Today, I interview Kyomi O’Connor who shared a compelling story of her life, marked by early familial challenges. During her childhood, Kyomi endured emotional abuse and struggled with her own identity. As a support to a weak mother, she embraced a dual persona, projecting an outwardly bubbly demeanor while concealing an inner struggle for self-acceptance.
Transitioning into her teenage years, Kyomi faced societal taboos in Japan when her career aspirations clashed with her father’s expectations. This period culminated in a dark phase in her early twenties, including a suicide attempt. Seeking a fresh start, Kyomi embarked on a journey to the United States, where academic pursuits at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) introduced her to Patrick, her future husband.
Caring for Patrick during his critical illness became a three-year emotional rollercoaster, and following Patrick’s passing, Kyomi confronted the challenge of rebuilding her identity, unearthing aspects of her past she believed to be healed.
This transformative period unfolded through a profound writing journey, which served as a powerful tool for healing, and culminated in a memoir that serves as both a personal account and an invitation for self-reflection. Today’s conversation is an inspiring testament to the transformative power of love and self-reflection, showcasing the human spirit’s ability to heal and grow stronger.
Kyomi O’Connor is a Japanese-American author, poet, and former researcher who has dedicated her life to exploring themes of identity, belonging, and cultural fusion. Born in Japan, she immigrated to the United States in 1990 to pursue a career in scientific research. However, her personal journey led her to embrace a life of writing and creative expression.
Kyomi’s most notable work is her memoir, “A Sky of Infinite Blue: A Japanese Immigrant’s Search for Home and Self,” which chronicles her experiences navigating cultural differences, finding love in a new country, and ultimately discovering her true self. The memoir has garnered multiple awards and critical acclaim, resonating with readers worldwide.
Beyond her memoir, Kyomi is an accomplished poet, penning verses that delve into the depths of human emotion, relationships, and the complexities of the human experience. Her poems have appeared in various publications and literary journals, showcasing her lyrical prowess and sensitivity.
Kyomi currently resides in San Diego, California, where she continues to write, explore new creative avenues, and engage with the literary community. Her work serves as an inspiration to others seeking to understand their place in the world and embrace their multifaceted identities.
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Transcript of Interview
Transcript of Interview
Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast
Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing
Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com
Episode #123 Kyomi O’Connor
“A Path to Healing Family Pain ”
(00:00) Doreen Downing: Hi, this is Dr. Doreen Downing. I’m a psychologist and I’m host of the Find Your Voice, Change Your Life podcast. And when I invite guests here, I open up the platform to have a conversation. It’s very spontaneous, unscripted, although we both know that what we’re here to do is to share with listeners a story.
And today I have Kyomi O’Connor. Hi, Kyomi.
(00:29) Kyomi O’Connor: Hello, it’s wonderful to be here. Thank you for inviting me, Doreen. I’m so excited.
(00:37) Doreen Downing: Yes, I am well aware of your story. You did a coaching program with me and we’ll hear more about what the impact of doing the Find Your Voice program with me was, but I want to first read a bio that you gave me some details about who you are and where you come from.
Kyomi O’Connor is the author of the multi-award winning memoir—isn’t that wonderful—multi-award winning memoir, “A Sky of Infinite Blue: A Japanese Immigrant’s Search for Home and Self.”
In the book, Kyomi describes her spiritual journey to overcome, heal from childhood emotional abuse, and move forward to find light in every adversity in her life.
Her husband, Patrick, became critically ill in 2013 with metastatic melanoma in his brain. And after a fierce battle, he passed away three years later. And in deep grief, Kyomi began writing, and eventually, it became her book.
Kyomi still lives in San Diego with her two cats, Tommy, and Omi, enjoys yoga, tai chi, qigong, walking, and photography. And she writes weekly on Substack about healing from trauma, the power of adversity, the richness of diversity, and living in clarity, wisdom, compassion, and transformation.
When you hear that, what goes on for you when you hear me read back some of your accomplishments and your passion?
