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HEALING THE INNER CHILD – Bich Lan Phan

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In “Reconciliation: Healing the i4nner child,” the venerable Monk Thich Nhat Hanh said that “Your former selves continue to live on inside you – particularly the wounded inner child. That kid, who at times, did not get what he/she needed, did not get the love and attention he/she deserved, (or worse, was downright neglected or abused) is alive, ready to be treated kindly but also on guard for more hurt. To see that, and touch that tender spot inside yourself with compassion, is the start of extending that grace to others, the start of the legacy we will one day leave behind.”

I became that wounded child at age five. I was home alone with my mom as she prepared for the New Year festivities. As I laid on the bed, I heard her piercing shriek and saw her faint. From that evening, Mom became a shadow of herself, someone I never recognized again. In Vietnam, the shame of mental illness was insurmountable. The privileged daughter of a renowned physician, a beautiful young woman schooled in Paris and London, Mom became someone who wandered the streets or locked up behind steel bars in our family home, screaming all hours of the day. My father insisted on taking my mom out to elite French country clubs, to fancy restaurants, and to see relatives. He bore no shame and instilled in my younger brother and me a sense of duty and an unwavering commitment to those we love. We bathed Mom, helped her change, and occasionally spoon fed her.

On April 30, 1975, the four of us left Vietnam by boat as Saigon fell. In the middle of the Pacific, I was separated from my family. My father told me that his shy and sensitive girl emerged in the summer of 1975 as a strong determined young woman and relentless survivor. I never recounted to him the many harrowing moments in the two months lost at sea and alone in refugee camps. One night, in a storage locker on board the rescue ship, a faceless man climbed on top of me. I yelled: “If you touch me, one of us will be dead and it won’t be me.” In a refugee camp on Wake Island, I rescued a young girl from rape. Those moments reinforced my conviction to always face and conquer my fears. At 15 and 17, my younger brother and I lived alone with Mom in Connecticut, our dad having moved to pursue a medical internship. We trudged along, learned never to complain, and gained acceptance into elite colleges on full academic scholarships. On Christmas Eve 1977, I remember being elated that I earned enough from babysitting to bring home a $5 Charlie Brown Christmas tree, our first ever. As I walked into our apartment to show it off to my mom and brother, I discovered she was gone. The next two days, my brother Đăng and I walked through countless streets in Connecticut to search for our mom: we found her laying on a bus bench. That was our Christmas that year. In high school and college, I always felt like an ugly duckling, hopelessly alone. I did not feel that I belonged among my wealthy high school and college classmates, or my Vietnamese former schoolmates. After completing a Master’s in Healthcare Administration at UCLA, I married and raised a family while climbing the career ladder. The consulting job brought long workdays, with no family support for raising our first daughter and little help from my traditional Vietnamese spouse. In 1990, I established my own healthcare consulting company while never straying from set career goals. Manager by 30, Director at 35, Vice President at 40, Chief Operating Officer at 45, and Chief Executive Officer at 50. The “glass ceiling” never deterred me. I met all my milestones years before reaching 40.

At 42, I founded my own healthcare management company, MSO, Inc. I appeared to thrive on the professional front, forming and managing over forty medical groups and serving on the Board of Directors of a Medicare Health Plan. On the outside, I exuded success, confidence, and willpower, but on the inside, I desperately struggled to hide personal challenges and tragedies. My spouse never accepted my professional success over his own, and reeling from a business failure, he became a severe alcoholic. We kept the appearance of marital bliss while struggling with medical, legal issues, and domestic violence. I recount dozens of trips to emergency rooms and alcohol rehabilitation centers. His disease was destructive, relentless, and fatal. This CEO slept many nights under her desk at the office while placing her children safely with friends. My greatest regret was not to immediately remove our children from the toxic home environment. While I cared for my dad in his final days on home hospice, he reminded me that we each had our cross to bear, and his and mine were heavier than most: He had survived losing his own father at a young age, grew up in poverty, was imprisoned by the Japanese during their occupation of Vietnam, fought the French colonialists as a guerilla, defected from the Viet-Minh army when they turned “red”, re-started his medical career three times, cared for his manic-depressive wife and four children for decades, and his mom had died from starvation. In comparison to his trials and sufferings, I often thought that my struggles seemed trivial.

Liberation from the domestic hell my family experienced came slowly as I started healing my inner wounded child. I encouraged my daughters to organize celebrations (Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, Easter), and to cook and serve meals in abused women and children’s shelters. In 2012, I returned to Vietnam to join a group of Pediatric surgeons. During several annual trips with IPSAC-VN, I translated for the surgeons, helped improve safety and efficiency for hospital operational procedures and processes, raised funds for better equipment and scarce medical supplies, participated in feeding and gifting money and supplies to thousands of handicapped and destitute people living in the slums. Each year, we also visited dozens of orphanages and homes for disabled children and pregnant teens to offer donations and ongoing funding.

In 2013, my daughter Aimee and I started our work with the Pacific Links Foundation, a non-profit organization which rescues and rehabilitates young Vietnamese women who were trafficked. We raised funds, taught summer camp sessions to spread self-esteem, self-reliance, courage, and resilience to young girls so that they may heal their inner wounded child. Through reaching out to those in need, I slowly and surely healed myself. In 2017, after decades of domestic abuse and neglecting that wounded inner child, I finally walked away from my marriage. As I entered my sixties, I checked off an extensive list of experiences and stopped categorizing them as “good” or “bad,” but as opportunities to gain experience, heal myself, and help others.

I am most proud of having accomplished what Thầy Thích-Nhật-Hạnh reminded us: “With practice, we can see that the wounded child is not only in us. Our mother and our father may have suffered throughout their lives. Maybe they could not look after the wounded child in them. But we can do so – look after the wounded child in ourselves, in our parents, in anyone and everyone we meet – right now.” As I continue to heal, I opened myself to greater love and desire for giving. Along the way, I found Love from a generous doting partner. As we take weekly walks on the soft sand of Huntington Dog Beach with our five dogs, I feel at peace, content, and optimistic that better days lay ahead of us. As I think about the mom I never truly knew, the dad that I admire for his courage and loyalty, the husband who hurt me unwittingly, I empathize with their wounded inner child.

No accolades could ever parallel the last words my dad whispered as he passed on from this world: “Honey, You and your brother Đăng EXCEEDED my expectations, and you have the kindest hearts.”

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