A Ghost and a Distant Past

i just saw
a face from the past
staring at me from behind a photo album
i recognize that face
i sure do
what i don’t recognize
is the one staring at me now
from behind the mirror in front of me
mirror, mirror on the wall
can you please tell me
who is this face staring at me now?
can a year make this much of a difference
i’m seeing a ghost
haunted by the face from behind the photo album


About a year ago (well, not quite, more like close to 11 months ago), I attended a high school reunion. A wonderful moment, leaving a very special and warm place in my heart forever. Anyway, I just recently saw a bunch of pictures from that reunion uploaded onto Facebook. There’s a piece of my heart that cringed inside when I saw my face in some of those pictures. My heart sank, and it resulted in this poem. I really don’t know what feelings are grounding inside me right now. Is it sad, happy, missing, loss, or grieving, but grieving for what I don’t know. I know I have changed a lot since that reunion time. I’ve felt bitterness, a great deal of loss from losing a high school friend from cancer, broken heart, and a true meaning of living alone, by myself. I’ve truly felt the harshness of life, but I also know that mine is nothing compared to what many are going through so I don’t dare to complain. The good news is that I’ve also discovered my faith and new friendship, but it doesn’t reduce the hardship of life I’m facing on my own. All I know now is that the girl in that photo album from the reunion is no longer the same person now. The face in those photos almost appears…how should I say this, distant? It was from a past that feels like ages ago.



It’s been a while since I last put an entry, and it’s not because I don’t have anything to write. Instead, I actually have plenty to say. I’ve been in my head a lot lately, in my thoughts. Thinking, thinking, thinking. I finally have to put it down.

Have you ever been in a place with so many people around you and feeling so alone too at the same time? I was walking down the street in downtown Chicago today to a meeting, and it’s the Saturday before St. Patrick’s day, so there are a lot of people in the street. The St. Patrick’s day parade just ended, I guess. They also had this annual practice to celebrate St. Paddy day by changing the Chicago river water to green, and so the weekend attracts a lot of people/tourists to Chicago. Needless to say, the street was full of people. Maneuvering myself in a sea of green, obnoxious, drunk people is not what I would call easy. But yet, I also felt so alone. I felt lost, even though I knew where I was going.

So, why am I feeling this way, you would ask? Don’t know. Stress? Don’t know. In Bahasa Indonesia, I’d call this feeling….resah. Like I’m  not satisfied, as if I’m looking for something, but I’m not exactly sure what is it. It happens to come not at a good time too, when I need to concentrate in my school work. Can’t concentrate. Focus! I need to get out of my head! Get into action! And what’s with this unfinished sentences? Helllooouuu….

But I have to get myself together. There are just way too many tasks to do ahead of me. I have too many people that I am responsible to, including myself. I’m going to have to put myself into the “go” gear. Once I put it in place, I’m going. Go go go…

But, go where?

Is it normal to feel this way when you’re so close to the finish line?

This resah, unfortunately, continues. I wish I can feed it with something so it can stop following me. Stop following me! Ka’bulampek.

I want to go home. No, not the apartment. I mean home, my home sweet home, the place where I will always call home. I miss it so much. Just writing this thought right now already making me want to cry, except that I can’t because then all of these people around me will think I need to be hospitalized. I miss it so much that it hurts. I’ve been away for too long, I realize. Does anybody else ever share my feeling too?

Continuing to Remember David

This is the second blog I wrote about David Gimelfarb. I wrote the first one not long after he went missing. David is, was, and will always be my friend. He went missing on August 11, 2009 in the forest of Costa Rica while vacationing. His body has not been found and the local police, as well as the owner of the hotel nearby where David last stayed, have not cooperated or helped much in the search. There has been another incidence of a man missing about a month or two in the are after David’s missing. It is still a puzzle of what exactly happened to the two men. The families and friends of both men are left with a lot of questions, but with very little help. There have been new updates to follow up, but again, with no cooperation from the local authorities, families and friends have very little to accomplish. Also, things quickly become very expensive for the families because they have to do everything with their own money, and a search can cost thousands of dollars daily.

The reason why I am writing this blog is because I just received an email not that long ago from facebook. I subscribed to a service through facebook that would remind me of birthdays of my friends on facebook. Well, guess whose birthday is coming up next week, December 2nd to be exact. When I saw his name, I got goosebumps all over. Then of course, I cried. Can’t believe he’s been gone for over 3 months.

