JoYi Rhyss shares her story of overcoming traumas

By Bill Buley The Garden Island | Wednesday, September 25, 2019, 12:05 a.m.

JoYi Rhyss shares her story of overcoming traumas

Bill Buley / The Garden Island
JoYi Rhyss delivers the keynote address at Hale Opio Kauai’s annual meeting Thursday at the Courtyard by Marriott.

JoYi Rhyss has legitimate reasons to be angry about her childhood.

She didn’t know her father. At age 9, she was left at an orphanage by her mother. Black and Korean, she was adopted and raised by a Caucasian family in the Midwest, and they moved often, from Spring Grove, Minn., to Des Moines, Iowa to Topeka, Kan.

She felt pretty much worthless, she said, as she faced racism, isolation, pain and violence with no support.

So, yes, you could say she had a lot to be mad about. Plenty of grudges could be in there.

But Rhyss had one question she asked the crowd of about 60 people at Hale Opio Kauai’s annual meeting Thursday: “How helpful is that?”

It’s not.

But talking about it is.

Sharing your story is important, Rhyss said. For youth, it is critical. That’s where adults need to shut up and listen, Rhyss said. Let the kids speak, she emphasized.

Some of the high-risk youth Hale Opio staff work with desperately need to have the opportunity to speak and know someone is listening, Rhyss said.

“So often, we want to tell our stories, and the person who is listening wants to jump in and interject,” she said during her keynote address Thursday at the Courtyard at Marriott. “So I never felt I could tell my story because everybody wanted to jump in and finish it for me.”

“How often do you keep your mouth shut and just let them speak?” she asked.

Most youth, she said, want to tell their story, and she urged Hale Opio staff, board members and supporters to listen.

“When you feel heard, you can start to heal,” she said.

No questions.

No following up.

No cutting in.

“Wherever the story ends, that’s where it sits,” Rhyss said.

Today, Rhyss lives and works in Hilo. She has more than 30 years of experience working with high-risk youth.

Her focus is on “teaching mindfulness, forgiveness and resiliency practices to those of us who work and live with high-risk populations,” according to her biography. “In this humbling journey called life, JoYi is 100 percent sure that learning to let go of suffering and despair to make more room for happiness and joy is a skill that can be learned by most and she firmly believes that as we lift ourselves out of despair, we will lift others.”

In her presentation, she outlined “the impact of adoption, losing her family of origin, her language, culture and country to surviving the rampant racism of the US while being raised by a white upwardly mobile adoptive family.”

“Her story outlines her escape from an abusive relationship in Jamaica, and although she escaped with her life and newborn son, she brought with her the unbearable weight of shame,” her bio reads.

The pain she held onto, she said, she later passed on to her three children through being short-tempered, unstable, abusive and modeling poor self-care and relationships.

Through self-forgiveness, she learned to overcome grief and resentment so she could “make more room for peace in her life.”

It wasn’t easy.

After being adopted into a white family with two kids, they moved often, and that moving took a toll of her self-worth.

“Each time, I felt a little bit further from myself,” Rhyss said. “Each time we moved, I was uprooted.”

One morning her adoptive mother told Rhyss, then in 10th grade, they were worried about her because she was sleeping a lot. She soon found herself in a psychiatric ward, where she remained for a month.

She quickly realized that people there didn’t care about what she had to say. The situation seemed hopeless to the teen.

But she found hope.

One day, she and others were led into a room with yoga mats. Lay down and listen to the music, they were told. Take deep breaths. Relax.

Something sparked inside Rhyss. Maybe she had a chance, after all.

“That day, I had some sense of something come over me,” she said. “In that moment, I felt something.”

She spoke of crashing waves and angry waters.

“That day, that calming, it was like the waters inside of me calmed,” she said, “and I was able to hear something in me.”

Still, her struggles were far from over. As the years passed and she pursued a career and family, there were days she was tired of the daily struggles. She found herself exhausted. There were days she didn’t want to live.

“Through all of this she knew in her heart she had to learn to manage her life better and in a move that is difficult to explain, she sold most of her worldly possessions, packed up her three children and moved to the Big Island of Hawaii in 2015,” her bio reads.

Then, people often told her she was brave and courageous. But she didn’t feel that way. Outwardly, she seemed fine. Inwardly, not so much.

“However you saw me, I know inside I was faking it,” she said. “I am like this close to falling off and yet I’m standing in front of kids telling them what they should do to live a good life.”

To deal with it, she turned to food for comfort. Then alcohol.

Her children bore the brunt of her pain.

“If we don’t heal our hurt for real, it comes out in the way that we interact with other people,” she said. “The ones we love the most get the brunt of it.”

Change is hard, Rhyss said.

“We tend to have the same thoughts go through our mind over and over,” she said, adding that most are negative.

But Rhyss was resilient. She overcame. Today, she is a fitness instructor, business owner, does public speaking and offers meditation courses. But she didn’t survive alone.

“It does take all of us to do this,” she said.

Rhyss outlined some points that can help:

  • Be clear. Clarity is important. Pinpoint pains, hurts, traumas that you keep bottled up inside, “That prevent you from living your best.”
  • Talk about what scares us. We live in world where, at the same time, horrific atrocities are being committed in one place, and beautiful things are happening in another place. “To that end, in your own mind there are some really beautiful thoughts of healing and support and love, and there’s some really dark stuff,” she said.
  • Self-forgiveness. “Sometimes those decisions we make to try and protect ourselves don’t work out too well,” she said. “I end up holding myself accountable for a lot of things I need to let go of.”
  • Be real. “Kids can see that adults lie really easily when we’re telling them what to do,” she said.
  • Mindfulness. “Be present in this moment, no matter what, without judgment.”
  • Be honest. “Are we truly here, serving those that we say we are serving? They really need us.”
  • Be true to yourself. “We have to speak up. Each one of us, we need to find that voice.”

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