Two years ago, I went to Cambodia to do volunteer work at an orphanage. I hadn't booked any accommodation before it was due to start, so when I arrived in Siem Reap I began walking the streets trying to find a hotel, and in the process of doing so, I noticed a book stall on the side of the road. Being an avid reader, I approached it and started scanning the titles before the owner emerged from the other side of the stall, smiling at me.
"Hello," he said in a thick Khmer accent.
I did my best to smile back and suppress the pang of anguish that had quickly swept over me.
"Hello," I said.
"America?" he asked cheerfully.
I shook my head.
He nodded enthusiastically.
"Kangaroo!" he laughed.
I forced myself to laugh along with him. He continued chuckling, and due to the language barrier, I knew that that was the end of the conversation. I returned to looking at the books, all the while wishing that I could keep on talking to him. I really wanted to know his story. I really wanted to find out what had happened to him. And above all else, I really wanted to ask him how'd he'd managed to keep such a sunny disposition despite everything he'd so obviously been through. But alas, I was sure I'd never get the chance.
After a few minutes, I decided to get a copy of Life of Pi and another book about the sex slave industry in South East Asia. I indicated to the man that I wanted to buy them.
"Ten dollars, American," he said.
I knew that was overpriced for Cambodia, but there was no way I was going to haggle. I gave him the ten dollars, smiled as warmly as I could, and walked away to continue my search for a hotel, filled with a gut-wrenching sadness for the man.
I eventually found a place to stay. I checked into my room and started unpacking, thinking about the Cambodian man all the while.
That poor bloke, I remember sighing. It must be so hard for him to go through life that way ...
Then at that moment, as I was taking the books I'd bought from him out of their bag, a piece of paper fell out. I picked it up and started reading it.
It happened in 1988. I was a government solider, in command of three or four men near Banon Village, in the western province of Battambang.
It was a mad time. There were three separate resistance groups - the Khmer Rouge, supporters of King Sihanouk, and those following (former premier) Son Sann.
I didn't actually want to be a soldier. In fact only about half of us wanted to do the job - many people were forced to fight against their will.
On the morning of the accident, I'd been training new recruits on jungle warfare techniques and survival skills.
I was taking a break from training when it happened. I went to get some food, but there was thick foliage all around us, and I had to clear a path to get through.
I bent over to pick up something on the way. How was I to know it would go off?
I don't remember much else after that. When I woke up, I looked down, and saw that both my hands were gone.
I wanted to kill myself. There was no future for me. What could I do? How could I get a job, get married and support a family? How could I even eat?
There was a grenade in a bag attached to my waist. It was there from the training exercise earlier.
I arched my body around and tried to reach it. I wanted to pull out the pin, but my friend saw me just in time and took the grenade away.
I was taken to a government hospital in Phnom Penh, where the authorities paid for my treatment because I was a soldier. I didn't have enough to eat, though, and my family had to send food parcels.
Gradually, after the pain subsided, I stopped wanting to kill myself, and dared to think about having a future.
I was in that hospital for nine months. When I eventually left, I was too embarrassed to go back to my family and let them feed and pay for me. So I stayed in Phnom Penh and became a beggar there for over a year. I was very unhappy during that time.
My mother eventually came to the city to find me, and she took me home and looked after me.
But I had to go back to Phnom Penh for more treatment on my arms, and I used up all my money on hospital bills and ended up back on the streets.
Then an aid worker found me and brought me to Siem Reap.
I was given a job working with Rehab Craft, selling local crafts and gifts to tourists visiting the temples at Angkor Wat.
Life was beginning to get better. Then I met a woman, got married and had two children.
I also really wanted my own business, so in the year 2000 I gave up my job with the charity to set up my own stall selling books on the streets of Siem Reap.
I'm very happy now that I have a family and have this job. Life is worth living again.
What Tok taught me
When I met Tok, a number of very stressful occurrences were taking place in my life that had plunged me into a life-threatening bout of clinical depression. Every day was a nightmare where I yearned to kill myself, and at times I thought there was no other way out. That's what depression can do to you--it can drain any hope you have of ever recovering, and convince you that you're destined to live a life of excruciating misery. But reading Tok's story resurrected my hope. Knowing that Tok had been in that ghastly place, and--despite suffering such a debilitating injury--had managed to carve out a happy life for himself, gave me hope that I could do the same. After reading Tok's story, I found it impossible not to believe in happiness, and I knew that if I could hold on to that belief, that I'd be able to beat my depression and live an enjoyable, healthy life in the end.
Recovery from a crippling depression is very rarely a solo effort--of course it takes the committed work of the individual themself, but it also almost always requires the assistance of a physician, a therapist, and a supportive circle of family and/or friends. But just as important is anyone who can make the sufferer believe that recovery is possible, because if they don't have the hope inherent in such a belief, then depression will gradually kill them. Tok helped give that hope to me, and I know that after this post is published and people have had a chance to read it, that he would have given that hope to many others too.
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