we can do heart things yeah we can hard things.