After receiving a mental health diagnosis, journalist Stephanie Foo embarks on journey to answer one question: can complex PTSD be cured? What followed was a sprawling exploration of race, culture, history, and complex trauma, which she details in her memoir, "What My Bones Know".
By Leah Harris
CW: Mention of Cambodian Genocide
Emmy-winning journalist Stephanie Foo seemed to have it all. Her acclaimed resume includes credits as a producer for NPR’s This American Life and co-creator of the podcast Snap Judgment. But throughout her successful career, she was slowly coming undone. As she describes it in the essay that won her a Rosalyn Carter Fellowship in Mental Health Journalism: “The depression could hold me underwater for years at a time. I’d sob in the train on the way to work, then smile brightly as I walked in the door. Between edits, I’d hide in the bathroom, having full-blown panic attacks. And despite the many therapists I saw, I couldn’t get the fog to lift—at least not permanently.”
In 2018, Foo was diagnosed with Complex Traumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD. It was a transformative moment in her life. After she educated herself about the often serious mental, emotional, physical, and social consequences of unrecognized C-PTSD, including early mortality, she took a hiatus from her work at This American Life to write her investigative memoir seeking to answer the question: Can C-PTSD be healed?
C-PTSD is typically caused not by a single event, but by long-term and repeated trauma. It’s generally related to events occurring in childhood, whereas PTSD can occur following trauma at any stage of life. C-PTSD specifically recognizes the racial and social context, and is found among those who have been subjected to lifelong racism and oppression.
In her 2022 memoir What My Bones Know, Foo looks closely at the roots of the trauma, both in her Cambodian immigrant family and the broader Cambodian community where she grew up in San Jose. A powerful episode of the podcast Invisibilia featuring Foo’s investigative work takes us on a journey to a Cambodian-specific mental health program, where the majority of clients were being given anti-psychotic medications after speaking about seeing ghosts while in a state of sleep paralysis.
When a culturally-competent Cambodian therapist reviewed the cases, he found that nearly every one of the clients had been misdiagnosed. Previous providers lacked understanding of Cambodian culture and beliefs about these ghosts, and they were unaware of the history and generational traumatic impact of the Cambodian Genocide. Offering culturally-specific support to survivors has increased trust and referrals within the community, and has even helped parents and adult children to repair strained relationships, Invisibilia reports.
Reflecting on the possibility of healing, Foo wonders if things could have been different if her parents had accessed help: “They would have needed to understand that going to therapy didn't mean that they were crazy, which makes me wonder - if I dared to keep dreaming - what if going to therapy wasn't walking into someone else's office? What if it was about opening a door for someone to walk into your life to help you learn how to love and be loved in ways that made sense to your culture and your community? What if your trauma wasn't yours alone to carry? I think that world, it just might have a lot more joy in it.”
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Leah Harris is a non-binary, queer, neurodivergent, disabled Jewish writer, facilitator, and organizer working in the service of truth-telling, justice-doing, and liberation. They’ve had work published in the New York Times, CNN, and Pacific Standard. You can learn more about their work at their website and follow them on Instagram.