(02:24) Kyomi O’Connor: I’ve been always a learner. Of course, I appreciate awards and other accomplishments, but I am just in the flow of moving forward all the time. So, I don’t feel attached to it.
(02:44) Doreen Downing: Wonderful. That’s part of your spiritual teachings is that we don’t get attached to something and just because you’ve accomplished a lot, it doesn’t mean that defines who you are. And I love that word flow. I’ve always felt that, with you, is the openness of allowing life to flow through you and being willing.
Let’s start because I, as a psychologist, always like to begin with some of that early childhood stuff, you might say, and I know that you mentioned it in your bio about emotional abuse. Let’s just start with, obviously, that has a story behind it. So, what do you have to say?
(03:32) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes, I was bullied by my own father and also paternal family. His mother and then his brother and sisters and wives and they also had bullied my own mother. So, when my mother and father got married, very short time, like for one year, they lived in their parent’s house.
So, during that time, my mother was very badly bullied. And she has a very pure heart and then very kind, but since she was bullied and somehow I was categorized as a mother’s child because I was a very empathetic child from a very early age—three years old. I was always looking after my mother. It sounds very strange, but I was looking after my mother.
She was physically and mentally quite sensitive. She was in bed a number of days a week. So, I was always helping her. Particularly after my youngest sister was born when I was five years old, I was looking after both younger sister and also my mother, changing the diaper and then even fixing some milk. All the time.
And my mother relied on me. We have a very weird dependency to each other. And so, I had almost no boundary between mother and myself and so, I became totally like her. I had a very different personality: very independent, almost like a very bubbly personality in myself, but somehow I became her.
And then I was bullied as my mother was bullied, like, “Oh, you are mother’s child.” And my elder sister, two-year older sister was categorized as, or rather, classified as my father’s, papa’s child, and she was always like sitting on the throne and then she even used me like a servant.
So, I was always looking after the house —small stuff —all the time and my older sister never touched any fabric to clean the house or anything. I did all the time.
(06:19) Doreen Downing: Well, Kyomi, already we get a very descriptive image of what it’s like to come into this world as this fresh spirit, this bright spirit, and then a mother who is wide open with need, and you responded to that need, and then your sister having that special—I like that image you had of her being on a throne, and being her servant—so, hello, where’s little Kyomi? She’s lost in all of this identification and dependency and being bullied because you had this—I don’t know if I would call it a special relationship with your mother, but in a sense, the being bullied. No, it’s just not a rich, nourishing environment for a little one to grow, is it?
(07:21) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes. And then at the beginning of being bullied, I felt maybe it’s an accident. What happened? I didn’t understand it because I was three and a half years old, and then it became prolonged and then repetitive and then start to feel, “I must be wrong.” I started to even criticize myself and then I felt so shameful and then guilty. My existence was so tiny.
But again, my original personality was very bubbly and bright and like extending everything outwardly. And now the bullied little Kyomi felt so introverted and I felt I didn’t love myself. I was torn apart because I didn’t know what to do and then the only thing I do was criticize myself. I hated myself.
Eventually, to live in this world, I have to set up my two different personalities, almost like wearing armor, protective armor, or without armor. So, I was pretending just being a bright girl, even if I was bullied, I pretended I didn’t get hurt, and I was okay, and I move on, but deep inside I was very alone.
(08:53) Doreen Downing: oh my goodness. Oh, I’m going to pause right there because I want people to really get what you just talked about the armor and the protectiveness of that. And yet inside how vulnerable you felt. Also, this whole, inside there’s self- doubt, self-hate, and all that. When we have armor, it’s also locked in there. The way we feel about ourselves, the negative self-talk.
(09:21) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes. I felt so much limit, like I was trapped in a prison, but I couldn’t get out. I was afraid to come out because of what’s going on, the emotional abuse and I didn’t find where I should exist.
On top of it, I don’t want to say anything really bad about my mother, however, in fact, she was a very kind woman, but she was very weak. Her identity —she didn’t have a sense of independence, but I did, so that’s why sometimes, even a bright Kyomi, a little Kyomi, but like a positive one, try to perform perfectly, but sometimes I couldn’t perform perfectly.
