Hypnotherapy Helped Me Reconcile Growing Up as an Outsider in America

Crystal Bui
Crystal Bui

This APIA Heritage Month, we're talking about mental health. Because, for too long, it's been stigmatized among our community. That's why PS is spotlighting mental health journeys from APIA perspectives — to confront the shame around going to therapy, seeking help, and talking about our feelings. Read the stories here.

I had never seen my mother so scared and so silent until the day a stranger shattered my sense of safety. When I was about 5 years old, we were pushing a cart outside a grocery store when a man appeared, acting like he had an assault rifle in his hands. He pretended to shoot my mom and me, yelling at us to die and to go back to our "own country." No one helped us as he simulated an attack. As a child, I knew fight or flight wasn't possible. I couldn't run away fast enough and leave my mom behind, and I sure couldn't fight this man. My body absorbed the overwhelming fear I could die.

That was my family's unspoken rule: some wounds are better left unacknowledged, buried deep inside.

Once my mom got me safely inside our car and locked the doors, I asked her why he wanted to kill us, and if we should call the police. She didn't explain and brushed my questions aside. We never talked about the incident again. That was my family's unspoken rule: some wounds are better left unacknowledged, buried deep inside.

In elementary school, I was always the only Asian girl in my grade. Many of the white families didn't invite us to their gatherings, and my parents were strict about me only seeing friends once a week so I could focus on schoolwork. Not only did I look different from my classmates, but I was expected to follow cultural standards that were not the same as those of the majority in the community. There was a debilitating anguish and despair that came with knowing I faced challenges my classmates would never experience. I realized too young that I wasn't safe, my parents couldn't always protect me, and some didn't believe my family and I belonged in the place we call home.

Growing up in a traditional Vietnamese household meant I was forced to bite my tongue and bottle my emotions, or face worse repercussions. Holding so much inside inflicted more trauma on my body. If I wasn't in class, practicing with the swim team, or going to debate practice, I preferred to be asleep. The world didn't exist when I was sleeping. My parents interpreted my behavior — what I now recognize as symptoms of depression — as being ungrateful. They scolded me, saying they had it worse growing up in Vietnam. I tried to tell my parents a few times I was experiencing depression, but they shrugged it off. "Depression" wasn't a word that existed in our family's English-Vietnamese dictionary. I asked my parents to take me to therapy, but they saw therapy as something the privileged, entitled, and overdramatic went to. My mom and dad refused to acknowledge depression as a health disorder. So when I left for college, I knew it was time to get professional help and support; it had become so hard for me to be happy.

Many therapists I worked with in college and the years that followed gave me a safe space to vent — they affirmed my feelings, which helped after being gaslit by my family for so long. Others provided coping techniques. One insisted I cry during every session to "let it out." They each helped alleviate my symptoms of depression, but nothing confronted the source of pain.

In 2021, I stumbled upon a Yelp review for Awaken Ananda, a practice that specializes in healing through hypnotherapy while incorporating other elements of bodywork, inner-child healing, energy work, and spiritual awareness.

I was initially skeptical of working with a hypnotherapist and did more research. I learned that hypnotherapy isn't about mind control or manipulation; it's not like the gimmicky Las Vegas hypnotism acts. Instead, clinical hypnotherapy is a technique that guides individuals into a state of deep relaxation where they are more receptive to suggestion and able to access their subconscious mind, according to the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. I also felt at ease working with Awaken Ananda's founder, Priya Lakhi, a fellow Asian American. I figured she would understand the stigma of mental health in my family and the oppressive upbringing I faced.

Going into my first session with Priya, I was nervous. I'm an overthinker. I figured Priya wouldn't be able to get me into a meditative state for this to work. But I was wrong.

My sessions with Priya are a little different each time. Priya often starts by asking me where I'm feeling the discomfort in my body. Sometimes it's a lump in my throat, other times it's a tightness in my chest, and the worst is when it feels like there is a hole in my heart. She asks me to keep focusing on that part of my body. This is when I start falling into a meditative state — my mind is quiet, and I'm intently present. Our real work begins.

During one particular session, it felt like molten rock was engulfing my body. Priya asked me if the magma could transform into anyone or any place, what or where would it be? That lava inside me led me back to my childhood. I saw my inner child — the younger version of me — walking around. I remembered the pink carpet, the cactus in the corner, and the old metal futon in our old home. I was about the same age as when that man attacked us.

Hypnotherapy allowed me to fully be in my body, and to feel.

When Priya asked me questions about my childhood under that state of deep relaxation, my inner child spoke. I told Priya what "home" meant to the little girl in me: a family the community left out, a family who forced traditional values on a daughter who wanted to fit in, and a family who couldn't protect their daughter against the harsh reality of being Asian in America.

As I kept talking, allowing the hypnotherapy to reveal my repressed emotions and buried memories, I saw the younger me pick up a red canister of gasoline. When Priya asked what my inner child was doing, I said, "I think younger me is about to set the house on fire." She asked: "Do you want to let her do that?"

Before I could say, "Absolutely not," I saw the younger me sprinting through my childhood home, splashing gasoline in every corner. I watched in horror as layers of my subconscious finally did what I wanted to do for so long: let the depression, sadness, anger, and pain speak. Let revenge and retaliation come. Let it all burn down. In talk therapy, I spoke from a place of numbness. Hypnotherapy allowed me to fully be in my body, and to feel.

As I visualized the flames consuming my childhood home, something shifted. The disturbing image brought me what I had never felt before: relief. Everything trapped inside finally had an outlet — like a pressure valve letting out steam.

I allowed the little girl in me to burn everything down. The little girl who couldn't fight back or run, who had to shove painful memories aside for so long and pretend that everything was OK. I let that fire consume the house until there was nothing left.

When I opened my eyes, Priya asked me how I felt.

"That was a lot," I said. "Better."

Once our session ended, I felt lighter. I didn't feel a burden on my shoulders, the weight of being the daughter of immigrants who were defenseless at times in a new country. I was beginning to heal.

It's not over yet. There is still plenty to unpack from my childhood. But after being resistant to facing my trauma for so long, burning down "the scene of the crime" helped me reclaim my power, my agency, and my right to heal. Instead of sleepwalking through life from the debilitating numbness that came with depression, the fire woke me up. I finally feel free.

Crystal Bui is an Emmy-nominated Vietnamese American news reporter who's covered some of the biggest stories in the last decade, including George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis and the deadly Atlanta spa shootings where eight people, including six Asian women, were killed. She is the author of "More to Tell," a memoir published in 2023 that became an Amazon bestseller for biographies of journalists.