We had a community gathering at my school a few weeks ago and people made some suggestions of activities we can do to remember David. I suggested having a focal point in the main gathering area for all students, so a bulletin board was dedicated for David. Pictures of him are up now, as well as blank pieces of paper for people to write something. I appreciate this effort because we should remember him.

We might have moved on, understandably so because we have daily responsibilities to do. Sometimes, the daily responsibilities are the ones that keep us going. Otherwise, we’ll be caught in the constant grief. Just because we have moved on does not mean that we forget.

So David, happy birthday to you. You’re not forgotten, mi amigo. We remember you, your kindness, humanity, and integrity. You would have made a great psychologist.

What I Am Thankful For

What am I thankful for? Well, it’s a long list, and Thanksgiving tends to bring this out of me.

We didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving where I came from. I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but went along with the festivities anyway, year after year. Over time, I eventually acquired my own meaning of Thanksgiving. I learned to make a list of my blessings. Over the years, the list grew. I’d like to share some of them in the hope that it may inspire you to do the same.

So, I’m thankful for:

  1. having a working mind, that my brain is still working fine, that I can think still and function in my daily life.
  2. having a working body, that I can still walk, run, jump, get up on my own, function on my own without having to rely on somebody else to help me all the time.
  3. my family in Indonesia and in here, including my parents, my two brothers, my two sisters-in-law, grandparents (may they rest in peace), uncles, aunts, cousins, and the rest of extended families.
  4. Mikey, of course, my best friend, for his patience, support, and understanding; I can always rely on him for these and many more.
  5. the whole Coppage family, my father and mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and her son and significant other. I am particularly thankful for her son, the newest member of the Coppage family.
  6. having a place to stay and not being homeless.
  7. having a source of income, even though it’s not a lot for now since it’s still an internship.
  8. doing well in school, and yes, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now. The light is slowly getting bigger and bigger each day. There are still quite a lot to do before I can get to the tunnel.
  9. having so many friends all over the world, and these are friends that continue to inspire me, day in and day out. They are my heroes, even though they do what they do without expecting recognition. Their rewards are solely selfless. Kudos to social interest and social action!
  10. having professors, supervisors and colleagues in my field that also continue to inspire and support me. I’ve learned tremendously from them and will continue to do so. I hope that I can have the courage to be of a positive influence to them too.
  11. having the opportunity to have the kind of life journey that I think is somewhat unique, I must say. I think my experiences have helped me tremendously to be who I am now. I would not be the person I am now without those experiences, no matter how difficult and challenging some of them were during some years.
  12. having so many additional families that have taken me in and helped me at different times in my life. To the Bledsoes, the Dolbys, the Clementes, the Emanuels, and the Coppages, it’s an honor for me to know all of you and your kindness.
  13. meeting and having the opportunity to work with the many clients that I have encountered in a variety of working environment. As much as they probably learned or did not learn anything from me, I have surely learned a great deal from them. Whereas my professors at school provide me with skills and knowledge about how to work, my clients, on the other hand, teach me about the true life and what happen in life. They are a constant reminder of why I do my work.
  14. having the opportunity to do advocacy work with TASSC and other organizations. People that I’ve met so far through these organizations have reminded me that my work should not be limited to providing therapy in the office, and that there are a lot that I can contribute to in the field. Injustice cannot be fought behind the door only; sometimes we in this field of psychology need to go outside of our comfort level. We will not know what and how our clients experience their pain and suffering unless we venture out from the comfort of our office and see their fight for justice.
  15. having the opportunity to live in a country where the majority of its people believe in having the freedom of speech and democracy. I know that there are people in this country that still try to stifle the freedom of speech and other rights of certain groups (i.e., immigrants, refugees, women, children, etc.), but that is exactly what we need, an ammunition to continue to fight for justice.
  16. having Indonesia as forever to be my homeland and country of birth (tanah air). My wish is to be buried there in the end, to go back to my birthplace in the end. I can be so far away in so many years, but deep inside in my heart there’s a place called loyalty, and it belongs to…you know where. I’ve learned to appreciate the U.S. over the many years I’ve lived here and I’ve learned to be thankful for being able to associate deeply with two countries, but I definitely associate passionately with my primary country.
  17. being acquainted and identified with human rights philosophy and democracy, and I tell you what, how empowering! But with power and knowledge, also comes more realization. They should be accompanied with responsibilities, sacrifice, courage, and a sense of humility. So now I’m facing with the question of what should I do with my power and knowledge?
  18. having (some) money.
  19. having access to a (running) car.
  20. having a good overall health, if I can only keep this borderline high blood pressure down continuously.
  21. having access to food and water.
  22. being able to feel safe and live in a pretty safe place.
  23. having friends from childhood that would like to continue to keep in touch with me…:), which reminds me of another one to be thankful for,
  24. THE INTERNET, especially for the existence of FACEBOOK, email, skype, twitter, etc. What would I do without them (now)? I must say, though, that I do miss the action of writing letters, sending them out by mail, and waiting for days for any letter. Some of my friends from high school in Indonesia probably still remember this. I used to write and send at least one letter per week during my first few years in the U.S. I still remember exactly the excitement of opening the mail box (the real mail box, that is) and seeing a letter with Indonesian post stamp on it. I truly miss the art of writing letters. About a year ago, I was talking to a 17-year-old Indonesian girl here in Chicago, who came from Indonesia recently and still has family and friends there. She said that she often felt bored at the place where she was living at that time because she had a limited access to the internet. So, I simply said, “What about writing letters to your friends?” What a joke, which I soon realized because she looked at me with such a bewildered look in her face, saying “What? How? People still do that?”
  25. having all of my five senses still working fine.
  26. not having an addiction (if you don’t count facebook games, ha ha ha…).
  27. having the (decent) ability to write.
  28. not having any chronic mental illness.

