Tok 'The Most Inspiring Man I've Ever Met' Vanna's Triumph Over Depression

20/06/2014 09:13 BST | Updated 19/08/2014 10:59 BST


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.

"Australia, mate."

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.

Tok's Story

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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