I had an episode when I was in kindergarten, first-grade kindergarten. I had a cultural festival. The very first time we celebrated autumn together. We had a small skit. Chosen kindergarten like 10 people shared some short story with total 10 people making a good story like an animal or some heartwarming story.
I had a few sentences to recite, and I made a mistake. I was so nervous, and I made a mistake. But that day, my mother almost never hold my hand or anything. I felt very badly betrayed. So that happened. A very important point of my life. She had done some betrayals and I got even more hurt.
(11:18) Doreen Downing: I’m getting that as you develop as a young girl, moving out of childhood into young girlhood and you’re at school and you are performing and you make a mistake. And it’s already embarrassing, but then not to get support from a parent and just to be criticized.
Well, let’s move on through your young adulthood and we already get a sense of what you bring into adulthood is the sense of armor and this not a very, well, I guess you might say it’s low self-esteem is the way psychologists term it, but you also, there’s some hint I get that always you knew inside there was—but it was deep. It was so deep, it was almost inaccessible.
(12:13) Kyomi O’Connor: So, I know I was deeply hurt. And then I carried that hurt little Kyomi, very hurt, until I think late 20s. And then early 20s, oh, actually, teenage, when I decided my school for university, I had a really bad argument with my father.
So then my father wanted me to go to medical school. But I wanted to become a journalist for a very long time. And then for my teenage years, I read lots of books and then writing. He knew I am very sensitive and a very empathetic person, and then he was so afraid if I become a journalist, I may be killed, or I may commit suicide or whatever, because I couldn’t accept probably the problems in the society in general.
I was too pure, and I guess he was so against it, but the way he brought up was so powerful and then just almost like slashing me and then I don’t exist, and I have to obey. I had my strong self in me, but when he told me like that, all of the history of being abused, all of a sudden exploded.
And then in Japan talking back or like arguing with father was a big taboo. It’s like socially not accepted.
(14:02) Doreen Downing: Definitely. Well, we’re talking about voice and you did not have a voice.
(14:08) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes. But as I spoke, I was totally stressed out and then like I went to a deep end. And then until early twenties, I couldn’t recover. I had a multiple thing. It hurt me like a very fast boyfriend. I didn’t have any physical relationship or anything. I was already almost 20. But I never had any physical experience, but I loved him very much, but somehow we broke up so I’m pretty sure that precipitated my darkness.
Definitely affected to react to what he said or what he’s done or whatever. I could have been a little bit more adult, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t accept anything anymore. And then I basically burst out and then go into the deep end, and then early twenties, I attempted suicide, but failed.
(15:17) Doreen Downing: Well, bless the universe for bringing you back from that deep dark moment and that you didn’t disappear then, and that you got to come through it and be here today. Well, you have way more to your journey, I know, because your book is definitely like—I read in the beginning about your journey with your husband, and I know that because you two came to the United States, moved here—I don’t know where you met him, but—
(15:49) Kyomi O’Connor: I met him at the NIH. Even with the darkness I held inside, I did well academically or socially. I was doing pretty well because I had an armor. I had a duality of life managing pretty well till I decided no more. I escaped from Japan and I came to the States. I got invitation from NIH to work as a postdoctoral researcher. I have a background as a dentist, but I went to graduate school for research—basic research. That took me to NIH.
(16:36) Doreen Downing: Is that where you met Patrick?
(16:40) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes, this is an interesting story. When I left Japan, even before I came to States, I asked my boss to be in the future, I want to have a studio, a furnished studio, just only two months. And then three months thereafter, I want to share the house or apartment with real American people. That’s what I was hoping. So, originally, I asked my boss to organize before I came, just furnished a studio for this two months.
And then I did. And then toward the end of the lease, I started to look around homes and then at the 23rd home I visited, I liked the house, and he was a tenant. He was a British cancer researcher. He was also a resident in the house. And then I decided to live there.
