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Guest Post — Painting Pictures: Trauma and the Third Culture Kid Experience

Originally published at Djibouti Jones.

Under the Surface

Just six days from today marks the 13-year memorial of a night that drew a big, bloody line down the middle of my life: witnessing my dear friend Wendy’s murder in a random and senseless act of gun violence on October 28, 2000. We were celebrating Halloween weekend when we were held up at gunpoint and the woman shot Wendy before giving us time to hand over our wallets. It was a night the sky opened up and I had a glimpse into hell. And worse, my soul sister, a fabulous creative force in the universe, was gone from this plane.

Steamy window sunset

Anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder knows how the incident fragments the way you experience your own life into a Before and After, and is often accompanied by a variety of personality changes in the process.

For me, adventurous and bold became timid and fearful, a virtual about-face from the openness and adaptability that once were a part of my Third Culture Kid repertoire.

At the time of the incident I was going to university in Los Angeles, and my family was living in Switzerland. Instead of coming to my graduation, my mum came to LA for the pre-trial hearing — the one that would determine whether there was enough evidence for an actual jury trial. These were the days before budget travel, and it felt more important to have my mom’s support in the first of three trials to put Wendy’s murderers away than have her at my graduation.

After the two-year process of testifying against Wendy’s killer and her accomplice, a series of events nothing at all like what we see in television crime procedurals, I went into an emotional freefall.

The American method for dealing with trauma or psychological issues is by medicating the person, even if the patient doesn’t want the meds. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications made me numb in a way that felt nothing but wrong — I knew I should feel sad, I should feel scared, these were my mind and body’s way of processing not only the loss of my amazing friend, but actually witnessing her death. A short stay in the hospital later, on account of the medications, and I was across the ocean from Los Angeles to my family in a city I’d never lived in before. I couldn’t deal with myself, my job, my relationship or living in the country that took my friend and ruined my life.

My mom was still living in Switzerland, and because of the high number of UN and other aid offices headquartered in Geneva she found me an amazing trauma counsellor whose specialty was cross-cultural psychology and psychiatry, and one who also used art and drama in his sessions.

Dr Arpin tailored every meeting to the specific cultural background of the patient. My childhood spent in Sri Lanka, Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan and India as well as my time in Los Angeles became the cornerstone for my treatment. He also took into account my conservative Sri Lankan father and radical American mother, a dynamic in my family that was fraught with unease that had spilled over onto me since I was a child. He also noted the tension of my having lived abroad and experiencing my passport country of the USA through a deceptive media machine that hardly prepared me for the reality of the experience, one that took on new levels after surviving a gun crime.

India has been one of my favorite places I’d lived, and I often pray to Hindu deities among Buddhist, Greek, Roman, and even Celtic ones — a measure of pantheism marks my personal brand of Third Culture Kid-ness. Noting this, Dr Arpin would bring stories I’d never heard of Ganesh and Lakshmi into our sessions, which would help me focus on my writing, drawing and dancing as healing practices — the first time I’d ever done that in my life. He also brought my love of cinema, and especially horror films, into the mix, helping me find ways to empower myself and reclaim the things I loved but hadn’t been able to enjoy for years because of the “trigger” factors.

The most powerful exercise, and the one that demonstrated just how traumatized I was not only by Wendy’s murder but also by my Third Culture Kid childhood, took place in the small theatre below his office. He sat in the audience, put the spotlight on me, and asked me to describe my home.

“My desk here, by the window. Kitchen here. Bed here. Door here.” As I mapped out the space with my hands.

“Where are the walls?”

“No walls.” I said.

“No walls?”


“And who can come in?”

“Anyone.” I replied, in a ‘no duh’ kind of way.


His puzzlement at my response of “Anyone” bothered me. The next week I asked him what other people say when asked the same question. He told me that most people have their rooms separated by walls, and people need to be invited to come in, the door isn’t just open.

I remembered reading in Ruth Van Reken’s seminal study on Third Culture Kids that often times because TCKs are constantly shuttling through various cultures, peoples, situations, we have difficulty setting boundaries unless actively taught how to do so.

The room exercise showed me that I had no personal filters, a trait common among Third Culture Kids, but one that becomes problematic when trauma and PTSD enter the mix. And I realized that the dramatic loss of Wendy, my first friend at that time to have passed away, was reminiscent on other levels of all the friends I’d lost in so many years of moving around. Back then there was no social media, no mobile phones, no Skype. Friends would often move to places with semi-functional mail service, or telephone lines that worked once a week if you’re lucky.

During the first Iraq war my family and I were on Christmas home leave in Milwaukee, my mom’s hometown. We were already on our way back to Islamabad when we found out that all UN personnel and consulate employees had been evacuated. It was a nightmare for my mum to re-route our tickets after we landed in Amsterdam to my dad’s hometown of Colombo since it worked out cheaper to go to Sri Lanka than back to the US or stay in Europe. On my return to school months later, my best friend had been evacuated and nobody could tell me where she’d gone or how to contact her. I didn’t find her again for 15 years.

When I was growing up a Third Culture Kid, goodbye could be pretty darn final.

Reflecting more and more deeply on Dr Arpin’s room exercise, so many memories from my childhood arose. The not-so-nice things of growing up between worlds, the tense and often frightening culture in my homelife between parents with polar opposite worldviews, being bullied at school, the assorted cultural difficulties place to place that amount to small traumas, but when put together become major.

We Third Culture Kids have a charmed life on the surface, but underneath, in the hurt and still-scarred places nobody really wants to talk about, there can be a great deal of hidden trauma that may only surface in the wake of a violent trauma as mine did.

The trauma of Wendy’s murder had opened up a floodgate of issues I’d never properly dealt with — all the goodbyes I never knew were the last time I’d see someone or someplace, the innate sense of rootlessness and never feeling I belonged anywhere not even in my own family, the toxic and abusive relationships that had wounded me because of my “Anyone” policy — the grief was overwhelming. Twenty-four years of it, all coming through at once.

Thankfully, I had Dr Arpin’s help and in the year and a half we worked together he helped me build some necessary walls and begin to put the mess of all the traumas into their own places. He showed me how to mindfully channel all the emotional mines littering my past into writing and creativity. All of this without even the offer of medication, unlike his American counterparts who told me that they couldn’t treat my PTSD without pharmaceuticals.

Fragmented Heart

*Fragmented Heart by Sezin Koehler

And thankfully, I was a Third Culture Kid blessed to be able to leave my passport country and receive the treatment that helped heal at least the most acute symptoms of PTSD. Sadly, there’s no cure for post-traumatic stress disorder; one must learn how to manage it and ride its waves as they ebb and flow, perilous though that may be at times.

Next week marks 13 years since the night that changed my life and broke it into a Before and After. Being a Third Culture Kid indeed heightened my experience of PTSD; yet, at the same time, my unique situation as a Third Culture Kid was what afforded me a powerful path towards healing.

Trauma and Third Culture Kid-ness are forever linked, two of many heads on the  hybrid monster Hydra that symbolize my After-trauma life. I’m now a fragmented being constantly in motion, fighting — sometimes myself, sometimes the past, sometimes change — and united in only one goal: storytelling.

*image credit Adam Kerfoot Roberts via flickr