I can probably continue the list, but I think I will leave it there for now and continue it another time. If you have any suggestion, feel free to leave me a comment.

So what are you thankful for?

Human Rights Philosophy in My Line of Work

About a month ago, I was at home reading a book, basically enjoying the summer break, when I suddenly startled my poor husband when I put the book down and proceed to cry. Of course, he asked me what just happened. However, he wasn’t shocked, behaving as if it was not the first time he saw me frustratingly putting a book down and crying. I was reading a book titled The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine. The book is a memoir of Somaly Mam, a survivor of sexual slavery during her childhood in Cambodia. In addition to being a memoir, she also talked in a great length on the second part of the book about the problem of childhood sexual slavery in Cambodia and her fight to put a stop into the industry. And let me emphasize on the problem, it is childhood sexual slavery, not prostitution. The author was sold by her family into a vast network of predators working in a sex industry. This problem runs rampant in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and a few other neighboring countries, which was the focus of the book. The same problem, however, exists in many other countries in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and even in North and South America. The area that is the focus on this book has been well known, however, for using very young children. The younger the child, the more money the pimp will receive. Hopefully by now you understand why I cried. But when I said my husband wasn’t quite surprised, it’s because he’s seen me doing it before, with plenty of other books.
What I read in these books usually brought out in me a strong emotional reaction. To say that I was upset is probably an understatement. I was angry, furious, mad, enrage! I felt all of those feeling, even though I don’t know any of the people featured in these books. But do I really need to know them in order to feel their pain? For a moment while I was crying, I felt helpless and guilty. I felt helpless because I didn’t think I was able to do anything to help them, and I felt guilty because of feeling helpless. It’s like a domino effect; I feel one, therefore, the other.

Every time my husband saw me crying, he always asked me why would I then continue to read these books. For a while I couldn’t answer him because I didn’t have one, which was probably why he kept asking me every time he saw me getting frustrated. It wasn’t until Somaly Mam’s book I read last month that the answer finally came to me. I think deep inside me I knew the answer all along; I was just never quite able to put everything together into an answer. I said to my husband that I read these books because I was a witness to these people’s stories, and these are the kind of stories that will always demand audience, listeners, witnesses. It is in the telling of these stories that hope remains, or hope is the reason why they tell their stories. Which one comes first, hope or narratives, is besides the point. If people stop reading these books, then it silences the victims and survivors’ voices. What’s the use of speaking out and telling your stories when nobody’s listening? I read these books in order to maintain their hope. To borrow Paulo Freire’s expression on hope, “Hopelessness is a form of silence, of denying the world and fleeing from it”. To ignore these stories of violence, pain and suffering, survival, fight for justice, recovery and healing, means to give up on hope.