And then the American owner and his wife, they left for early vacation, end of May to like August, or the beginning of July. And so almost one and a half months they are absent. That’s the period of time Patrick and I became closer.
(18:12) Doreen Downing: Well, Kyomi, why don’t you, as briefly as you can, because I know it’s a long, long story about his illness and your being somebody who was there, every single moment it seemed like. So, the best you can just tell us that story about your husband’s illness but more about what you faced being his caregiver.
(18:38) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes. Patrick and I met in 1990 and I moved to the house soon in March of 1990, four months after I moved to state and then get closer and eventually, we moved out and then we got married three years later. But both Patrick and I are working at NIH.
But while I was there, I started to feel—because originally, when I escaped from Japan, I was still wounded inside. And even when I decided to change my life, but still the wound was there from the past. But Patrick was very kind and he lavishly poured out his unconditional love to me. He was so supportive.
I have to live very practically, and then I have to start from scratch in the states. The practicality, and I have to live in clarity more and more, and then I become more resilient and then practical. So that made me to feel I need to stay in this country not just only a tenant, but I will be married with this guy and then we are building the life here.
So I have to be even serious about my career and then everything. So, I decided to return to dentistry, and then through that process, I basically ask my father to help me for two years financially, Patrick and me.
Basically, before I even asked my father, the healing was already there. I would never ever ask my father to help me even financially but I did. That was a great surprise. How could I do this? But that big difference between pretty badly bullied to ask something.
(20:48) Doreen Downing: Being assertive.
(20:49) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes. Then two years he helped and then I ended up in a residency program. I become licensed and then even was accepted for the university position. And then my father become terminally ill and he passed away a few months later. During that back and forth a few months, I become a catalyst for the whole family with my father to reconcile. So, I went back and forth with Patrick or without Patrick many times to Japan.
He was totally estranged then, but before he passed away, we become one. So, but anyhow, before he left this life, this world, he left me teaching—Buddhist teaching. I was quite shocked at the beginning, but as I experienced the Buddhist teaching, that was so amazing.
I was amazed and it was so profound. I don’t usually easily get—even though my father said, I don’t just go whatever. But I was so moved at how profound it is.
And then Patrick and I moved to San Diego and then started to practice Buddhist teaching. And then become such a wonderful fulfilling —our relationship become finer and then finer and then it’s like almost seeing through, we can see through ourselves.
And we helped a lot of community people in the spiritual community and so we become basically a leader in the teaching too. But Patrick started to show a little cognitive problems around 2011, and I knew something is wrong. And then finally, he fell critically ill 2013, summer of 2013. It was a metastatic melanoma. Original prognosis was a few months.
(23:14) Doreen Downing: But he lived for three years.
(23:16) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes, so because the advancement of medicine and also my caregiving.
(23:23) Doreen Downing: yes, yes, your caregiving.
(23:26) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes, I was so devoted. I was so afraid if I die beforehand, what’s going to happen to him? That was the biggest fear I carried.
(23:38) Doreen Downing: Then he did pass away three years later. Talk a little bit about the journey to find your voice in your writing. Because it seems like that’s where you started listening to what was going on inside of you more.
(23:55) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes. So, after I came to the states, I became very much myself. But while I was caring for him, I noticed it was like a rapid roller coaster all the time, and I had no room to do anything else but just focus on the care. And at that time, I have to put my vulnerable self on the side. And I pretended, really, I can do this, warrior, I have to do this.
I kept going for three years, and then after that, boom, he passed away. And I was totally shattered because I was pretending being a warrior, but a warrior has nothing to do anymore. I was totally lost. My identity was totally crushed, and who am I?
Then, while I was going back to the temple and being with the spiritual community, the people from community, I was pretending I’m okay, but I wasn’t okay. When I’m alone, I was waning, literally crying aloud at home alone, and then I was so hurt. So then, all of a sudden, I realized, what I’m doing, I am doing exactly the same as the way I did, little Kyomi did. And then the duality was totally in front of me.