While it is true that not everyone can be expected to read through books like these, I can and, therefore, feel obligated to do it. And to be honest, I feel intrigued to read them. So, why not continue?

As a psychologist in training and a previous mental health counselor at a shelter for undocumented and unaccompanied immigrant youth, I’ve heard many horrendous stories, and I’m positive worse stories will be crossing my path in the future. There is just no way of avoiding them in my line of work. Even though I prepare myself by reading many of what I would call difficult books, my tolerance level continues to be challenged on a regular basis. It’s the horrific details of the stories that continue to challenge my deepest sense of humanity. Instead of crying the way I cry at home, I found myself crying inside while at work. I realize that there’s very little difference between what I’ve heard directly from my clients and read from those books. Evil, ugly wrongdoings happen in my city, in other parts of this country, or somewhere else in this world.

Just recently I came across a situation that may prove to be the biggest challenge so far in my line of work. I will be taking a case where it will allow me to work with, to borrow Paulo Freire’s term again, an oppressor. I can’t say more about the case due to confidentiality, but this really marks my introduction to working with somebody from the oppressor group. I usually work with and fight with people from the other side, the oppressed. I even read books that are typically telling the stories of the oppressed.

Why is this issue a big deal for me to encourage a discussion in this blog? As part of the preparation of me taking the case, I’ve been warned ahead of time that others (my colleagues) may view my action to take the case critically, if not negatively. I may be asked why would I want to take the case? Worse, some may be forming a question in their head about what kind of person who would want to work with this person?

I wrestled inside too with that question, and it dawned on me that the answer is within the same line as the answer I already gave to my husband earlier. The element of witnessing, of listening, is still there. I’ll still be witnessing stories, and furthermore, this time I’ll have the advantage of looking at the stories from the other side. How often do we in this line of work really have this opportunity? Furthermore, by listening to stories from both sides, hopefully it will give me a better perspective into my roles and responsibilities as a mechanism of change.

Another philosophy that I have found to be of tremendous help is the human rights philosophy. It is called human rights for a reason, that all humans have rights. Otherwise, it should be labeled as group rights. Continuing to bring in Paulo Freire’s work from his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was also heavy in human rights thinking, I do believe that my line of work should be available to people on both sides (the oppressor and the oppressed), but with different things to keep in mind for each side. When working with the oppressed group, the key is to understand that those of us in this line of work should not force these people to follow our agenda, but to know what they need and where they are in their level of readiness to change. When working with the oppressor, the challenge is to understand the origin or past of many of the members. Freire talks a great deal about the line between the oppressed group and the oppressor, which at times, can be a very thin line. It means that those from the oppressed side can easily switch to the other side if they fail to include reflection in their action of liberating themselves (Freire believes in the element of reflection and action, which is what he refers to as praxis).

Thus, based on Freire’s point above, who exactly are these people that we labeled oppressor? Using what I know about psychology theory, particularly the theory on attachment during childhood, it’s fair to say that many of these oppressors were probably at some point in their past (possibly during childhood) fell under the oppressed side. But even if we’re not necessarily talking about childhood and even putting aside psychological theories, I believe these adult oppressors are also victims themselves within the whole system and environment that promotes the use of oppression. They become the tools of oppression because of failure to reflect on their action. Because of that understanding and based on my belief in human rights principles, they also deserve psychological help from people like me. The only one caution that I would add here is that I can only facilitate help, change or healing only for those who are ready to change. People presumably seek help because of the insurmountable pain and a somewhat readiness to change, although the latter may vary greatly from one person to another. If they seek help because they’re ready to change, then who am I to judge him or her and say…no.

Just as much as I don’t like to be judged, I try not to judge others too, even though it is within our nature as a human being to constantly build judgments in our head. On the same token, I do sometimes wish that I’m not being judged for continuing to read emotionally difficult books. I’m drawn to them because they keep me grounded, humbled, reminding me always to be thankful for what I have, my family, childhood, opportunities, and so on. The list is open and unending…. I use these stories and my new experience from work to strengthen my core self in order to be able to keep going, no matter how hard it is at times. And for those who voice a critical opinion of my choices, I’ll consider the moment as an opportunity to dialogue.