I was doing the exact same. I thought I was healed, but it wasn’t. So, the residual part of me came up, almost like a habit. Once it becomes a critical situation, it comes out like a habit, and then I decided to look into this. I have to find my own truth. I have to reclaim who am I. So, I started to write because originally, I was leaning onto writing. So, I thought, “Oh, maybe to find me—”
(26:15) Doreen Downing: Right, journalism. That’s right. Good, good point.
(26:20) Kyomi O’Connor: So, finding me. I think the writing is the best. And I started to write. Oh, that was very hard. I cried. I was like, almost tearing up. Because at the beginning, of course, so emotional, I was so vulnerable, and then I was deep in grief, but I was like a warrior—warrior part of Kyomi came out, and I have to face this. I have to. I’m going to do this.
I was so driven to finding the truth. I really needed it. Then as I do, little by little, eventually, I start to find light in every adversity I experience. And then the light is like stars, and they gathered into me like it’s all connected.
(27:18) Doreen Downing: Yes, well this is beautiful. This whole idea of rather than the armor and the warrior protecting you and protecting what’s inside, you use that same energy to say I’m going on a quest, you might say, right? Or a journey inside of myself to face the truth. And then when you started facing the truth, you learned so much.
Well, when we met in my course, you were at a different point, the book had already been written and yet there was some leftover sense of still hiding of your —still more discovery to make. What was that?
(27:59) Kyomi O’Connor: Yes. I really appreciate your course, Essential Speaking, because when I met you, I already finished the book and almost like 95% of myself was feeling liberated and I was fine, but just before I started to write that book, first memoir, I had an incident with my family. Very first time when I visited Japan, three months after my husband passed away, we went to a hot spring.
In the dressing room—this is a part of a second book—so when I was in the dressing area, I usually don’t want to show my body to anyone, even the family member, but hot springs, you’ll have to be totally naked. Everybody goes into the really huge bathtub. So, in the dressing room, myself and my mother was left behind. My sisters and my nieces went to hot tub. And then I was shy and hiding, but my mother, all of a sudden, grabbed my shoulder and said, “Oh, it must be very hard. I can tell from your body, how it changed.” That’s what she told me.
So, I felt, all of a sudden, hit by my mother’s love. She had that love. But I couldn’t take it any longer. After I tried to commit suicide—a suicide attempt. She was the one who triggered my attempt. Since then, I totally shut the love I held for a very long time—the big love, and she showed me the big love too—put into the small wooden box, and I put it in the bottom of the ocean trench, and I was hoping never ever come out.
But all of a sudden, when she touched my shoulder, and then said a few words, it become like an explosion, like an earthquake. And then all of the bubbles from the ocean trench came out to the sun, and the wooden box came out.
So, I knew I have that hidden part, even when I finished the first book. I’m still holding it. So, unless I find the truth in here, I can’t speak in like a publication, launching parties, or whatever. I’m too honest maybe, too honest to be telling a lie or like showing off myself.
I’m not that person. I just wanted to be so truthful, transparent. So, that’s the reason I went to your course. And toward the end, I really found my love and my mother’s love and then everything dissolved like, “Whoosh.”
(31:26) Doreen Downing: Oh, yes. When you say the love, I think that the love has a voice because that’s what we’re talking about too. It’s not just a sensation. It’s not like a voice from somebody to you. It’s just the sound, I guess. It’s the voicing of love, I think is how I would describe what I just heard from you. Oh, that’s beautiful. Kyomi.
I know that we’re coming to an end, so I want to move to a place in which you feel like you’ve given what you wanted to my listeners today. And is there something else that comes through you if you were speaking to listeners? Because you are, it’s not an if. You really are. What is the message you want to leave them with?
(32:25) Kyomi O’Connor: There’s some people who say it’s a cliché, but it is love. I think we all need love. This is the best and the last commonality we do share in humankind. I think humanity needs this love. And then all the creatures, globally, everyone needs this love. So, we have to return to this and then trust our potential. How much more we can create out of love.
(33:01) Doreen Downing: Oh, that’s so beautiful. Thank you so much, Kyomi.
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Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.
Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speaking: doreen7steps.com.